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Episode 157: A Promise of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Consulting—with Heather Burns

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. So on this podcast, we're going to dive into ESG consulting, and this isn't particularly important if, as a consultant or someone who's thinking about being a consultant, you care very much about the state of the world and you want to do consulting that helps it. We're going to talk about this particular option for it, and I brought someone on who does this work and is an expert at it, Heather Burns, and she's going to walk us through what it is, what it means, what the demand looks like right now, and the types of skills that you can transfer to this work so that you can ultimately do work that makes your heart sing because you're making the world a better place. Let's get started. Hi, want to welcome my guest today, Heather Burns. Heather, welcome to the show.

Heather Burns: Hi Deb. Thanks for having me.

Deb Zahn: So let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Heather Burns: Well, for the past 15 years, I've been what's known as an ESG or sustainability consultant to companies and organizations, and most recently, I started a business association that focuses on sustainable companies, and now I'm branching out to help other consultants who want to learn more about ESG and what that means for consulting.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. I've seen those letters before and I didn't know what they meant, but I knew it had something to do with sustainability. So can you define what is ESG consulting? What do those letters mean?

Heather Burns: Right. So they stand for environmental, social, and governance. And companies who are working in those fields, help organizations and companies to adapt to climate change and become more sustainable and resilient in the face of a warming planet. So when we break down the E, the S, and the G, you're looking at environmental impacts, things such as waste, water, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and most recently, biodiversity has been added to that list. Then for social impact, you have things that could include internal practices such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, employee engagement, or you could also be looking external to your social impact, such as what's the positive impact that companies are having on the communities in which they operate.

And then you have what's called governance, which addresses things like fair work practices, accountability, and how overall transparent a company is. So with helping to measure and improve on those impacts, you're doing that so companies can become more resilient, more efficient, more effective in the face of things like supply chain disruption, right? Where we saw with COVID, you've got really unpredictable supply chain disruptions and all sorts of other complex issues.

Deb Zahn: Well, it warms my heart to hear that definition because that's really also about transforming organizations and companies to really play in their role in the larger world in a way that is good and healing and wonderful. That makes me happy that, that's what that is. So if I'm thinking about being a consultant or I am a consultant, if you were sitting in front of them, why would you tell them, "Look, you should think about this as what you do as a consultant."?

Heather Burns: Yeah. I think there's probably three solid reasons. I mean, one is, in a lot of ways, it's an extension of the work that many consultants are already doing. So there's this misconception about ESG and sustainability consulting that it's very technical or it's highly scientific, right? And that really is not the case. More so what you're doing, is you're helping an organization change and embed those changes into the way that it operates into its culture, into its engagement. And so it touches more on program development, strategy, leadership development, operations, communications, many areas that consultants are already working on, and it's really a way to diversify yourself, right? So you able to add this in as a service, make positive change yourself by helping companies create better operations. So that's number one.

Number two is, it's an incredible blue ocean opportunity. There is an enormous demand for this type of consulting, and it's being driven by new many different directions. There's legislative pressure, there's pressure from employees, over 70% of millennials want to work for a company that has strong ESG, it's consumer driven, not just consumer-consumers, but B2B consumers. So you've got these really large companies have made these audacious climate related goals, and the truth is they have no idea how they're going to meet those goals and they don't have the capacity to do so.

So there's just an enormous opportunity. In fact, some colleagues of mine, they are a married couple, they started an Upwork type of platform, specifically for ESG consulting projects to help match up consultants with companies. And they cannot keep up. And in fact, even the consultants that they have in their network are trying to find entry level ESG consultants to help build their capacity, so it's really become a high level of demand. So that's number two. And that's really, unfortunately, from a planetary standpoint, that need is only going to grow.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Heather Burns: The planet's not getting any cooler, unfortunately. So it's going to continue to grow, and as business goes down the path of what it really means to adapt and mitigate climate change, it's just going to take off like wildfire. But number three, and certainly not last, is really this incredibly exciting opportunity to use consulting to create powerful and positive change at a very critical time. And I think many of us could agree that creating positive change is a delightful part of what we do anyway, but I think focusing in these areas allows us to really help to solve some of the largest problems that we're facing.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I'd love that because, like many people, if you sit back and you look at what's happening with climate change and you feel powerless, in the same way, I'm a healthcare consultant because I look at the US healthcare system and I see all of its problems, and I've experienced, and seen its consequences, and you can feel powerless, well. What if in your livelihood, how you have your livelihood set up, you are actually working to make the positive change that you wish when you were sitting there watching the news or doomscrolling that you could actually do something about?

Heather Burns: Exactly. And the economy is fueled by burning fossil fuels. And that means that business is at the forefront of how we address this issue. So by changing business, you're really changing the way that money's flowing through the economy, you're impacting large-scale change, as opposed to maybe one by one consumer, which is important too. But changing business just has an incredible amount of power behind it, and the good news is that companies are really seeing this not only as a risk management issue, so you've got the stick, they're really starting to understand the carrot now because they're seeing that companies that do have strong ESG have better investor relations, they have more of investor trust, they have better employee retention, they're getting the top talent, they've got more brand loyalty. I mean, the list just goes on and on and the data's there to support it now, where 10 years ago, I was just telling people, "No, really this is true." And they were like, "Why should I believe you?"

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Sad. Because 10 years ago, 20 years ago we needed it. So if I'm a consultant and I'm looking at my skills and my experience that I have, or skills and experience that I need to go get, what should I be looking for? What actually would help me do this work well and enable me to make it my livelihood?

Heather Burns: Yeah. Well, the first thing to say is that... I think one thing that makes this feel unique is that we're all learning, all of us, right? So clients are learning, consultants are learning, scientists are learning. So they live evolving in a space. And so it's OK to be learning, I guess is my point. What I would say is that really start with what you know and take a look at not just what you know how to do well, look at your industry sector. That's a very important piece. Explore how your industry sector understands ESG, are they leading? Are they laggards? From there, maybe pick out a few companies that are leading, see what they're doing, and really just try to understand where they're coming from, and build on that.

For example, when I started this off, it was 2006, I had two toddlers. I just watched Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and was scared to death. It was like I understood and then I couldn't not see, kind of thing.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Heather Burns: So I really was like, "OK, I have to figure this out." And at the time, I was working as an editor at a trade publishing house. I was like, "What could I possibly do? Well, I knew how to write." So I was like, "All right." So I started a blog, and this comes to my next piece of what you can do, I started reading and writing about what I was reading. Then I started talking to people and writing about that, like you do with a podcast too, right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Heather Burns: Getting information from people who know, and then you're incorporating that and integrating it. And so I took my skills, which were writing, I took my industry, which was publishing, and my first paid consulting contract, which was sizeable, which was surprising, was writing a sustainability report for a trade association in the publishing industry.

Deb Zahn: Oh, wow. But I love how you married the world that you were already in, instead of trying to necessarily push your way into a world you're unfamiliar with and said, "OK, how does it work here?" I think that's brilliant and...I mean, again, I'm a healthcare consultant. I have a client right now who is saying, "We want to make sustainability a cornerstone of how our organization functions and operates, and lots of healthcare organizations, big and small, should be doing the same thing," social service organizations, you name it, not just the big companies. So that's wonderful. You pointed to one thing. You said something earlier that also strikes me as in the bucket of skills that are so transferrable and that's changed because consultants are in the business of change. So what type of thing, if you saw that somebody could do these types of things in an organization, would you say to them, "You know what? Those types of skills also transfer."

Heather Burns: Yeah. Well, I mean, if you want, we could use your healthcare company as an example, right? So if they want to make sustainability a cornerstone, then how would they go about doing that? Well, the first thing they would do is they would define what sustainability means to them because it has to be relevant to your core business and your core mission, and values as an organization. That's essential. If you don't have that, you don't have an alignment, you don't have support, and all those other things.

So then, once you have everyone on board with what that is, and maybe as a consultant, you've facilitated that process and helped them come to that, and you've looked at what others are doing, and you've brought that into the conversation to help guide and shape that, well, then it's a matter of, "OK. Well, great. Everyone's on board. So how do we operationalize that?" And then you would start to look more at, are there policies that you want to look at changing? Are there programs you want to look... Or partnerships you want to help develop to help bring what is on paper more into life?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Heather Burns: I don't know if that's clear.

Deb Zahn: It's so clear because everything you just said is what consultants do all the time. So it doesn't matter what the topic is, we help people get clear, we help people figure out their path, we help people implement their path, and we help them evaluate and measure their path. All of those things are what we do every single day. And I got this when I looked at your website that I'd love that you talked about those transferable skills. So it's not like you're in a whole world where every skill, that you have to learn, is brand new. There's new knowledge, there's some new skills, but so much of it is transferable, which is why I love this because it is an option then for more people than who think, "Well, I didn't have this degree or I didn't do this, and that's why I can't do it."

Heather Burns: Exactly. I like to say that it's almost like a new pair of glasses that you're putting on, and you start to shift the way that you look at things, and therefore you help your clients to shift the way that they look at things. So that's really the crux of it.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I like it. I love that analogy. So are there certain ESG services that you're seeing are particularly in high demand?

Heather Burns: Yes. Absolutely. What I call a discovery, which is really... Companies want to know what other companies are doing, so getting a benchmarking idea of what their competition's doing, what the risks and opportunities are, overall for them, that's one, and that's a good way to get your foot in the door because it's a low barrier of entry and then you have the inside idea of what's going on in there for them. Then the next thing is really materiality, which is helping them facilitate conversations and get honest feedback from their stakeholders. What do their employees think of sustainability? What do their suppliers think? Their customers, et cetera.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Heather Burns: And then the third one, big, is reporting. And you need to do a discovery and a materiality to do a really good job at a report. But the SEC, the Security and Exchange Commissions, just this week on Monday, has now put out a proposal for new roles that companies, well, must, will be required to report on their greenhouse gas emissions, their climate risk, and their plan to address those risks, so that's here.

Deb Zahn: Very nice.

Heather Burns: Yeah. And so reporting's another really big one.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And again, things that other consultants have done with other things, so transferable skills. So I know that one of the things that you've also talked about is it's not all sunshine and roses when you're with these companies. So as someone who follows climate change, I'm always suspicious of, the market that got us into this is the market that's going to get us out of this. Yet at the same time, I want good things to happen because they have to play a role in this. So what are some of the things, for a consultant who might go into this area, to watch out for and to try and avoid?

Heather Burns: That is a fantastic question. Greenwashing is what we call it when a company is saying, it's doing one thing and it's really doing something else, or in the case, more recently, where you've got companies who are putting their best foot forward in terms of sustainability and appearing to be very transparent about doing what they're doing, and then they're financing packs, or they're lobbying against really key pieces of legislation that would advance the scaling of clean energy as example, or reducing carbon emissions.

So that certainly does happen. However, I'm still of the line of thinking that, if, as consultants, we, you can make the piece of their business work, the good piece shine and grow, right? You asked about the types of services that are in demand. I would say the other pieces that are in demand are once companies have made investments and taken the right steps and clean their house, they're now looking at, "What are the new business opportunities? Are there new services or products that I could launch? Are there new markets we could enter?" So there's this whole business development side as well, and I think as long as we continue to nurture and grow that side of the equation, the other side is really just going to become background noise.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Heather Burns: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: We want it to shrivel.

Heather Burns: And I underline.

Deb Zahn: I love that. That would be a beautiful thing. And quickly please because we're running out of time. But part of what you're talking about that I really like is aligning your purpose and value with what you're consulting business is. And this is one example of doing that, but what do you tell people who are in front of you and they're trying to figure out what going to do as consultants to bring those things together and to look for opportunities to do that?

Heather Burns: Well, I think there's a couple things. One is to look for something that really bothers you.

Deb Zahn: I love that.

Heather Burns: What's the thing that it just needles you every time you see it? There is a way to influence businesses to change their ways around whatever that is. And for some people it's ocean plastic or... I mean, there's just a myriad of issues you could dive into, of course. So that's one thing, is what really bothers you. But the other piece is that there is a new breed of organizations that are cropping up, that consultants could also choose to work with. So you don't necessarily have to stay working in mainstream and do sustainability consulting. There's also a new breed of companies that are called social enterprises, and this is really they're for profit but they're highly mission-driven. And so at the very top of the list, right? Alongside of, if not a little bit above profit, is a positive social benefit. So it's like if for-profit and a nonprofit had a baby, that's a social enterprise.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Heather Burns: There's even a legal structure called benefit corporation that's approved.

Deb Zahn: Yep, I was thinking them.

Heather Burns: Yeah. Right. They're a traditional company with modified obligations that commit them to higher standards of purpose, accountability, transparency, and things. So I think there are a lot of different directions that you could go as a consultant to create a positive impact by aligning your values.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And I would say for anybody listening, don't count out nonprofits either. The organization that I talked about is a huge nonprofit and they have an enormous reach, they have thousands of employees, they have tons of influence. So their ability to make positive change within their organization, outside of their organization, is actually tremendous. And even some of the smaller nonprofits are part of trade associations, are part of other types of groupings that this could be something that they really want to make their mark in. It almost seems endless, all of the opportunities.

Heather Burns: Well, yeah. And I mean, certainly in nonprofits, but also healthcare because now what's happened is very strong data's come out connecting human health with climate. So there's no debate any longer around whether there's a connection there.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And you're finally getting some of the associations coming out and backing it up, which is the true and right thing to do. I mean, I hadn't thought about it in healthcare until, again, I heard one of my clients talk about it and huge opportunity across the spectrum, IT, you name it. So where can folks find you if they want to get some help with this?

Heather Burns: So the website is, and you can find me on LinkedIn as well. And I am actually going to be starting a podcast.

Deb Zahn: Yay. I saw that. That's fabulous. When does that launch?

Heather Burns: Next month, April, which is Earth Month for those of us who celebrate Earth Day on the 22nd.

Deb Zahn: Oh, that's fabulous. And I understand you have a course too, that can help people walk through this?

Heather Burns: Yes. In the lines of, I wish I knew when I'd started. Right?

Deb Zahn: Exactly right.

Heather Burns: Yes. The course is called ESG Consulting Foundations, and it's self-paced, and it really teaches... It's designed to teach how to work with clients in ESG. So you're going to learn key terms, and concepts, and the evolution of ESG, so how did we get where we are today? Which helps make sense of all these terms that fly around, right? Yeah. And then big piece of it is, how do you align what you're currently doing with what you want to do in ESG, and things like how to make the business case, and find clients, and things like that.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. And we will have links to all of that in our show notes. So let me ask you my last question when you're not out saving the world, what do you do to bring balance in your life, however you define that?

Heather Burns: Well, let me say, I work really hard at trying to do that, right? It's like a part-time job.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Heather Burns: But for me, it's spending time in nature, hands down. So I've made a commitment to myself that I get out there one hour, every single day, regardless of the weather. My kids think I'm nuts because I'm putting on my spikes and going in the woods in the ice and snow and all that. But for me, I need to feel connected to the bigger ecosystem, right? And something in there helps me feel like, "OK, I'm good."

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Heather Burns: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Well, I love that. Because you mentioned ice, folks have to understand you're in a part of the US where there are snow and sleet and storms and all of that, which makes that statement particularly impressive. I love that. And I know you mentioned when you reached out to me, and I told my mom about this, she was so excited, that you've also implemented mom time.

Heather Burns: Oh.

Deb Zahn: And for those listening, if you recall, mom time is where I have a dedicated three hours a week on a certain day that's dedicated to my mom, it's sacred, it never goes away, and we can do whatever she wants, and you did something like that.

Heather Burns: I did. I love listening to your podcast at the gym, and I was listening one day and I thought, "Oh, I really..." So I've gone so far as we've found our day and our time. And I explained everything to her and it was funny because she was like, "Really?" I mean you could just see that she got really excited and she's like, "Anything?' I said, "Yes. Tasks around your house, whatever you want to do," and then she took off for a month to Florida. So we haven't actually technically kicked it off yet, but it's in the works.

Deb Zahn: Nice. And the excitement, I mean that's the whole point of it, right? My mom and I did it for a whole year, and then at the end of the year, like a good consultant, I did a look back and said, "Mom, what did you think?" And she said that she loved all the fun things we did but even fixing stuff around her house, or taking her on errands, or doing something like that, she said it was such a relief because she always felt guilty, like any good Catholic mom does, asking me to do things because she says, "But you're always so busy." And she always assumes that I'm busier than I am, but she felt guilty and mom time released the guilt. She didn't have to worry about whether or not it was going to happen or if she had to do it because she knew she had her time. And so that an effect on every single day, which I didn't anticipate. That was pretty cool.

Heather Burns: That is cool.

Deb Zahn: I'm excited. So when you do implement mom time, you got to tell me how it goes.

Heather Burns: I will.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Well, Heather, I want to thank you so much for being on. And again, I was delighted to hear more about this because I heard it, I looked it up, I knew a little bit, but I didn't know that it was necessarily as powerful as this. So I appreciate you coming on and sharing this with everybody.

Heather Burns: Thank you for giving me the opportunity, Deb.

Deb Zahn: Absolutely. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it, share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye

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