Leading change in ESG


All sustainability and social impact work is change management. At the center of every environmental, social, or governance (ESG) investment and program is the intention to reduce negative impacts or social inequity. Whether these programs are successful or not depends on many factors—not the least of which is whether the change manager can mobilize others to adopt the changes they propose—that is, whether they can lead.

Change management is the reason leaders of organizations get paid the big bucks. Time and time again we see failed or stalled projects. The boss wants it, the market is leading us there—so why are we not able to get across the finish line? Change is difficult and leaders tend to overestimate the value of authority as a lever of change. We usually underestimate the value of communication.

Too often, it is because the leader has not established for those he or she is leading the benefit of the change. People therefore resist change in myriad ways, until they can be convinced that adopting the change being promoted is in their own best interesti ii. Resistant attitudes are often formed as individuals consider negative consequences of change to themselvesiii. Resistant mindsets make people less likely to believe the changes sought are useful or easy to adopt.

For many in the corporate citizenship field, the lack of direct authority over the people who they are responsible to lead can seem an insurmountable impediment. The great news is that leadership is possible from any seat.

The first step of change—creating vision—is a step that all leaders can employ to try to erode resistance. Creating a powerful, vivid image of the positive alternative being proposed for adopters is the most important step. Change audiences want, more than anything, to keep what they have. In order for them to even consider a change, they must understand what’s in it for them. This is what makes leading change challenging work. Different audiences will be motivated by different visions of success. The effective change leader must keep all of those facets of the change vision alive for all of the audiences he or she addresses.

Though leadership is often described as a personal attribute, it is a process. People can be more prepared or less to take on the responsibilities of leadership when the situation arises in which they are called to lead—either through their own convictions and beliefs or when others call upon them. But anyone can be called—at any time.

When YOU are called to lead in your company’s corporate citizenship program try using this roadmap from John Kotter’s book, Leading Change:

  1. Create a sense of urgency, telling stories about the consequences of NOT changing—real and potential—to evoke emotions and create competition.
  2. Form a guiding coalition of ambassadors to help move the change forward. Get key senior leaders and middle managers who exert influence in the organization on-board.
  3. Create a vision for change, moving together towards a new and better frontier.
  4. Communicate the vision early and often to whole organization and to specific audiences in terms that are meaningful to them.
  5. Remove obstacles using training, make sure resources are adequate, and encourage communication so that you can identify barriers.
  6. Plan short-term wins. Report positive changes and recognize the accomplishments of early adopters to share stories of success.
  7. Build on success to produce more change, not letting up when milestones are passed, but doubling down and accelerating.
  8. Institutionalize change, making formal changes to your organization, incentive programs, etc. to reinforce change.

There is urgent need for change in our many dimensions of our society. Business has a role to play in effecting these changes and we have seen companies step forward to address urgent social problems. Just among our own member community, we see so many important examples of leadership. USAA has stepped forward to address veteran homelessness, Mary Kay is taking steps to end domestic violence, State Street to increase gender equity, Nike to ensure the future of sport, and many, many more.


Kotter, J.P., (2000). "What Leaders Really Do", The Bottom Line, Emerald Publishing, Vol. 13 Issue: 1, https://doi.org/10.1108/bl.2000.17013aae.001

ii Lewin, K., (1951). Field theory in social sciences. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

iii Bhattacherjee A, Hikmet, N., (2007). Physicians’ resistance toward healthcare information technology: a theoretical model and empirical test, European Journal of Information Systems 16, 725–737. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ejis.3000717

iv Porter, M., Lee, T., (2015). Why Strategy Matters Now, New England Journal of Medicine, 372:18 p. 1681-1684, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1502419