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Our London-based director Jon Schubin recently studied for and received the CFA Institute's in Certificate ESG Investment. Here he shares his thoughts on the process:

Training comes in many forms. It can be a university course, a tedious webinar or an engaging presentation from a colleague or outside expert. Most of it in communications comes on the job – I know many people who are speaking to reporters or at least drafting pitches a day or two after joining the industry. 

I must admit a great proportion of my education in financial services and capital markets has been at the hands of professionals with a great number of other responsibilities. To the people who had to explain to a very green account executive the difference between a mutual fund and a hedge fund, I’m sorry. 

Public relations is in many ways an exercise in learning through osmosis and presence. Most of what I did at under-sized coffee shops in Tribeca and garish power lunching temples in Midtown was to sit silently as two very smart people debated the finer points of finance. I was there to intervene if things went awry, but then seldom did. I mostly listened and absorbed.

I used these techniques through the rise of exotic swaps before the Great Recession, more and more use cases for artificial intelligence and the endless permutations of blockchain, digital currency and decentralized finance. Somehow work around the climate and sustainability has felt different. There were more unfamiliar terms, and it seems that almost every company that I’ll be advising in the next decade or so will have to consider issues around sustainability. 

So when a colleague of mine mentioned they were considering taking the CFA Certificate in ESG Investing, I decided to join. Here I share some thoughts on what it's like for a layperson to take a course meant for finance professionals. 

A solitary studying experience 

I made a snap decision, quickly enrolling through the institute. In my haste, I didn’t really understand what exactly my £530 enrollment fee (generously reimbursed by Cognito as part of our individual training program) provided. After some digging, I found what was on offer to be rather limited: a coursebook, a practice exam and the ability to book an exam date. 

There are no courses, videos or interactive materials. The entire course is self-directed, or more to the point, simply requires sitting down and reading. The material is in total about 600 pages, divided into 10 chapters. I found the content perked up significantly after the dry discussions of defining exactly what we mean by “ESG investment.” Later chapters on comparing ESG metrics and developing sustainable portfolios included several interesting digressions and actual case studies. 

But still it could be difficult to consistently crack open a printed PDF when other, less academic distractions were available. For those on larger budgets and in need of a more comprehensive program, third-party providers now offer a course with online or in person lessons to create a more guided experience. 

Live from Manila: the big test 

I signed up for the course in August, and then immediately chose a date in November for the testing. In the height of the summer the chilly days of November seemed impossibly distant – sure there would be enough time to go through all of the material and still revise? Unsurprisingly I had to sprint through the last two chapters on a transatlantic flight for my uncle’s funeral, while taking the full practice exam on the return journey. 

Soon enough I was logged into the virtual testing room. There’s pretty much the ability to take the test at any time of the day or night. I found out why, when I realized the test is proctored by employees based offshore. Not having attended college in the days of the pandemic, the full body scan to check for hidden items and requirement to remove all objects (including water) from the table where the exam was occurring was striking. 

The test itself is in some ways the highlight of the course. Instead of relying on definitions, a fair amount of the exam is dedicated to hypothetical examples of conundrums faced by investment managers and institutional investors. How should you press a mining company to index better on UN Sustainability Goals? How should investors factor in better governance in long term valuations? Frankly the material – and the need for education – never felt more alive than in  the exam. 

I checked my answers and took a short survey with my feedback on the test provider. I thought my results would arrive in a week, but I was greeted on the next screen with a cheerful message: “Grade: Pass.” 

The next journey 

The CFA estimates it takes about 120 hours of preparation to pass the exam. Realistically, I probably spent something more like 35 to 40 hours. Not nothing, but eminently doable with either steady practice or a few cram sessions. 

Was it worth it? Well, I’m trying to get the maximum value out of the certificate. I’m telling everyone I know about it and even wrote this article. But I do feel a general alacrity when it comes to the discussion around sustainable investing that I do think has benefited me and hopefully my team in more tactical discussions. 

I’d encourage my fellow comms people not to be afraid of financial certifications. While some courses – such as actual CFA certification – are so time consuming it’s hard to see they repay the value, shorter courses make sense. By learning from the same people who will teach our clients, we are better aligned with how they think, talk and act. 

Jon Schubin is a director based in London