The rise of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues as a priority for business leaders was a theme of the past decade. To ensure that your firm’s social license to operate continues to be renewed by the community, embedding a positive social impact into your operating model is essential.

A firm’s social license to operate has to adapt to changing community expectations of corporate behaviour. In the fallout from the revelations during the Financial Services Royal Commission in Australia, the extent to which community expectations can drastically shift against any industry is evident.

Ever-increasing considerations and requirements of businesses and how they manage ESG risks mean that balancing scarce resources is more complicated than ever before. Firms have to worry about legislation, regulation, environmental concerns, social impact, social risks, governance issues, operational issues, technological disruption, climate change, responsible investment disclosures, and more.

Designing and implementing a target operating model to deliver a firm’s strategy is vital. A firm needs to focus its purpose and concentrate on the core capabilities required to provide value to customers and other stakeholders.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a useful high-level framework for considering a firm’s global social impact. Are you doing anything that could lead to negative headlines? Are there any small changes to your operating model that could support any of these goals and be an example of how your business is delivering above community expectations?

The Sustainable Development Goals are:

  • No Poverty
  • Zero Hunger
  • Good Health and Well-being
  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Affordable and Clean Energy
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • Reducing Inequality
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Life Below Water
  • Life On Land
  • Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  • Partnerships for the Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals certainly aren’t the only framework for thinking about building a sustainable business or considering how to provide comfort to your stakeholders that your operating model is in line with community expectations. Many companies will be able to make a positive social impact on at least 1-2 of the goals.

How Do Companies Deal With This?

There are ever-increasing pressures from the media, from regulators, from industry bodies, from politicians, and from peers in your industry that mean that a few pages in the annual report no longer cut it – a genuine commitment from the board level down to the operating teams of the business has to be “baked in”.

In this new era, can you ever do enough to satisfy your stakeholders? I’m not sure it’s realistic. The level of constant change in the regulation of financial services, for example, has radically shifted how banks and wealth providers need to spend their investment budgets each year.

If the current level of investment on regulatory and compliance change is half of the spend, and investment in digital transformation or operating model change represents the other half, then which projects need to end to finance spending on sustainability projects?

This reality is where the rubber hits the road – the intersection of idealism around sustainable capitalism with tradeoffs in a commercial context. If a business has to be all things to all stakeholders, then radical simplification of the entire operating model is a high-probability method to ensure that the right trade-offs will happen at executive-level and operational-level.

The fascinating thing about the rise of responsible investment or ESG awareness when making investment decisions is that the light is rarely shone back on the operating models of the asset managers and data providers making these decisions themselves.

Public market investors and everyday people with their retirement savings in their 401(k), superannuation, Kiwisaver or pension increasingly tell market research companies and their providers that they care about not investing in companies that could have a negative social impact.

The plethora of filters available to asset managers means that what one asset manager believes is “responsible investing” is not necessarily what another asset manager defines it as unless they are using the same principles, framework and processes in their investment due diligence process.

When companies make disclosures around ESG issues to their investors, many have done a fantastic job in articulating where they see the risks in their businesses and how they are changing their business to reduce, better manage or eliminate those environmental and social risks.

Key Considerations For Boards And Executives

A key consideration for boards and executives here is that while you can compile an initial list of ESG risks and potential mitigations in a half-day workshop, that is only the beginning of the journey. An ongoing programme of work for some businesses – another substantial investment in people, processes and technology in addition to existing regulatory and compliance programmes of work.

Almost all boards and executive teams are aware of this, but balancing the pressures from shareholders and regulators can be a delicate act. There are earnings pressures, regulatory deadline pressures, and interpretation problems when it comes to how your operating model can deliver compliance with some requirements.

Without deeply examining the purpose of the business itself and going line-by-line through each operating division, hidden risks can remain that emerge at the least convenient time and undermine any previous efforts to promote that the business was trying to make a positive social impact.

The sorts of questions that I would be asking include: what is the purpose of our business? How complicated is our current operating model? How do I have confidence in the data and conclusions in the board reports I receive? How do we know we are ready for the “next” ESG issue that emerges in our industry? Who owns ESG risk in our business? If it is the audit and risk committee, are all members actively engaged in professional development on these issues?

One of the saddening things about reading some of the data attached to each of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is the realisation of how fortunate many of us are to live in highly developed countries. In a sense, many of the issues around managing these risks are “first-world problems”. However, that doesn’t mean that taking such a broad view is unhelpful to a business in an OECD country.

The critical consideration for boards and corporate leaders when it comes to social license to operate is recognising the need to be ahead of the curve on these issues. What is currently acceptable commercial practice today in one of your most profitable service lines or products could be completely unacceptable after a poorly served customer explains their poor customer experience.

A real-time feedback loop now exists between customers and businesses. Regulators, the media and politicians are always watching and listening. Empowering front-line people to do the right thing by customers and removing conflicts and any potential negative perceptions around your value chain are now an essential part of running and optimising your operating model.

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