An ESG Community with Financial Reporting Folks and More
Got questions about environmental, social, and governance (ESG)? You're not alone! Financial reporting pros are joining a new ESG community. Lauren Uyeno and Mark Mellen of the ESG Professionals Group explain how the group started and why financial reporting leaders, auditors, and others are joining.
Learn more about the ESG Professionals Group, and join for free.
Season 4, Episode 13: An ESG Community with Financial Reporting Folks and More | Transcript
Lauren Uyeno: Right now, what we're kind of seeing and hearing from our current members is really just commiserating on the final SEC ruling. I feel like—I'm not an accountant, I'm not a sustainability person, I'm a community person—but I have to laugh now just seeing like, maybe we should start putting bets. I will challenge any current member or anybody who wants to become a member to put that out on our community. Should we put some bets on when that final ruling is going to happen?
Catherine Tsai: Hello, and welcome to Off the Books, where we surf the uncharted waters of accounting, finance, risk, and wherever else the waves take us. This episode is brought to you by Workiva, the one platform that brings financial reporting, ESG, audit, and risk teams together, like your favorite deli puts turkey on brie, on arugula, on cranberry sauce together. See for yourself at workiva.com/podcast. My name is Catherine Tsai. I'm not an accountant or an auditor, but my rapper name is C-note, and I like asking questions of smart people. We're here with a few smart people, including Steve Soter. Steve, why don't you tell the fine folks who you are?
Steve Soter: Yeah, certainly happy to, Catherine. My name is Steve Soter, accounting enthusiast and Diet Coke aficionado. I'm looking forward to debiting a great conversation, and I'm super happy to have you all with us. Also really happy to have Lauren Uyeno and Mark Mellen joining us as guests this week.
Catherine: Lauren is someone who builds communities. She's built national professional groups in the technology industry and for financial reporting and audit professionals.
Steve: Yeah, just last year, Lauren actually launched a community for people working on ESG, which refers to, of course, environmental, social, and governance topics. The ESG Pro Group now has nearly 600 members after a launch late last year. And Mark Mellen is actually the executive advisor of the group. Certainly, financial reporting teams have been paying attention to ESG with respect to certain proposals out there, including the SEC's climate proposal. But a lot of people are paying attention to ESG, not just financial reporting folks.
Catherine: So we'll start off with a super general question. Lauren, maybe we'll start with you. Can you talk about the importance of community and why professional groups exist?
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely happy to do that. So, you know, the importance of community is in the name of itself. As humans, we have been successful just in evolution of banding together, relying on help. And over time it's just evolved now to the current age of the digital space. So, you know, the importance of community is really to bring together those with challenges, issues, with those learnings and really come together with your peers just to discuss what's going on: How can we better help each other? And that's really the humanizing part that I really do enjoy. You know, at the end of the day, as humans, we all are striving for a sense of belonging, and that's really kind of the core behind why communities are important.
Catherine: Mark, I don't know if you have anything to add to that.
Mark Mellen: I totally agree with everything Lauren just described. I think the one thing that I would add as it relates to ESG and communities, which is maybe even more critical than what we've seen in the past, is just bringing folks together to work on some of the wicked challenges as it relates to ESG, whether they're climate-related challenges, diversity-, equity- and inclusion-related challenges. And it all really relates back to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, or SDG 17, which is partnership for the goals. So really partnering together in communities to advance and make progress on some of these things that we're trying to make progress on individually, potentially as an organization or as a group, but more progress can likely be made together.
Steve: Well, and this ESG Pro Group, as well as this podcast, is a great example of SDG 17. Lauren and Mark, as you know, we were all together in our Denver office having conversations about the ESG Pro Group, and we thought, hey, you know what, let's get everybody in a room and record a podcast about this! So definitely an example of everybody banding together. Lauren, you've been doing this for a while. What are some of the best-kept secrets of the benefits of joining a community? Like, if I've heard about it or if I'm on the fence, what really should be motivating me to jump in with both feet and get involved?
Lauren: Yeah, for those of you who jump in, head forward full front and you're open to accept the community and support the community, my favorite anecdote, and I've heard this many times before, is you have your guy. You put yourself out there. And I always say too, with communities, user groups, pro groups, it's "take a penny, leave a penny." You are taking content, you're taking ideas and knowledge, but you also have to share back. And you are opening yourself up to expanding out your network. You're willing and receptive to build those connections with your peers. And my favorite anecdote once again is going back to, I have a guy that is, you know, senior in audit or SOX. You know, I might have a guy that's an accountant, and I also have a guy that's in sustainability or diversity. You start collecting those people and all these different experiences, and you generally do become friends with them, right? My second favorite, best-kept secret of why communities are important: It's self service. This is something that many online communities—and especially what we want to accomplish with the ESG Pro Group—this is a website; this is a forum. There are real humans at the end of the day answering and providing conversations online.
Steve: Yeah, well, it makes me think of when you're trying to, I don't know, set up a new printer or connect your phone to your computer. So I have no idea, right? And something's not working. And so then you start to search on the internet and then you find that forum. You find that perfect answer that completely answers your question. Nothing feels better than that. And this is something that's not as trivial as maybe setting up a printer, you know, on a computer, but something that directly relates to your job.
Catherine: Can you tell us a little bit more, Lauren, about some of the professional groups that you're running today?
Lauren: Yeah, happy to do that. So currently right now we are operating under the term of the Professionals Groups, but they are actually specialized in three different topic areas, as I like to refer them. Our oldest one that we have right now is the SEC Professionals Group. I think one of the cool unique things about the SEC Pro Group, if I have to pick off the top of my head, is the grassroots movement, and that's what really attracted me to this program. Our SEC Pro Group initially started as just a bunch of accountants, if you can imagine, accountants kind of congregating around the watercooler, and they might have said maybe we need to grab coffee because I have a friend, you know, at this other company that is also going through this challenge. And that idea just kind of took off of that grassroots movement, no stress or pressure from outside sales or marketing sources. This is 100% member-led, member-driven, talking about real problems and issues and challenges. So I think that's my favorite anecdote about the SEC Pro Group. So from that, you know, we also saw a need with bringing in the audit sector. So we spun up the SOX Pro Group, and it functions very similarly. We do quarterly meetings. We have a small network of what we like to call SMEs or executive advisors. So shout out to them if they're listening. Thank you so much for helping us out. And this is really mostly focused on SOX, audit, internal controls, all that kind of stuff. And then our last one, what we're really trying to highlight today, is our newly launched ESG Pro Group. We're really looking to transform that space as an open, safe space. And free. I have to add that too: It's free. Membership is free and open to those who are actual practitioners in these designations. But we're really hoping to transform the ESG Pro Group space into this area that members can once again go 365 days out of the year, 24 hours a day just to answer their questions or provide some of their best practices.
Steve: Mark, one of the questions that I had, and of course I have observed this and I know you have too because we've talked a lot about this, is the convergence of financial reporting and ESG and risk and controls. You know, clearly there's an intersection. We actually start to see that with how these pro groups work together. But I'm wondering if you can comment just generally on how practitioners are sort of thinking through that convergence of challenges and maybe what role community could play for them.
Mark: Yeah, it's a great question. And I think as someone who's been in the space around ESG for over a decade at this point, we could say that this convergence has been happening slowly for the last several years, but maybe more rapidly as we see things like the SEC's climate disclosure proposal or the CSRD over in Europe. Those types of regulations are starting to illuminate the potential for corporations, organizations' disclosures around climate-related metrics or risk management practices related to climate or broader ESG disclosure will be subject to external third-party assurance, just like financial statements are. And organizations have kind of anticipated this, especially those that are maybe more forward-thinking or more mature in their ESG efforts. And internal audit teams, finance, and accounting or controllership teams started to get involved a couple of years ago as investors started to take up interest in ESG disclosure. They understood the importance of it, and they came together typically in communities within an organization to bring best practices from finance and accounting to how you would collect data and report in the ESG space. And I think the same will hold true as we start to see this pick up even more steam because of this regulation or because of the continued increase in focus or intensity of focus on companies' ESG disclosure by investors and other stakeholders. And you'll see, I think, the benefit of organizations learning from other organizations. Maybe somebody's internal audit team has been looking at their ESG disclosure for 10 years. They probably have a lot of information and learnings to share with an internal audit team that's just picking up ESG for the first time. Similarly, the team from the ESG group that has stood up policies and procedures to help collect ESG data, manage performance, and report on it, is likely well positioned to help share some of those learnings with others that are maybe just starting down the road.
Steve: Well, appreciate that. And we are going to be well-positioned if we take a quick break and hear a message from our sponsor. We will get to that and be right back with Mark and Lauren.
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Catherine: All right. We're back with Mark and Lauren. And Mark, you were just talking about finance teams, accounting teams, internal audit, ESG. So who all is allowed to join ESG Pro Group?
Mark: That's a really good question. Currently, we would say all of those teams are allowed to join and, again, share in those expertise areas that they bring to the table, not only across their organizations but across other organizations. And, you know, obviously feeling free from a Chatham House Rules perspective to share different types of information without the concern of that getting out in the public space.
Steve: Well, I was going to ask. That brings up an interesting question. Lauren, as you look at those members who have joined the ESG Pro Group, what percentage of them actually don't have maybe ESG or sustainability in their title? Is it a pretty diverse group of members at this point?
Lauren: Yeah, it is super interesting from what we're seeing right now. So currently right now, through our membership base on the ESG Pro Group, we're seeing about 80% of members don't have ESG or sustainability in their title. And from what we're seeing and I think just in conversations I've had with some members one on one, the consensus that I'm getting is ESG is becoming part of their job and everybody's job. And I'm really excited to see in the next one, three, four, or five, 10 years about how this will continue to transform and how, you know, ESG or sustainability is up front and center and in these people's titles, how teams are going to be built out. So, you know, once again, this is a very exciting space and exciting time to be a part of this community.
Catherine: I saw you nodding your head, Mark, when Lauren was talking about all the different teams.
Mark: Yeah, well, I think one of the things that I saw in my my prior life before Workiva is the integration of ESG across an enterprise. And that's what we're seeing, I think, in terms of different positions that maybe don't today include ESG and maybe tomorrow won't include ESG either. But ESG is just something that's integrated into how an organization does business. You really don't even have to use the term ESG. It's really just how do we manage the right set of risks and opportunities within a business? And they might be risk and opportunities related to how you obtain capital as an organization or how you obtain raw materials, which could be water, right? So I think it's just making sure an organization has the right lens with which to look at their opportunities and risks and that they're disclosing those. And then again, if it's the risk management team making sure that they're identifying and flagging the right risks and bringing those to the right teams, or if it's the internal audit team that's scoping out or assessing where they're going to spend their time throughout the year or the financial reporting team saying, oh, I've got more information that's not necessarily financial that needs to be reported. It's all of those people starting to get involved in managing those things that are really just business risks and opportunities.
Steve: Mark, do you think that the labeling of ESG has really kind of caused that, has really caused the momentum to kind of slow and maybe even walk backwards just a little bit? I mean, things are so polarized here in the U.S. generally. It seems like ESG's become a swear word. I know you and I were actually talking this morning. The CEO of Coca-Cola I believe actually had a really, I thought, was a really, really good quote. But do you feel like labeling is much of an issue and that maybe it's these communities or people banding together outside of their organization that's really going to help sort of reinstate or maybe like reinvigorate that momentum perhaps?
Mark: Yeah, I think so. And I think, you know, some of the negativity surrounding the ESG movement, if you will—I think ESG was a reframing of how we thought about these issues before ESG was such a hot button issue. And for a long time, I think in this community, if folks are maybe listening that have been involved with ESG issues or sustainability issues for more than five years, we were trying to figure out as a community how to reframe the conversation and the narrative, because again, it's really just about business risks and opportunities. And an organization, I think you referred to Coca-Cola, that understands that water is a business risk and opportunity because they manufacture a beverage that requires water is a smart organization. It's not a left or right organization. So I think the more the communities can create and cultivate those types of whether they're a narrative or whether it's just the story that helps everyone understand, I think that's going to be very valuable for business as a whole and society as a whole and the environment as a whole as we look forward.
Catherine: I'm not an accountant or an auditor, but I seem to have picked up maybe a little bit of grumbling or good-natured grumbling, not so good-natured grumbling about some of the ESG demands that are falling on accounting and finance teams. I know the ESG Pro Group is somewhat new, but what are some of your hopes and dreams for the ESG Pro Group? And is there anything that accounting and finance teams can take away from that?
Lauren: Yeah, I think, number 1, I want everyone to have fun. I want this to be a premier community that is genuine and friendly, helpful. In my previous life, I was proud of the community that we built, and this is going back to the secrets of community. We felt like we were actually building connections with people. And when we were able to get the opportunity to have our members meet face to face, it was just a heartwarming experience of saying, you know, "This is MarqueeCrew!" Not even first, last name. Like they knew people by their usernames. That is the feeling that I want to get. Really what that's telling me is just members want to connect on that. What are they dealing with? How are they going about that process? How are they planning on it? Why aren't they planning it? Another thing that members have been talking a lot too in general, and what we hope to see more of, is just swapping tips and tricks on their reporting challenges as they're going through this journey. And then lastly, we don't give this one enough credit, but, you know, we've heard in the past, people getting new jobs or finding job opportunities. All of our pro groups have a job board that you can submit to us, and we will publish on your behalf in hopes that a member will have a connection or a contact to get you into your dream job.
Catherine: Mark and Steve, I'm curious to hear your thoughts too.
Mark: I echo everything that Lauren said. It makes me think of the annual reunion that the sustainability, ESG communities have through some of the larger conferences. And it really gets me excited that we're going to have an opportunity to connect for free with these communities on a more frequent basis, hopefully bringing value to everybody that's involved in the process. Again, making it a resource for the individuals, but also for organizations and potentially industries. Again, as we think about partnership for the goals, we're trying to make change in this space. Bringing folks together I think is one of the major ways that we can really make an impact in that way. And that makes me really excited.
Steve: And I think from my standpoint, Catherine, I mean, I would speak specifically—as excited as I am about the ESG Pro Group, about the SOX Pro Group, I've been a longtime member of the SEC Pro Group. And I can tell you that my involvement in that has been pretty career defining. In fact, I probably would not have the job that I have today were it not for my involvement in the SEC Pro Group. And I'm probably a bit of a rare case there, but just personally speaking, the communities can be really, really powerful both for what it does for you as a person, as a professional. But again, as I mentioned, what it can do for your career. And I'm confident that we're going to have plenty of people who'll be able to say the same thing about the ESG Pro Group in the years to come.
Lauren: And I would say selfishly, for me, Steve, your journey in the community—that gives community builders like myself joy. We as community builders love to watch our members go through the highs and lows in life, and we celebrate them. So, it gives me warm feelings. And I 100% agree with you on that sentiment that we hope we can watch our members continue to grow and develop in their careers in this space.
Steve: I'm happy to hear I'm giving you joy and not just grief and heartburn, which I feel like I'm doing most of the time. So that's all very good to hear.
Catherine: We should tell people how to join ESG Pro Group.
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. I'll take that along. Members can join the ESG Pro Group by once going into our website and typing in progroups.org/esgprogroup. That will get you to the website, and that will give you kind of a clear snapshot into what the forum is, how to navigate into our About Us section. What you do next have to do is hit the "register" button. We will have a full registration form, and this is going to go back to that Chatham House Rules kind of a concept. This is a safe space that we do police and monitor, making sure that an eligible member is an actual (ESG) reporter or working within sustainability or ESG. We really do try to monitor or discourage those who are in academia, work for a vendor, work in anything not related to being a reporter. And then the final plug that you might have heard a couple of times and maybe another thing that you all can post on LinkedIn is how many times do we say free? The ESG Pro Group as well as the SOX and SEC Pro Groups' membership is completely free. On occasion, at least for the SEC and SOX Pro Groups, we do provide CPE credits for attendance at our webinars.
Steve: Well, Lauren and Mark, we really appreciate you both joining. We like to end the podcast on a bit of a lighthearted closing question of the day. And so the question today is what's the favorite way you've ever been welcomed to a community? Or maybe if you have never had a favorite way of being welcomed, what would be your favorite way of being welcomed to a community? So I don't know, Lauren, if you feel comfortable, you want to go first?
Lauren: I'm all about the gifs. Add a post or a thread or the puppy photos. Like, those are always my sorry, I am a dog person. But dog, cat, baby will always satisfy me. Some kind of cute animal.
Steve: Awesome. Mark?
Mark: I love that. As you all know, I'm a dog person too. My dog is here with us in the office. I would try to pan the camera, but it's probably not going to work. Yeah, there he is. I've actually noticed that a lot too lately though, when I go to conferences or events, people pull out their phone—and I think they used to pull out pictures of their kids—but these days it seems like more people pull out pictures of their dogs or animals. So I like that too.
Steve: Awesome. Catherine, how about you?
Catherine: A good icebreaker is always good, where you find out something new about the person that you might not find out until 10 years down the road in normal life. I don't know. What do you think, Steve?
Steve: Well, I can tell you my least favorite, which is not directly answering the question. I understand. But I won't give you the name of the company. But at one company that I worked for, when you were promoted to become part of the operational leadership group, they would actually have you go up on a stage or a podium and sing "I am a teacup, short and stout." For someone who is short and stout, which would be me, I found that very pretty brutal and pretty embarrassing. So I would say that would probably be my least favorite way of having been welcomed to a community.
Catherine: That doesn't sound real.
Steve: Oh, no, it's 100% real.
Lauren: Is this like high school or something?
Steve: No, no, no. Wasn't that long ago. I would call it a form of corporate hazing, I guess. Might be the right way to describe it.
Catherine: I'm going to find out which company that is.
Steve: Well, maybe after we wrap up this recording, who knows?
Catherine: All right, cool. Well, thanks, Lauren and Mark, again for joining us today.
Steve: Yeah, definitely. And thank you, dear listener, for surfing along with us. I am Steve Soter. That was Catherine Tsai. This has been Off the Books, presented by Workiva. Please subscribe, leave a review, and tell your buddies if you liked the show. Now, if you're watching this on YouTube, please feel free to drop a note in the comments. Or if you're old school like me, feel free to drop us a line by email at OffTheBooks@workiva.com. Surf's up, and we'll see you on the next wave.