As pressure mounts on companies to look beyond profit, business schools are responding with new executive education courses that aim to change the way the world does business.
These are quickly becoming some of the most popular programs in the executive education portfolio, underlining the need for strategies to help companies decarbonize their operations, ensure equitable working practices, and other environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.
Participants face challenges in terms of balancing competing stakeholder priorities, but they benefit from taking part in sustainability-linked courses in terms of balancing the need to tackle environmental and social challenges while still making an economic return for their companies.
The Aresty Institute of Executive Education at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in January announced the launch of a portfolio of executive certificates in the ESG space, pairing Wharton’s financial acumen with ESG research from the Wharton ESG Initiative.
“The future of business is changing at an incredibly accelerated rate,” says Patti Williams, the Vice-Dean of Wharton Executive Education. “Wharton is launching these programs to serve as a partner in progress for leaders as they navigate shaping that future.”
Once considered a niche field, ESG is now a key factor impacting the strategies that business leaders design. “These are factors that have been left out of the models, left out of the toolkits to businesses’ detriment,” says Witold Henisz, Vice-Dean and Faculty Director of the Wharton ESG Initiative.
Wharton’s new courses are delivered online for added flexibility, and they include a four-week foundational offering, Wharton ESG Essentials, as well as certificate programs for financial professionals, senior leaders and strategists.
An expanding supply of ESG courses
They add to an already expanding supply of programs that tackle sustainability challenges. The Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK, for instance, offers several ESG courses. One of the latest is a four-day exploration of consumer, stakeholder and competitor issues surrounding ESG, entitled “Environmental, Social and Governance Leadership: A Pathway to Business Sustainability”.
“ESG transformation is now essential. The current global shift in the market, social and moral landscape is the most significant of our generation and it requires reskilling in environmental, social and governance disciplines on a grand scale,” says Allison Wheeler-Héau, Director of Open Programs at the Executive Education division of Cambridge Judge.
Wheeler-Héau sees an increasing level of demand for these courses, as organizations are looking to embed ESG and business sustainability at their heart. “There is mounting pressure from consumers, employees and stakeholders alike, from both environmental and societal perspectives. Acting on ESG impacts, and opportunities is critical to good business today and in the future,” she says.
Cambridge Judge’s programs focus on sharing knowledge from the entire University of Cambridge ecosystem, from the thermodynamics of heat pumps to the electrification of the steel industry. “Our participants can gain an understanding of how to use their resources and influence to implement a sustainable strategy of ESG to transform their organization and make it a central part of their operations,” adds Wheeler-Héau.
Addressing ESG challenges while delivering economic returns
The demand is extremely high at other schools, too. “We have open enrollment courses, several a semester, which are attended by more than 400 people annually, and we have bespoke executive education courses which companies such as Nespresso, KPMG, and others commission, through which more than 1,500 people participated in last year,” says Professor Tensie Whelan, the Director of Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business.
The courses assist executives to develop the knowledge, skills and perspective they need to understand and address environmental and social challenges while delivering economic returns to shareholders and stakeholders.
Those skills include system and design thinking, developing and executing strategy, managing radical transparency, embedding sustainable innovation, engaging stakeholders, balancing ESG issues and priorities, and managing productivity in an era of resource constraints.
“Participants learn how to reduce risk, create competitive advantage and develop innovative services, products and processes in a sustainable way that builds value for society and protects the planet,” says Whelan.
“Participants also gain exposure to and experience in translating corporate performance on sustainability into financial performance. They leave this course with specific ideas for implementing sustainable practices at their organization.”
Schools say the main challenges facing participants are the balance between shifting their organizational mindset and undertaking short-term revenue-generation activities. “We strive to showcase instances of ESG implementation that help businesses accomplish both objectives,” adds Cambridge Judge’s Wheeler-Héau.
“In essence, shareholder return can no longer take precedence if an organization wants to prosper in the future. By providing participants with tangible takeaways, we help them overcome barriers and begin to balance corporate activity against the gamut of stakeholder priorities.”