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ESG Issues, Social License To Operate And Your Target Operating Model

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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Ending Global Poverty And Your Operating Model

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The 17 Goals are all interconnected, and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve them all by 2030. 

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

A decade ago, few business leaders would have accepted that ending global poverty had anything to do with their business. But the recent decade has shown that social license and community expectations are a critical part of the external factors to your operating model.

A decade ago, understanding and taking action as a business on something like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, would be accomplished with a press release. Now, investors and regulators expect full disclosure of environmental, social and governance issues.

Understanding your current operating model – the value proposition, the principles, the people, the processes and the technology – is complicated enough for many firms. If you are embarking on a transformation, defining the new target operating model and building out the supporting processes and frameworks is tricky too.

The growing pressure from more regulation, legislation and industry standards increases the complexity faced by business leaders. There are so many potential frameworks that you could use to assess where your business stands, that going back to basics is a helpful approach.

Because of the rise of globalised firms, it makes sense to take a global approach to assess the social impact of the components of your operating model. Helpfully, the UN Sustainable Development Goals can provide businesses with an extensive set of considerations to incorporate into an operating model review and target operating model development.

If you aren’t a global business, there is still value in considering how your business can make a positive social impact. If there is a lesson from the past decade, it’s that whatever you previously thought was the boundary of social, regulatory or legislative pressure on business, it is now far more demanding on business than it has ever been.

Many businesses may only be able to impact 1 or 2 of the sustainable development goals, but there is still value in considering all 17 to see if there are areas of your operating model that could change to make a difference.

Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere

The structure of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is useful for an assessment exercise. Each goal is high-level, there is a set of accompanying statistics describing the extent of the societal issue, and there are a series of detailed sub-goals.

The goal to end global poverty in all its forms everywhere is aspirational. It would be fantastic if achieved, and an initial impression could be that this is wholly unrealistic.

However, there are small things that businesses can do to help reduce the incidence and severity of global poverty. More than 700 million people worldwide still live on less than US$1.90 per day. Having a job doesn’t guarantee a proper standard of living as 8% of employed workers and their families lived in extreme poverty in 2018.

Poverty has many dimensions, but its causes include unemployment, social exclusion, and high vulnerability of certain populations to disasters, diseases and other phenomena which prevent them from being productive. Growing inequality is detrimental to economic growth and undermines social cohesion, increasing political and social tensions and, in some circumstances, driving instability and conflicts.

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/poverty/

Assessing Your Strategy And Operating Model

Every business has strategic goals it wants to achieve. The operating model is how it structures its capabilities to deliver on the strategy. These capabilities are groupings of people, processes and technology that create value or support value creation.

For example, your operating model is a crucial driver of decisions to insource or outsource capabilities. When you choose to outsource, your supply chain becomes part of your social impact. Enhanced due diligence on your suppliers and their supply chain is required. You need confidence that your business isn’t inadvertently generating a negative social impact through your supply chain.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide an additional set of considerations for business leaders when they are reviewing their overall operating model. There are two areas of questioning – business strategy and operating model.

What is your business strategy? What are your strategic goals? When you are thinking about how to create value, are there aspects of this value creation process that do not align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

What is your operating model? What are the key capabilities that you have assembled to deliver value? How do these capabilities create a positive social impact? Can they even contribute to making a positive social impact? Are there negative social impacts from some capabilities that your business has?

How is ending global poverty linked to your strategy and operating model? One helpful mental model is to think about the frontpage rule – is your business doing anything inside its operating model globally that could lead to a headline that accuses your company of perpetuating global poverty?

The location of your physical operations is a crucial consideration when it comes to helping end global poverty. Do you have factories, mines or offices in developing countries? If so, do you have a policy framework for ensuring that you are generating a positive social impact in these countries? Have your risk and compliance teams embarked on enhanced due diligence of your supply chain and recruitment processes in these countries to identify any areas of risk or potential exploitation?

The great news is that almost all global businesses already have robust frameworks in place to ensure that these environmental and social risks are identified and well managed. You can read about these efforts in their annual reports. They regularly engage consultants to benchmark their approach against global standards and identify further remediation required.

The change in thinking for businesses wanting to make a positive social impact is that when making a low level operating model choice, there are multiple competing priorities. Having a principles-based target operating model that gives business leaders the ability to choose different components is essential.

I think that businesses who do not currently use a broad framework like the UN Sustainable Development Goals to explore how they could make a positive social impact are missing something. There is an opportunity to use these goals as a differentiator and to identify how each key capability of your business not only creates value for customers and shareholders but aligns to these goals.

The goals and expectations of your employees matter too. Most millennials care more about the purpose of the work they are doing than the commercial drivers. They understand that a business has to make a profit, but if the operating model that delivers that profit helps create a positive social impact and supports the goal of ending global poverty by 2030, then that is another compelling reason for them to come to work.

Next Steps

  • Take a look at https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/poverty/
  • Think about how your business could help reduce global poverty
  • Think about what your employees expect your social impact to be
  • Think about how your current operating model helps or hinders these goals
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What are the UN Sustainable Development goals?

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a collection of 17 high-level goals that serve as a blueprint for “a better and more sustainable future for all”. The United Nations General Assembly set them in 2015, and the goal is to achieve them by 2030.

ESG or “environmental, social and governance” issues are top of mind for regulators, legislators, and corporate leaders. The UN Sustainable Development Goals serve as a useful framework for thinking about how your enterprise currently operates and how it could change to enhance its impact on society.

Over the next few weeks, I will outline some considerations for corporate leaders for each of the goals. I will pose many of them as questions around the relevant components of your operating model.