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Interview with Diony Lebot, Deputy Chief Executive Officer in charge of ESG policies, Financial Services (ALD & SGEF) and Insurance Activities, Societe Generale
What are some of the trends shaping ESG agendas in the private sector currently?
To start with, we’re all under increased pressure from stakeholders to prioritise ESG in our corporate strategies. How many companies have been singled out recently for policies or actions seen as environmentally or socially negligent? These news stories are like cautionary tales for executives, and this increased level of scrutiny is only going to intensify.
Consumers are also more careful in their consumption behaviour now, and providence is more important than ever. The social or environmental cost of making and transporting the things people buy factors into their decision-making. And this applies to consumer goods as well as services, including financial services. More people are asking us how we direct our financial flows and whether we can offer solutions and services that can help them have a positive impact on the planet.
To add to this, regulators are changing the way they treat private companies based on their ESG integration, and investors are focusing on more impactful enterprises. Activist funds are becoming so influential that boards are putting ESG at the centre of their strategies. If ESG policies are not considered core, investors will be the first to leave.
Lastly, our people are looking for meaning in their work — a role in society that sees them and the organisation they work for as positive changemakers. And we owe it to them more than everyone else.
Are governance and digitalisation also impacting ESG agendas?
Absolutely — new models of governance will play a key role in making ESG agendas become reality. Think of B-Corp certifications and the mandates of purpose-driven companies as models of applied governance in the ESG space.
Digitalisation, on the other hand, has changed the way we balance our work and personal life. Our new way of working must be seen through the ESG lens: how can we ensure employees’ well-being and help them maintain social interactions with their colleagues when we no longer work in the same office? Do we still have the same vision for the future of work? And how can this benefit the planet?
Most leaders now realise that they must structure their business with a focus on ESG, but in your experience, what kind of leadership ensures this transition is smooth — or even possible?
Yes — the gap between knowing that ESG is a requirement and actually building it in is significant. I argue that we need a new type of leader to take us there.
Firstly, these leaders must stand for something more than profit. The ability to see value extend beyond the bottom line is at the core of sustainability.
Secondly, these leaders must be accountable for their actions and ready to handle the growing pressure from stakeholders — not only investors or shareholders but also clients, colleagues, NGOs and society at large.
The ability to share an inspirational vision and engage team members is also critical. Leaders do not create change on their own. Instead, they create a movement that leads to this change, which requires long-term thinking and a measure of communalism.
I’ll add that one of the biggest challenges for the leaders of tomorrow will be to balance environmental and social targets. For example, environmental initiatives cannot put more pressure on socio-economic inequalities. We have to make sure that workers, businesses and communities are supported while countries transition to greener economies.
What are some of the most common misunderstandings you’ve seen in relation to ESG?
Well, one of the biggest misconceptions is that focusing on the environmental or social impact of your business will negatively affect your performance and returns on investments. We can refute this idea with a raft of empirical examples that show the opposite actually happens.
I think another myth is that ESG-oriented products/services or companies will cost more and be difficult to implement. Sometimes, people are scared off by what they see as the inordinate cost of change, even if change is required for their company to survive.
Another mistake that we often see is leaders keeping ESG separate from their core business or strategy, kind of like pro bono actions. It is important to understand that CSR departments were only created to help companies transition but they will eventually disappear if the job is done properly. ESG has to be embedded at all levels of an organisation.
What can female leaders do to take a more active role in championing or promoting an organisational culture centred around ESG?
I don’t think there is a ‘female approach’ to ESG. However, there is definitely a correlation between gender-diverse leadership teams and performance, resulting in higher returns on capital, higher margins and lower volatility through the market cycle.
What’s clear is that companies with more women in management positions outperform their peers in ESG policies. Not only is diversity an ESG target in itself, but it’s also the first step towards the open-mindedness necessary to tackle the challenges we face today.
Do you have any advice for women trying to champion change in their organisations?
To women who are already in senior positions, I’d say this: be bold and assertive. These are not solely male attributes. And this boldness is a necessary part of the creativity and innovativeness that initiating change requires.
As a woman, I know it can be difficult because we all grow up with some bias and a tendency to self-censor. We must overcome this. Trust your instincts and abilities, and voice your concerns; you know what’s important.
That said, you are not alone. You’ll need to rely on other people in your organisation. So, identify them, seek inspiration, discuss and debate the issues with them, and have your ideas challenged. Corporate culture is not built by one person only.
Making ESG a core part of our jobs, processes, and ways of working must be predicated on changing the way we think. Don’t be discouraged: ESG requires time, training, and support if our ambitious agendas are going to succeed.