Three Ways to Keep Your ESG Projects on Track

Photo of Michelle Diller for digital exclusives article

There is no denying that corporate sustainability has undergone a significant shift in recent decades. Today, virtually all of the world’s largest companies issue a sustainability report and at least one-fifth of these organizations, including Procter & Gamble, Saudi Aramco, Amazon, Toyota, HP and BNP Paribas, have proclaimed their intention to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

It's a commitment that employees and customers have come to expect in the face of an ever-growing urgency around climate change. It’s also one that can add significant financial value by helping companies tap into new markets, reduce operating costs, ease regulatory pressures and improve employee satisfaction and productivity, according to a report by McKinsey & Co.

This potential for gain and growth has more and more organizations investing in ESG initiatives that will ensure sustainability remains a core part of how they do business. 

“What’s going on right now with ESG reporting and many companies setting up their ESG goals provides a great opportunity where they can bake in sustainability in whatever they’re doing,” said Michelle Diller, PMP, policy program director, Green Communities, Enterprise Community Partners, Washington, D.C., USA.

In turn, this is influencing the role of sustainability in projects — taking it from a piecemeal effort in many organizations to an essential part of the process that must be thought about along the same lines as budget, scope and schedule. 

“When you look at these pillars on a corporate scale, it elevates the awareness of everybody working in the company,” Diller said. “Your project managers are going to follow suit and make it a pillar of their projects as well.” 

As a result, this represents the potential for a significant shift in the way projects are run — and the responsibilities of project leadership. If this shift is not managed correctly, it can impact the success of your sustainability efforts. 

These tips will help keep your project on track. 

1. Ensure executive expectations and employee realities are aligned.

A recent survey by Accenture suggests that while many leaders are confident that their company is on track to operate more sustainably, that sentiment is not necessarily echoed by employees. The survey found that 68% of executives felt they have developed a robust sustainability plan, but 21% of employees felt the plan went beyond the superficial. At the same time, 69% of executives say they track and monitor progress against measurable sustainability goals, and only 34% of employees felt these goals were realistic.

The survey points to a significant gap between the strategy and execution of sustainable processes that must be overcome in many organizations to ensure sustainability becomes a core part of the organizational DNA. To get a better sense of those gaps, many organizations are conducting employee surveys to identify internal strengths and weaknesses.  

“You gather the data, you see where the baseline is or where the perceived baseline is, and then move forward from that,” Diller said.

2. Be transparent with project teams about what’s going well, and what’s not. 

Communication has always played a key role in the successful outcome of a project, but as organizations work to make sustainability a core part of their process, it becomes even more essential. 

“Communication brings everything together,” said Aung Moe, PMP, corporate performance analyst, Alberta Jobs, Economy and Innovation, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. “You have to be able to tell your sustainability story to stakeholders.”

Your ESG communications strategy should include regularly communicating to internal audiences about your projects and their impact, said Moe. 

Organizations must be willing to be transparent about what is working, and what is not. That is how they will build trust. 

“If you aren't putting out there exactly what you are doing, even if you have shortfalls in it, and how you're going to make it better, then there isn't going to be any trust, and there isn't going to be any reduction of risk or any buy-in from your team,” said Diller. 

At the same time, there needs to be an opportunity for all team members to provide feedback and raise concerns when it comes to the status of these projects and their impact, according to Kristina Kohl, PMP, managing principal, HRComputes, Moorestown, New Jersey, USA. 

“We have a tool that sends out assessments every week to the project team to see what risks they see and to take the pulse of the team so that they have an opportunity to raise issues and communicate back about what they're worried about,” Kohl said. “We're getting feedback from the team on a regular basis, not just on outcomes of the project.” 

3. Give project teams the tools and resources they need to succeed. 

When organizations implement ESG initiatives, it can represent a significant mindset shift for project professionals. As a result, organizations need to improve the support and tools around ESG, according to Kohl. 

“In more-developed project management offices (PMOs), there are project documents used so projects can be equally evaluated at the portfolio level to determine which projects are going to get funded,” she said. “I think it's very important in those project documents to include questions related to ESG strategy and how this project is going to meet some of those goals.” 

From there, the organization should educate project leaders and project teams about standards and policies that will help to drive ESG. 

“For example, what are the standards around your supply chain? Who are you going to be using as contractors or as vendors on any project? Because where organizations spend their money has a huge impact in the outside world,” Kohl said. “Then you must think about how you are operating projects. What metrics are you using to measure the environmental impact?” 

Kohl also recommends project managers spend time learning about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, reading their organization’s sustainability report and learning more about the key environmental issues that impact their industry.

More reading on sustainability and ESG:

Visit the ESG Resource Hub
Measuring What Matters – Metrics for project success must move beyond scope, schedule and budget. 
Global Megatrends 2022: Climate Crisis – Know what practices to implement to promote sustainability.
More articles in PMI’s Learning Library

Deliver Meaningful ESG Results

PMI’s Measuring the Impact of ESG Initiatives report explores how project leaders can help organizations make ESG goals a reality.

Read Measuring ESG >>