Invested in Sustainability as a PM? You should be!

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Many executives embrace the conventional wisdom that mainstream investors care little about an organization’s performance on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics. Few companies make it a priority to communicate their sustainability performance to investors, or even develop a robust story about their sustainability performance. Why should they? Investors won’t shift their investments, the thinking goes, based on a company’s ESG performance. However, a growing number of investors are paying attention to ESG performance, as evidence mounts that sustainability-related activities are material to the financial success of a company over time. Investors care more about sustainability issues than many executives believe.

This is the opening paragraph of the latest MIT/Sloan & Boston Consulting Group report, “Investing for a Sustainable Future”.  Keeping in tune with the last two posts, in which the entire principle of project managers thinking ‘too broadly’ and ‘inflating their jobs’ was raised by some critics, it was meaningful to see this report which says that investors and C-level executives (key stakeholders of projects, programs and portfolios – and often the sponsors of the projects on which project managers work) are increasingly focused on sustainability, not only for altruistic reasons but because a concentration on sustainability has shown to yield financial benefit.

Here’s a little more about the survey, for validation: The input came from over 3,000 respondents from commercial enterprises. Within this commercial sample, 579 survey respondents self-identified as investors: Most were strategic (39%), institutional (24%), or retail (11%) investors. Few identified themselves as mission-oriented or socially responsible investors – so the choice to ‘invest in ESG’ is not (only) driven by a thread of fiery environmentalism or cause, but rather, success of the enterprises in which these investors put their money.

Where’s the project connection?  Well aside from the key connection already mentioned (can anyone say “stakeholder”?), there are initiatives and projects which are themselves focused on sustainability, and they are yielding financial benefits.  Here are three examples from the report, which illustrate why this has the attention of investors – and in our opinion should have the antennae of project managers and PMOs fully up and tuned in:

  • Florida Ice & Farm Company SA, based in Costa Rica, is (an) example. In 2005, the company respondedto Costa Rica’s looming water access crisis by investing in water-saving measures. Within two years, the organization had decreased its use of water in production by an eye-popping 82%. The reduction drove down production costs and helped sustain 20% annual growth between 2010 and 2014.
  • Deerfield, Illinois-based healthcare company Baxter International Inc. estimates it earns $3 for every $1 invested in environmental initiatives.
  • Johnson & Johnson is achieving a 19% internal rate of return on its CO2 projects.

In all three cases, the benefits were realized with projects – projects that look like they were focused on environmental activism, and may indeed have been – – but the line between taking on an ESG initiative and just “taking on an initiative” is blurring, quickly.  This is why project managers need to be aware of ESG principles, and increasingly positive ESG sponsor-stakeholders.

How does an enterprise move forward to gather in more investors, now that there’s evidence that investors increasingly care about ESG?

According to the article, these are key steps:

<> Build awareness of sustainability challenges and programs — both within the company and among stakeholders, including investors.

<>  Identify and analyze material issues and create alignment within the organization to ensure an integrated response.

<> Invest in and focus on tangible and measurable sustainability outcomes instead of positions on ratings lists.

<> Formulate a strategy once tangible sustainability measures are established.

<> Incorporate the sustainability strategy into the overall corporate strategy, including a clear business case or proof of value.

<> Engage investors, and a broad range of stakeholders, to discuss the company’s sustainability strategy and progress.

Look at that list.  For one thing, aren’t most of the items in the list actually projects in and of themselves?  Yes.  As a project manager, shouldn’t your project seek to align to the strategy and higher-level portfolio/program objectives?  Of course.

So again, we feel ‘charged up’ by this report, we feel that the comments about job inflation and overstepping our bounds as project managers to be just plain wrong-minded and out-of-step with the way business is changing.  At a minimum we recommend that those who assert that the PM should stay tucked away in isolation from the value chain is not only under-utilizing the talent and capability of the PM, it is actually breaking a ‘golden thread’ all the way from investors to end-customers.  As PMs we need to be conveyors of organizational strategy and objectives, not blockers.  As I final message I suggest you read the recent post by Cornelius Fichtner, “Benefits Realisation for Project Managers”, which coincidentally came out just around the time of our two posts on job inflation.

(This post originally entered on our regular channel, People, Planet, Profits, and Projects, on projectsatwork.com – we suggest you follow that stream as we don’t blog as regularly here anymore).

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