Senior leadership buy-in is essential when enacting any sort of meaningful change within an organisation. But when it comes to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives, failing to engage the right stakeholders, makes most projects a non-starter.
GoodCourse’s co-founder Chris Mansfield sat down with Neil Pearson, Head of ESG and Social Value at Mills & Reeve, to discuss how ESG values are embedded and enacted within the firm, the importance of making EDI training long-lasting, and more.
I’m a partner at a law firm called Mills & Reeve. We’re a national law firm in England with seven offices. My job title is Head of ESG and Social Value, but I also do bits of legal work too.
It’s a bit of a long story, but my day job for many years has been helping small and medium-sized businesses raise funds from investors. I work on the tax side, in that I help funds raise money and help businesses get the money to help them grow.
About 12 years ago, I got involved in a project that looked at establishing a fund that would invest in supporting social enterprises — companies that made money and employed people but achieved positive outcomes with what they did. That fund never got off the ground — it was a bit too early in the world of impact investment. But it led me to be one of several people who put together a report on how we can raise support for social enterprise funding. Our firm decided we needed to look at purpose within the business and what that means to the firm itself, and our people. I got more and more involved in that, which led me to my current role.
The starting point is always buy-in from the top. ESG will never work in an organisation unless senior leadership buy into it. I’m lucky enough to work with a managing board that is very much bought into this. Then, we have to sell it to our various stakeholders. We’re comprised of about 140 partners, so I started rolling it out to them via workshops and asked them some challenging questions about what they’d like to see the business do. Fortunately, our culture and values align very closely with what we want to achieve with ESG.
On top of this, it never works unless you have people whose day job within the business is to make it happen. We’re lucky to have a team on the EDI side of things: a well-being programme run by a fantastic group of people. We’ve also recruited a sustainability manager to look at our environmental footprint as a business, and I focus on the governance side — how we embed that within the business.
Our work is about cascading these ideas down the business. I spend a lot of time talking to colleagues, whether it’s about talking to lawyers about what pressures their clients are facing or individuals from different communities in our business talking about their life experiences.
Training via workshops and webinars is also key — what ESG means and what each of us can do, irrespective of our role, to forward ESG principles.
For a start, we’ve introduced bits of compulsory training, for instance about carbon literacy, just to make people think about the decisions they make individually in the office and when they go home at night.
We have networks across the business that represent different voices across our communities. We have Spectrum, which represents and supports the LGBTQ+ community, which is one of five networks representing people with different life experiences, and run a lot of workshops where we get people to talk about the lives they’ve led, and issues they face, to try and improve understanding and foster inclusivity within Mills & Reeve.
One of my key mantras is ESG isn’t a project with an end and a series of finite outcomes; this is a fundamental shift, changing how we conduct ourselves in the world of business.
Lawyers historically communicate with written words, so we’re thinking more about videos, podcasts and TikTok — channels of communication that get through to people more, particularly busy people! A lot of us have screen fatigue, so we’re looking at different ways to engage better and more effectively. One of my key mantras is ESG isn’t a project with an end and a series of finite outcomes; this is a fundamental shift, changing how we conduct ourselves in the world of business.
To speak candidly, it’s an area I still think we could improve. Like most organisations, we have a concentrated onboarding process when we join, and we hit them with 100 different things to think about, from how to use our IT systems to how to climb a stepladder!
Some of it we never use again, and some we forget. We’re thinking about how to make it more meaningful and ensure people actually remember it, getting individual members of the ESG team to run a welcome webinar every 6 weeks and then, a month later, having one about the environmental side. It’s about drip-feeding information to people once they have their feet under the desk.
The other area I’m looking at in which we need to do more is performance reviews. We have an annual review like many organisations, which is quite a bureaucratic process, and there’s not enough in it about ESG. So we’re trying to do more around setting ESG-related targets and objectives.
Choose an organisation that genuinely chimes with what’s important to you as an individual. Lift the bonnet and have a look (as it were). Everybody makes a lot of claims about what they do, but speak to people and see if values are lived rather than just laminated.
There’s a law firm called Bates Wells in London; that has led the way on this for a long time. For a while, they were a lone voice. They have done a lot of work within social entrepreneurship, getting businesses to help solve society’s problems.
23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Ha Joon-Chang. It’s easy to read and a great analysis of how capitalism has gone awry. Since then, my focus has been that businesses and large organisations can be used to make change for the better!