Crystal Clear Now – ESG Focus Must Be at the Top of the Corporation, for the Board Room & Executive Suite

July 2021

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

Remember those 1970s /early ‘80s ubiquitous TV commercials with the tag line, “When EF Hutton Speaks, People Listen?” The point was that when the EF Hutton financial services firm “said” something about investing possibilities, we would be wise to sit up and listen carefully to the advice.

These days we are tuning in to the Securities & Exchange Commission to discern the future directions of corporate sustainability / ESG disclosure. To us it is clear: the broadening flow of comments indicates something is about to happen regarding corporate ESG disclosure.

Prime example: the keynote address of former Acting Chair and current Board Member Commissioner Allison Herren Lee, sharing important points of view with those gathered at the Society for Corporate Governance 2021 National Conference. Herren Lee put ESG in the context of the recent proxy season for the corporate secretaries (who are on the front lines of the proxy voting).

2021 proxy season shareholder proposals included those focused-on climate change. Manufacturing giant General Electric saw 98% of shareholders voting to approve a proposal for disclosures on how the company would achieve Net Zero.

At ConocoPhillips, 58% of shareholders approved a measure to have the large fossil fuel firm achieve Scope 3 emissions reductions. At United Air Lines, 65% voted in favor of a resolution to have the transport giant provide more information about how its lobbying efforts align with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Said the influential Commissioner (“D” members now are the agency’s board majority) about the backdrop of these types of resolutions coming from the providers of capital: “This is a broad reckoning with the need for advanced transparency on sustainability…also occurring amid ever-more powerful signals from major institutional investors of their commitment to sustainability.”

Commissioner Herren Lee talked about top-of-mind issues for board rooms and C-suites for mid-year 2021 (six months into the Biden-Harris Administration) on the “climate change crisis”: board challenges — climate, racial injustice, economic inequality, corporations and social & economic well-being of people and communities); public input on climate change disclosures; mitigating risks and maximizing ESG opportunities; enhancing board diversity; increasing board expertise; inspiring management success; public pledges on ESG issues that are actually backed by corporation action…and much more.

The Commissioner explained that the SEC itself is “listening” as well to the “thousands of comments in response to the request for public input on climate change disclosures.”

There is much more in the Commissioner’s comments to the corporate secretary universe that we bring to you in this post (including 58 footnotes). Safe to say these days – in board rooms and executive suites, when the SEC leaders speak, many in the corporate sector and capital markets are indeed listening.

Two related items are also on top for you. One is a recap from GreenBiz about this year’s “angst-filled proxy year” and another from Bloomberg Law about corporate leaders calling on their law firms to help “navigate the world of ESG governance.”

Here at G&A Institute, since the time of our founding 15 years ago, as the “ESG lockup” was coming together, we have advised that it could be “GES” – the governance (“G”) of the “E” and the “S” is a critical task up top of the organization…the details of this are neatly spelled out in abundance in the SEC Commissioner’s keynote address and in the many items that we bring you each week. If you are not already sharing these with board room and C-suite, please consider doing that!

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CEOs & Business Leaders Speak Out on Voter Rights – Corporate Citizenship, USA-style On Display

April 14 2021

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute 

Corporate America and “Corporate Citizenship” – Today, that can mean lending the CEO and company voice to address critical societal issues in the United States of America.  Some applaud the move, while others attack the company and its leader for their position on the issues in question.   

In this context, powerful messages were delivered today from the influential leaders of the US corporate community – clearly voicing concern about the American electoral process and the rights of all qualified voters in the midst of mounting challenges to the right-to-vote. 

What the CEOs, joined by other influentials in the American society, had to say to us today:

As Americans we know that in our democracy we should not expect to agree on everything.

However – regardless of our political affiliations, we believe the very foundation of our electoral process rests upon the ability of each of us to cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.

We should all feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and oppose any discriminatory legislation or measure that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.

Who is saying this? A list of bold name signatories in an advertisement that appears today in The New York Times and The Washington Post – these messages (these above and more) splashed across two full pages (a “double truck” in newspaper language) with a dramatic roster of prominent names from Corporate America. And prominent accounting and law firms with bold name corporate clients. And not-for-profits. And individuals. Celebrities.  People and organizations that every day in some way touch our lives. 

This advertisement certainly continues to set the foundation in place for pushback by powerful people and organizations as various state legislatures take up electoral voting measures. And pushes back against the “Big Lie” that the November 2020 elections at federal, state and local levels were widely fraudulent.

The names on the two pages jump out to capture our attention: Apple. American Express. Amazon. Dell Technologies. Microsoft. Deloitte and EY and PwC. Estee Lauder. Wells Fargo. BlackRock. American Airlines and JetBlue and United Airlines. Steelcase. Ford Motor and General Motors. Goldman Sachs. MasterCard. Vanguard. Merck. Starbucks. IBM. Johnson & Johnson. PayPal. T. Rowe Price. And many more.

CEOs including Michael R. Bloomberg (naturally!). Warren Buffett. Bob Diamond, Barclay’s. Jane Fraser, Citi. Brian Doubles, Synchrony. Brian Cornwell, Target. Roger Crandall, Mass Mutual.

Luminaries joined in as individual in support of the effort: David Geffen. George Clooney. Naomi Campbell. Larry David. Shonda Rhimes. Larry Fink. Demi Lovato. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Many more; think about the influence of their influencers in our American society in 2021.

And we see the names of these law firms: Akin Gump. Arnold Porter. Milbank. Morgan Lewis & Bockius. Fried Frank. Cleary Gottlieb. Holland and Knight. Ropes & Gray. (If you are not sure of who these firms and many more law firm signatories are, be assured that in the board room and C-suite and corporate legal offices these are very familiar names).

And the “social sector” institutions/organizations signing on include leaders of the Wharton School, Morehouse College, Spelman College, University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, NYU Stern, United Negro College Fund, Hebrew SeniorLife, and Council for Inclusive Capitalism.

The New York Times covered the story of the advertising message in an article in the Business Section – Companies Join Forces to Oppose Voting Curbs (bylined by Andrew Ross Sorkin and David Gelles). Subhead: A statement that defies the GOPs call to stay out of politics.

The effort was organized by prominent Black business leaders including Ken Chennault, until recently the highly-regarded CEO of American Express, and Ken Frazier, the also-widely-admired CEO of Merck.

Recall that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell corporations said that corporations should “stay out of politics”. The recent State of Georgia legislation addressing voting rights was a trigger for prominent corporate leaders (such as heads of Coca Cola, Delta Airlines, both headquartered in Atlanta) to criticize measures that could deter or inhibit minority voter populations from exercising their rights.  Leader McConnell reacted to this. 

The Times quoted Kenneth Chennault: “It should be clear that there is overwhelming support in Corporate America for the principle of voting rights…these are not political issues…these are the issues that we were taught in civics…”

Also made clear: The CEOs, social influential and thought leaders including celebrities involved in the ad message effort were non partisan and not attacking individual states’ legislative efforts.

Remember The Business Roundtable’s recent re-alignment of the groups mission statement to focus on “purpose”? According to the Times report, the subject of the ad effort was raised on an internal call and CEOs were encouraged to sign on to the statement; many CEOs did.

Where does this go from here? Corporate executives are speaking out separately on the legislative measures being discussed in individual states that appear to or outright are clear about restricting rights of minority populations. That happened in Georgia recently. Coca Cola and Delta Airlines were hit with criticism; those companies were not signatories on the ad today. Home Depot (also HQd in Atlanta) waffled; the company is not represented on the signatory line nor was there public criticism of the legislature’s effort.

Perspective: While corporate citizenship has been an area of focus and public reporting for many years at a number of large cap public companies, the glare of publicity centered on the question of “what are you doing to help advance society on critical issues as a corporate citizen” is more recent.

The spotlight is intensifying on voting rights (as we see today) and also on climate change, diversity & inclusion, human capital management (especially in the Covid crisis), investment in local communities, in supporting public education, in hiring training & promotion of women and minorities, doing business with nations with despot leaders (think of Burma/Myanmar), equality of opportunity for all populations…and many other issues.

And so today’s advertising splash with CEOs especially putting their stake and their company’s stake in the ground on these types of issues is something we can expect to see continue and even expand in the coming weeks.

The division lines in the USA are certainly clear, especially in politics and public sector governance, and we are seeing that corporate leaders are responding to their stakeholders’ expectations…of being “a good corporate citizen”.

And it’s interesting to see the perspectives shared that even the meaning and understanding of the responsibilities of the “corporate citizen”) is defined along some of the lines that divide the nation.

Interesting footnote:  Clearly illustrating the political and philosophical divide, the members of the Republican Party who are organized as the opposition to the GOP today — The Lincoln Project — called on followers to sign on to an email that singles out JetBlue (one of the ad signatories) for contributing to political campaigns of what the Lincoln Project calls “seditionists”.  These are elected officials who “support voter suppression”. Says the project: If enough of us make it clear that we won’t stand inequality, voter supression and sedition, we will make a difference.

The battle lines are clearly drawn in voting rights issues. 

The advertisement today:

April 14 2021 – The New York Times and The Washington Post messages: