By Raj Thamotheram
Founder and co-chair, Preventable Surprises
This is a refrain I hear quite often when I invite ESG professionals to consider how they could be a bigger part of the solution.
Their logic is clear. We all know, deep down, that the ESG world has institutionalised a safe form of incrementalism. So anything that could be called “radical” inevitably means career risk.
Let me explain the basis for my contrarian career advice. I’ve been fortunate to have two of the best jobs in the ESG sector—as head of RI at a large UK pension fund (USS) and then being headhunted to the same role at a very large global fund manager (AXA IM). I would not have got either post had it NOT been for my out of the box thinking. As someone who isn’t “into” quant analysis or box ticking activity, and with little knowledge of the investment industry when I entered it, my managers made a contrarian appointment choice and they weren’t disappointed.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, this “deviant” behaviour has been essential both for career success and also for impact for the 12 years I’ve spent inside the investment system. Importantly, today, there is MUCH more space for people who say it like it is, and not just on the far right. Think Jesse Klaver (Green Party, Netherlands), Emanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Bernie Saunders, Paul Polman, Elizabeth Warren, Sally Yates … Even Lloyd Bankfein has joined Twitter to criticise the US pullout from Paris!
Before I share the “secret sauce” for becoming a successful positive maverick, based on what I and other Preventable Surprise network members have learnt, let’s see how one individual became a positive maverick.
After a successful journalism career on the ESG beat, Bill Baue stepped up to become the co-founder of Convetit and Reporting 3.0.
How does he see the trade off? His answer is clear: “The benefits far outweigh any costs.” He explains: “I am not a positive maverick because this is a personal bias or predilection. Rather, I’m motivated by a sober-eyed view of the imperatives of our situation. My positive maverick actions are context-driven, specific to the situation demanding action.”
What does this mean in practice? “My actions are vehicles to push for what the best science or ethical analysis suggests is needed. It’s then just a question of weighing the strategies that cascade from this against the imperatives.” How does Bill cope with the fact that he’s ahead of the curve? “Reasonable people can disagree on the strategies, but not as much on the underpinning imperatives.”
In my role first as co-founder of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets and now as founder of Preventable Surprises, I have had the honour to work with a growing band of positive mavericks. Mark van Clieaf, a leading specialist on performance metrics and remuneration, and Keith Johnson, one of the leading pension lawyers in the USA, are two such people. They combined their insights—working across disciplines is something positive mavericks know they need to do—to co-author a letter to the SEC that made a clear case for pay ratios using investor/fiduciary logic. As the USA dips into a (temporary, we hope) “Dark Ages” on good governance reforms, fortunately the UK has adopted this thinking.
Another positive maverick, Edward Mason (Church of England), has made it his mission to get big investors to vote for the disclosure resolution at Exxon, and this could well become a bigger story than the US pullout from Paris. His colleague at CCLA, Helen Wildsmith, has corralled a growing coalition behind the Aiming for A approach, going well beyond her technical job description, time and time again. There are many others I could name … Karen Lockridge, Hamish Stewart, Rob Lake, Kirsty Jenkinson. Of course, it’s easier once you retire—Howard Covington, Tom Murtha, John Rogers, etc. However many retired investment leaders sit on the fence, or worse, even when they face no career risk from being part of the solution.
Will doors close if you become a positive maverick? Of course, but doors also open. It’s like any relationship. But do we really want to spend our precious time with an organization that wants us to be who we are not? Given what’s happening in the world, do we really feel good about the BS of pretending that ESG incrementalism is as much of the solution as it could be? Really?
Will you face criticism from colleagues? I did, no doubt because they felt I was being disloyal. This can be upsetting, especially if it is personal. But as Zohar Glouberman, a therapist and one of my “wise mentors” reminded me, “You want to shake up the system and be liked for that?!” You will need the support of mentors and friends if you are going down this path, you simply cannot do it alone.
As I have escaped the confines of ESG thinking, so I have found more and more positive mavericks to work with. Indeed, I now have more people following me on LinkedIn and Twitter than most ESG heads with all the PR support they have! Several have become really good friends, which is a huge collateral, extra-financial benefit of being in this “positive maverick” community.
Positive mavericks also have to struggle with intellectual indoctrination. I left AXA IM specifically to set up Preventable Surprises. But despite that, it took a full 18 months for the self censorship to fully wash out! And it would have been longer without the challenges and support of mentors and colleagues. I still remember a great email from another maverick and thought leader, John Elkington, who said “you have brilliantly described why the status quo isn’t working but what you are suggesting is pretty status quo!” Ouch! Challenge from fellow positive maverick peers is very important: it leads to more authenticity. In my case, I started to speak explicitly about how investors enabled corporate and market dysfunctionality. Five years later, the CFA Institute is saying much the same. Similarly, I backed “forceful stewardship”—a frame co-created with Howard Covington—some years ago as the only strategy that could plausibly address urgent systemic risks. Today, post Trump, more and more investors are acknowledging—in private at least—that public policy can’t be relied upon to drive the implementation of the Paris Agreement, only long-term investors can steer the transition.
One of the factors that made it easier for me to become a positive maverick was a lifestyle that allowed me to live without big bonuses. If your kids are in private schools or your “essential expenditure” has otherwise risen to keep up with your status as part of the “0.1%” (yes, globally you are and probably nationally as well) and you haven’t saved for that rainy day, then indeed you are on a weaker base than you would otherwise be. Given the ease with which careers can go belly up for all sorts of reasons—corporate takeovers, CEO churn resulting in “their people” being brought in, personal health, etc.—is it really wise to be trapped by golden handcuffs even if they have an ESG veneer? All our choices create path dependency and there are real trade offs. But wherever we find ourselves, whatever choices we have made in the past, we can always do a bit more to resist wilful blindness, refuse to engage in ESG-wash, and show intelligent disobedience. And as we take those determined steps, we start down a different path.
Positive mavericks act with as much insight and integrity as they can muster in the situation in which they find themselves. Complaining about the past gets in the way of this, as does lack of humility—we may be after a better world, but we aren’t perfect. If our actions as positive mavericks stand out, it is precisely because the norm is ab-normal, un-ethical, or, to use the other term we’re think needs to be reclaimed, we are “un-reasonable.” As George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Take the example of the 2°C scenario analysis resolution at Chevron, which was withdrawn. Shell, Chevron and other oil and gas companies have found they can divide and rule the ESG investment community by speaking about “reasonable” investors and the others! “Reasonable” investors—the companies tell us—were those who supported management and endorsed the withdrawal of the resolution. Choosing not to be a positive maverick has real world impact, just as much as choosing to be one has. And as with all culture issues—corruption, gender, and other forms of discrimination at work—the more some of us speak out, the more it empowers others to do so, and this shifts the curve of what is “reasonable.”
So here’s a thought experiment we could all do: How could you be a bit more positive maverick this week? Finding something practical to do, with other positive mavericks, is often critical. That’s why our online dialogues, hosted with Convetit, have been so successful. (Our next dialogue begins 21 June—please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.)
Seven Traits of Positive Mavericks*
- Think and act at systems levels. This is an art as much as a science, requiring distinctions between facts and myths (i.e. values and beliefs).
- Work productively (not obstructively) toward positive change. Myths built around “enemies” limit our impact on systemic challenges where big coalitions are needed.
- Backcast from a desired future to illuminate a transition strategy that is fit for purpose, constantly challenging ESG incrementalism.
- Are motivated by ultimate ends, with intermediate means serving as vehicles, not destinations.
- Challenge the constraints, structural limitations, unconscious biases, and shadow agendas of the institutions and organizations we work with and we are willing to call these out to reduce their power.
- Work collaboratively in networks with other positive mavericks, including peers from other disciplines.
- Are courageous and willing to “speak truth to power.” We contain the tendency to “CYA.”
*Thanks to Bill Baue, Jennifer Morgan, Rob Lake, Karen Lockridge and Mark Wade for contributions to this list.
In summary … I was at the start of the mainstreaming of ESG and we had a heady goal: to change the way the traditional institutional investors operated. As we came to understand that the immunity to change was even greater than we had imagined, we began to focus on what we knew we could deliver—send signals, grow AUM, develop innovative ESG products, win the business case, do thought leadership reports, hold ever more impressive events, and such like. With hindsight we can say we collectively lost our way. But we also learnt a lot. And now there is a new and very exciting opportunity for authenticity again. A new generation of positive mavericks will be at the centre of this!