Executives Acknowledge that the Internal Alignment, Metrics, Capabilities, Culture and Governance Needed to Meet Sustainability Targets Are Not in Place, According to New L.E.K. Consulting Survey

London (Jul. 20, 2022) – Companies around the globe have made earnest, often specific, commitments to environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, but are struggling on the journey to meet them. In many cases the gap between their aspirations and the ability to execute on them is significant. 

Among the barriers they face are divisions within the leadership team over how to balance short-term business and financial priorities with long-term ESG objectives, lack of processes and capabilities to build ESG programs, disconnects in strategy, product and service portfolios and supply chains, and internal cultures that are out of alignment. Aligning incentives and creating executive remuneration programs to support ESG is another significant challenge. Designing and executing effective ESG programs will require major rethinking of all these barriers and issues, in particular, greater internal consensus on the tradeoffs ESG and sustainability objectives require.

Those are among the findings of the Global Corporate Sustainability Survey 2022, a major survey of 400 C-Suite executives in the U.S., Europe and Asia and report by global strategy consultancy L.E.K. Consulting in conjunction with Longitude.

“Companies are willing, for very sound business and societal reasons, to become more sustainable, but they’re not fully ready, and far from able at a senior executive and board level, to deliver against those ambitions,” said John Goddard, Partner at L.E.K. Consulting and Vice Chair, Sustainability.

Companies See Great Potential in their ESG Commitments

Sustainability and ESG have significant momentum in the private sector. More than 700 of the largest 2,000 publicly traded companies have claimed net-zero commitments; 60% of the FTSE 100 have committed to net zero by 2050, and two-thirds of the S&P 500 have emission reduction targets.

And most companies with ESG commitments see them as far more than just ways to be compliant and reduce certain risks. According to the L.E.K. survey, 51% of organizations are approaching ESG as a growth driver, and a further 20% focus on it in the context of innovation.

In fact, 51% of executives agree that their company should address ESG issues — even if doing so reduces short-term financial performance with 54% of executives from publicly listed companies confirming this position.

“The most enlightened companies are driving themselves toward clear sustainability goals, as opposed to being purely compliance focused. They know it is best for the business, best for the planet and best for society,” Goddard said. 

Significant Challenges Abound

Yet a fundamental challenge companies must overcome before meeting ESG goals is achieving internal consensus on handling the tension between short-term priorities and investments for sustainable growth. 

Indeed, 58% of executives said there are “significant differences of opinion within the leadership team” on balancing short-term priorities with long-term ESG goals. “Analyzing financial and non-financial benefits of the strategic choices to achieve ESG goals is a tall order. It means quantifying non-financial benefits in a way that allows for careful strategic choices to engage fully in ESG,” Goddard said.

Aligning is also difficult because of the range and complexity of the risks associated with ESG and sustainability. L.E.K.’s broader work has highlighted the key ESG risks facing organizations, including:

  • The cost of energy transition, supply chain sustainability commitments and regulatory compliance
  • Finance-related areas, including stranded assets with lowered value, ESG ratings, which are yet not standardized nor consistent, and pressure from activist investors 
  • Reputation-related, including consumers’ increasing sophistication, “cancel culture” targeting corporations and talent and retention issues related to perceptions of about a company’s ESG stature

“Boards and executives are increasingly aware of the major sustainability risks, but they often lack the full context, characteristics and tools to advise and make decisions to manage them,” Goddard said. 

Part of the challenge is the lack of metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) to track progress toward ESG goals: Only a quarter (27%) of companies have any enterprise wide ESG KPIs in place, and fewer still have a full set in place (just 3%), according to the survey.

Without such metrics, companies will continue to struggle to align executive remuneration with ESG targets. “Company leaders acknowledge that linking executive compensation to sustainability targets will be a key step in achieving ESG goal, but too few companies are at this point yet,” Goddard said.

Executives Paint a Detailed Picture of their ESG Hurdles

The L.E.K. survey asked executives to select those challenges that may be affecting their ability to achieve their sustainability goal. Thirty-four percent selected “lack of strategic alignment across key stakeholders;” 33% selected “leadership team unaligned on what ESG ambition should be;” 33% selected “lack of relevant capabilities/skills for clear decision-making and accountability,” and 33% selected “lack of the right culture/mindset.”

When asked to select key areas where their organization is least prepared to deliver on ESG goals, 43% selected “reward and incentives frameworks” and 40% selected “the right culture, including tone and engagement from the top.” Among other key findings:

  • 79% of executives said the organization has more to do to put the required skills and capabilities in place to deliver sustainability goals
  • 59% said their company has not made substantial progress in understanding the financial risk and financial opportunity posed by climate
  • 54% said their company has not made significant strides in integrating ESG factors into the way the company allocates capital
  • 48% said they do not think their company’s current product and service portfolio meets the needs of a more sustainable future

Actions Company Leaders and Boards Can Take

“There are a number of avenues organizations can take to overcome barriers to deliver on ESG goals,” Goddard said. “They involve establishing a common language with which to develop sustainability goals and begin to understand the strategic choices required to achieve the goals; investing in educational programs and support; engaging the full leadership team in analyzing the financial and non-financial strategic choices that might be involved in achieving ESG goals; begin to set measurable goals in order to set KPIs and enable reporting and tracking, and putting in place interim targets so remuneration can be linked to ESG strides.”

About the L.E.K. Global Corporate Sustainability Survey
We surveyed 400 senior decision-makers from around the world, with a quarter drawn from the ranks of CEO or C-suite and the remainder from other senior roles, including those charged with ESG issues, such as Sustainability and Climate Change Directors. Respondents were drawn from across North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe, with a focus on Australia, China, France, Germany and the UK. Over a quarter (28%) were from companies with revenues of $10 billion a year or more, and a wide range of sectors are represented, including: Consumer Products, Healthcare, Pharmaceuticals, Industrials and Travel & Transport.

About L.E.K. Consulting
We’re L.E.K. Consulting, a global strategy consultancy working with business leaders to seize competitive advantage and amplify growth. Our insights are catalysts that reshape the trajectory of our clients’ businesses, uncovering opportunities and empowering them to master their moments of truth. Since 1983, our worldwide practice — spanning the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe — has guided leaders across all industries, from global corporations to emerging entrepreneurial businesses and private equity investors. Looking for more? Visit www.lek.com

About Longitude
Longitude is a specialist thought leadership agency that is owned by the Financial Times. We combine strategy, research, content and activation services to produce real thought leadership that enables our clients to genuinely influence and inspire their audience. We work with a wide range of the world’s most prestigious B2B brands across Europe, the US and Asia Pacific. Our 80+ clients are concentrated in the professional services, financial services and technology sectors, but also stretch into energy, infrastructure, manufacturing and other sectors. Headquartered in London, the company was founded in 2011 and was selected as one of Chief Marketer 200, Top Marketing Agencies of 2020, an Inc. 5000 Europe in 2018, an FT 1000 company in 2017, and a 2016 Leap 100 high growth UK company by City A.M. and Mishcon de Reya.