If you sit on a Board or invest in equities (and read about how they’re doing) you have seen those powerful initials many times. Environment, Social, Governance – the phrase intended to fix everything that is self-serving about corporate America. Just one small problem: it’s not working.

The Economist wrote last week that there is such a “dizzying array of objectives” implicit in the phrase that no one has any ability to determine what strategy will develop acceptable ESG results and which won’t. Tesla is a “corporate-governance nightmare” but is helping tackle climate change. Closing down a coal mine sounds good, except for the workers and suppliers who lose their jobs. It doesn’t take a researcher to find lot of other examples in the corporate world.

In a special feature edition of the Los Angeles Times, a Deloitte survey of CFOs found that 2/3 of companies surveyed do not tie their compensation to performance against ESG objectives, even if those are set forth in their purpose statements to the world.

And yet investors and other stakeholders are looking for more emphasis on such things, leading many companies to stretch the reality a bit in their publicity – called “greenwashing” by the whistleblowers who see the realities. If profits are the real goal, it’s often more profitable to pass those costs through to customers and society as a whole rather than bear the cost of making a real difference.

So what to do? Well, that’s not our expertise, for sure, so I don’t have the answers. But I know the challenges of pursuing multiple objectives at once – the usual result is all get done poorly. So when The Economist’s writer suggests “the more targets there are to hit, the less chance of bullseye-ing any of them,” that makes sense to a management consultant, and perhaps to you too.

So how about this idea: Have your company choose one element of ESG that you can truly influence: emissions control, natural resource stewardship, waste management, better human capital management, homelessness prevention, honest labelling of products sold, solid governance practices in the Boardroom, etc. Then develop and implement an effective way to measure, monitor and report progress. Pay your executives meaningful incentives to pursue and make progress in the area you’ve chosen to invest in. And tell your stakeholders how you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Wouldn’t that make a great lead-in for your annual report?

We don’t know the answers – but we have some pretty good questions.

We are Your CFO for Rent.

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