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[Ed. note: ESG in the News will be published tomorrow.]

Readers know I live in West Texas and although I am not a real cowboy, I revel in the cowboy state of mind. So this past weekend when I had the opportunity to ride a mechanical bull, of course I said yes. I made 8 seconds on my third try (that is the time considered a “complete ride” in rodeo rules). Granted, the operator was running it about the same speed as he was for 6 year old kids. Yes I was bucked off and no I wasn’t hurt at all.

The ride inspired an idea about where we are in the ESG world at this time. Some of you may be thinking I am about to go down the road of – let’s call it “organic fertilizer from bovine sources.” But I’m not. Instead, I realized that bull riding is actually an excellent analogy for ESG today and could help inspire or even calm professionals in the space. I’ll wager that is not something you ever expected to read.

Getting in the Gate

Riding bulls (real ones, not the “toy” I rode) requires a lot of preparation before the ride timer even starts. Riders must be in excellent physical condition and mentally prepared to get on the back of a massive and powerful beast that doesn’t want a rider there. Riders need to know each bull’s bucking style and be prepared for that – as well as be prepared to get thrown off. Hard.

If you are involved in launching or maintaining ESG programs in your company (or for clients), a lot of homework is needed to achieve success. I’ve written quite a bit about how important it is for ESG professionals to understand business basics about their company. You also have to know the company culture, the internal power brokers, what is motivating the company’s ESG plans and why they may not be welcomed. Sometimes the bull bucks in the gate, too. You don’t want to fail before you ever get started. Being able to “read” the company’s bucking style helps you be prepared for the twists, turns and pivots ahead.

Leaving the Gate

Leaving the gate involves not only rider readiness, but also the readiness (and attention) of a group of folks working to make sure the bull launches cleanly and safely. Some watch the bull, some watch the rider, others make sure that the gate latch and release are ready, and others take their place in the ring for emergency and post-ride purposes.

In the corporate setting, just because the ESG department is ready move forward with an idea, program, report or initiative doesn’t mean that the rest of the company is also ready. You need to communicate, work with and trust others in the company for insight into timing the launch. You can’t do it on your own. Building that trust can sometimes present issues in corporate settings – finding the right people is part of your pre-launch preparations. Leaving the gate on an ESG program before the entire team has given the thumbs up is likely to end in an ugly way.

Keeping Balance

Bulls have their own ideas about what they want and need – as well as what they don’t. Riders are in the “what they don’t want” category.

Senior managers and operations folks may feel that ESG is being forced onto them even though they don’t want it or see the need. They will probably try to buck ESG riders – twisting, turning, arguing, grunting and who knows what else. You need to keep your balance during a wild ride. In ESG, this means anticipating pushback, arguments, distractions and delays. Keeping your balance involves:

  • Maintaining positive, supporting working relationships with key power brokers in the company. They can exert influence when/where it may be needed.
  • Having a strong and clear business case for the ESG program/initiative (which should not be linked to the company’s stock price). Stay away from garbage economics or claims/estimates of value that are not sensible.
  • Not functioning like a standalone entity in the organization. ESG is still a function within a company and needs to play by the same rules as other departments/staff. Also, ESG needs a great deal of help and support from a plethora of others in the company. Nurture your relationships.
  • Being adaptable and flexible. Things do change – in the company, regulatory environment and even as a result of geopolitical upheaval. Maintain an open mind about unanticipated change. The better you have been in taking care of the above three bullet points, the better prepared you are to keep your balance when the bull pivots suddenly.

Going 8 Seconds

In bull riding, an 8-second ride is considered successful. It is short and every ride has a clear and obvious end point that may or may not be 8 seconds. Unfortunately, this is a big contrast to ESG.

Corporate ESG is by definition for the long run. End points may not be obvious or clearly defined in terms of results or timing. Events like mergers, acquisitions or major business changes can also alter how the company defines success, the metrics used or schedule for achieving goals.

When or what is ESG’s 8 seconds? To a large extent, the company can choose its own definitions and metrics for what success looks like and the schedule for meeting commitments. Interim targets are helpful in getting to long term end points like GHG emissions reductions. Even so, ESG professionals may just have to get comfortable with the idea that at least some of their work may not have an “8-second end point.”

Falling Off

Like death and taxes, falling off bulls is inevitable. When and how a rider falls off determines a lot about the future of both the rider and the bull too. Every rider is prepared for a fall – they wear stomp-proof vests and many now wear helmets and whiplash prevention devices. Sometimes they are able to pop right back up on their feet, but other times things don’t go as well.

ESG programs and professionals will face failures too, although not as immediately life threatening as bull riders. How ESG staff responds to falling off directly impacts both the program and the company. It would be prudent to consider in advance “what if” scenarios and determine at least initial responses to them. Falling off is part of the process of learning – no one likes it but we almost always learn something from it that can be applied in the future.

Much about ESG is new and leading edge; there is still a lot of falling still to do. Thomas Edison is widely quoted as saying about how long it took him to invent a successful electric light bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I don’t think he ever rode a bull, but the idea is very much on point. Don’t dwell on things that don’t go right in ESG – learn from it and move on.

In wrapping this up, I’ll confess – I had a lot of fun writing this blog and riding that mechanical bull. As for any future rodeoing, stay tuned – I’m working on riding a live steer later this summer. Don’t worry – steers are much less mean than bulls. But if things go wrong, I’ll blog from the hospital.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile