ESG x Governance (6): Law, Compliance, Value Add – Déborah Carlson-Burkart

This is the sixth of a series of interviews intended to help our IDN members grapple with the ESG topic.
In this episode, we delve into the experiences of a lawyer and INED, and explore the insights she has gained in the course of her career.

Déborah Carlson-Burkart

Déborah Carlson-Burkart, specialises in strategic legal, compliance, and governance matters. She chairs committees for transforming companies and has advised on corruption, fraud, and money laundering investigations throughout her career, guiding regulated, listed, and private firms through transformative processes, especially under regulatory scrutiny.
Currently serving as an independent non-executive director at Visana Insurance Group, Fintech Bank N26, and technology company RUAG International, Déborah holds a law degree from the University of Zurich, an LL.M. from Duke School of Law, and a board certification from INSEAD. Fluent in four languages, she also lectures on governance and compliance at the University of St. Gallen and the Swiss Board School.

In your view: What is the relevance of ESG for overall company governance and success?

As a lawyer with decades of experience in compliance and governance, I’ve come to firmly believe that ESG factors are pivotal for overall company governance and success.
Having worked extensively with companies facing compliance challenges for over 25 years, I’ve witnessed first-hand the significance of ESG. It’s no longer a niche concern but a critical component of every company’s risk management strategy.
Effective governance demands the integration of ESG factors into decision-making processes, serving as a compass for navigating risks and seizing opportunities. This is particularly relevant in three key areas:

  • Risk management,
  • Long-term sustainability, and
  • Stakeholder management.

Companies that prioritise ESG are better equipped to navigate complex regulatory environments and capitalise on emerging opportunities. Even in highly regulated sectors, such as someones I am involved in, ESG-focused companies demonstrate greater agility and resilience.
In my capacity as a guest lecturer, I emphasize the importance of ESG, drawing from practical examples. Across the boards I serve on, ESG has become a central agenda item. While each company may prioritize different aspects of ESG based on its operations, the overarching commitment remains consistent.

For instance, at Beyond Gravity, a company specializing in satellite technology and aerospace, we’ve set ambitious ESG goals, aiming to lead the industry by 2025. This involves a targeted focus on environmental and social aspects, such as supplier monitoring and energy efficiency.
Similarly, at N26, an online bank operating across Europe, our emphasis is on governance and social responsibility, addressing compliance issues and fostering inclusivity.
Finally, with Visana, a comprehensive insurance provider, we’re undertaking specific projects to enhance our ESG performance, from sustainable investments to fostering a diverse and equitable workplace.
In each case, our approach to ESG is tailored to our company’s profile and priorities, reflecting a commitment to responsible and sustainable business practices.

What is the value add of ESG, including compliance and risk management, in overall company governance and success?

In my view, illustrated by the examples I’ve just shared, ESG initiatives offer more than just compliance and risk management—they add tangible value. While compliance and risk management are crucial and easily recognizable benefits, there’s a deeper impact. Allow me to elaborate with a case involving Viasana, where we’ve made numerous investments due to our surplus cash.

Firstly, integrating ESG principles enhances long-term financial performance. This, in turn, elevates our reputation across multiple dimensions. Reputation matters greatly—it not only attracts investors but also makes us an employer of choice. In an era where finding suitable talent for meaningful projects can be challenging, being an attractive employer is paramount.

Effectively, by prioritising ESG considerations in decision-making, we become a sustainable and trusted entity. This not only appeals to investors but also helps in risk mitigation and fosters sustainable growth. The potential benefits are considerable, though it’s important to acknowledge that there are costs involved. However, in my assessment, the positives outweigh the negatives.

How is the perception of ESG shaped differently across various markets?

Geographical disparities in ESG implementation, stem from diverse factors, ranging from regulatory frameworks to cultural norms and stakeholder expectations.
In Europe, for instance, regulatory standards are notably stringent compared to other regions. This is partly due to e.g. a lower tolerance for corruption, as evidenced by the region’s position in corruption indices. Compliance with regulations necessitates a shift in perspective, pushing us to consider long-term goals beyond immediate gains.

To illustrate, at Beyond Gravity, we’ve set an ambitious target to achieve a zero environmental footprint by 2026. While this goal is challenging, we’ve developed a clear roadmap for decarbonization. Operating across 14 different countries adds complexity, but we’re steadfast in our commitment.

Adapting our implementation strategies to accommodate geographical nuances is imperative. However, our overarching objective remains consistent—achieving a zero or net-zero environmental footprint by 2026. We’re making progress, and with continued effort, we’re optimistic about reaching our target.

Based on your experience, where do you see the biggest alignment gaps between executive leadership teams and non-executive boards regarding ESG? What are your recommendations for non-executive boards to address these gaps?

The issue of misalignment between the board and the executive or leadership team is not exclusive to ESG management but rather a pervasive concern. Misalignment can manifest in various areas, and with ESG, given its relatively new prominence, there’s heightened awareness of potential discrepancies. Conversely, in financial matters, there’s often an assumption of alignment, only to realise differences during implementation or when objectives aren’t met.

I perceive three primary sources of misalignment:

  • A lack of understanding,
  • A lack of focused attention, and
  • Divergent goals.

Understanding ESG is complex, encompassing environmental, social, and governance factors with no universally agreed-upon definition. Consequently, there’s a learning curve, compounded by busy schedules, which can lead to knowledge gaps within both the board and executive ranks.

Additionally, competing priorities vie for attention amidst already full agendas, diluting focus on ESG initiatives. Moreover, executives may prioritize short-term gains, while boards often espouse a longer-term, sustainability-oriented perspective, inherently misaligning priorities.

To mitigate these challenges, many companies, including ours, have appointed dedicated managers for ESG, ensuring visibility and cross-functional connectivity. Aligning management and board goals is crucial.

One effective strategy we’ve adopted at one of the companies involves tying the annual bonuses to achieving company specific ESG targets. This approachfosters alignment across the organization, with bonuses linked to collective ESG success.

While not without its complexities, this strategy streamlines efforts toward a shared objective. It underscores the importance of cohesive goal-setting and incentivise alignment across hierarchical levels.

Where do you see the biggest gaps for board directors to become ‘ESG fit’? How can boards efficiently upskill in this regard, and what should be the priorities for board chairs?

Let’s address your second question first. The key to advancing without stepping on anyone’s toes lies in continuous education. INSEAD, for instance, offers a wealth of opportunities for ongoing learning. The courses and resources available are exceptional and immensely beneficial. In my view, just as with any emerging field, board directors must prioritise continuous education to refine their skills and remain effective.

ESG literacy, akin to financial literacy, should be a fundamental requirement for board members. Additionally, as technology like AI becomes increasingly significant, AI literacy will also become essential. In our INSEAD cohort (IDP 29), we’ve fostered a close-knit community. Regular meetings every two weeks allow us to share insights, best practices, and even failures. This collaborative approach ensures that each member stays updated and continually improves.

Continuous education is particularly crucial in the realm of ESG. Given its complexity and evolution, one never truly finishes learning. Engaging with peers and staying abreast of developments ensures that fundamental skills are consistently honed.

Returning to the question about chairing boards, a simple yet effective strategy is to prioritize ESG on the agenda. It’s imperative that ESG principles are deeply understood and integrated into every aspect of board and management decision-making.

As a chair, personal commitment to continuous improvement is vital. For instance, I chair three nomination and compensation committees, emphasizing the importance of ongoing education through these committees’ agendas. Additionally, being involved in two audit committees ensures that ESG reporting is meticulously overseen. However, it’s crucial to remember that execution is just one aspect—cultivating a culture shift towards ESG is equally essential.

In essence, like many endeavours in life, the energy invested in ESG initiatives yields growth. It requires a mindset shift and the dedication of at least one committed individual on the board to champion this cause. Mere box-ticking won’t suffice; what’s needed is a genuine commitment to play by the rules and sometimes a cultural transformation. .

Looking forward, what will be the biggest ESG-related challenges for non-executive boards, and what can companies do to address them?

When considering the most significant risks from a board perspective, three critical areas come to mind, based on my experience overseeing major companies:

  • 1. Environmental Risk Management: Especially when operating internationally, the challenges posed by environmental concerns loom large. Effectively addressing these issues is paramount to our operations.
  • 2. Social Responsibility Assurance: The landscape of social responsibility evolves rapidly, with geopolitical shifts and societal changes. Remaining vigilant and responsive to these changes is essential to upholding our commitments.
  • 3. Governance Oversight: While governance may seem straightforward, the reality is that boards often face challenges in critically assessing their own practices. Vigilance in governance starts at the top and requires continuous evaluation.

In today’s business environment, companies must navigate a myriad of regulations and expectations related to sustainability, diversity, inclusion, ethics, and transparency. The breadth of these considerations is vast and requires constant attention.

ESG serves as a tool to achieve and be held accountable for sustainability, a goal that transcends generations. Cultivating a sustainability mindset among decision-makers and influencers within the organization is crucial. They need not hold formal positions of authority but should influence and advocate for responsible and sustainable practices, recognizing our duty to stakeholders present and future.

I consider myself fortunate to collaborate with CEOs who recognize ESG as not just a moral imperative but also a sound business strategy. Their leadership underscores the potential for ESG initiatives to yield returns on investment and drive growth.

Indeed, sustainability presents not only a responsibility but also an opportunity for innovation. Across industries, including our endeavours at Beyond Gravity, in insurance, and banking, we explore how sustainability can catalyse the development of new products, services, markets, and revenue streams. We leverage sustainability to chart a course towards success and resilience.

The interviewer: 

Dr. Pamela Ravasio, Shirahime

Dr. Pamela Ravasio is the founder and managing director of Shirahime Advisory, a Corporate Development & Responsibility Governance boutique consultancy. She serves as fractional Chief Sustainability Officer for companies and advises boards on ESG and governance. With a background in roles like Global Stakeholder Manager, she played a key role in making the European outdoor industry a leader in future-proofing.
She currently is a member of INSEAD’s International Directors Network.

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