Sustainable leadership guru Clarke Murphy suspects smaller companies—not big ones—are pulling back on ESG as a recession looms

October 18, 2022, 9:43 AM UTC
Updated October 18, 2022, 6:18 PM UTC
Clarke Murphy, president and chief executive officer of Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.
Clarke Murphy, then CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates, in New York, March 19, 2013.
Scott Eells—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Good morning.  

After yesterday’s post suggesting 59% of CEOs may “pause” or “reconsider” their ESG plans, I got a call from Clarke Murphy, who was CEO of search firm Russell Reynolds for a decade and now leads the firm’s board practice. “Is interest in ESG waning?” I asked. His answer:

“Not in the slightest. If anything, it has surged ahead over the last six months.”

Murphy uses the word “sustainability,” instead of the acronym ESG, in part because it is broader. And he says the focus today is not on the cost of sustainability, but rather on sustainability as a means of both cost control and competitive advantage.

“Everyone talks about cost. But people are creating revenue and reducing cost, particularly around supply chains…European boards have been on this hard for a while, embedding ESG competencies into their governance and in how they are running their CEO searches. Now it’s happening in the U.S. And it’s just getting going.”

Murphy has a new book out called Sustainable Leadership, and he says he is getting requests to speak on the topic from numerous conferences and boards all over the country (not just the “woke” coasts). I asked him how he explained the survey result suggesting 59% of CEOs are pulling back. “I’d like to see the market capitalization of the 59%.” His theory: They are smaller firms. Big companies, he believes, are totally on board, “measuring it, funding it, analyzing it, embedding it.” And it is only a matter of time before smaller firms will have to follow suit—in part because the big companies they service and supply demand it.

More news below. And check out Ellen McGirt’s and my interview with Wharton dean Erika James, in the latest episode of Leadership Next, on Apple or Spotify.

Alan Murray


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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