This interview was originally published in the summer issue of Radar Magazine – Issue 04: Better, Connected.
After 15 years in strategy consultancy with leading firms Bain and Company and The Boston Consulting Group, Janet Voûte moved into public health as CEO of the World Heart Federation. She then spent two years as Partnerships Adviser at the WHO and became Global Head of Public Affairs at Nestlé in December 2010.
SustainAbility has been working with Nestlé since 2006 on Creating Shared Value reporting, stakeholder engagement and strategy, and most recently arranged the company’s fourth stakeholder convening in London. Rob Cameron spoke with Janet about the increasing importance of speaking the language of both business and NGOs and Nestlé’s stakeholder engagement journey.
Rob Cameron: How would you characterise stakeholder engagement when you arrived at Nestlé?
Janet Voûte: I arrived a few years after the terminology and thinking around Creating Shared Value (CSV) at Nestlé had been launched, and the focus on being the leading nutrition, health and wellness company had been clearly defined. Additionally, the Chairman and the Public Affairs team had also agreed upon nutrition, water and rural development as priority areas for action.
I got to join Nestlé at a time when we were stepping up our leadership on these priority areas and talking about CSV as the way we do business. Nestlé had already developed some strong platforms for engagement and the focus on CSV enabled my public affairs team to really extend our engagement work, specifically in nutrition, water and rural development but also in important areas such as environmental sustainability and human rights.
What also became clear was that the more we explored CSV, the more we realised that Nestlé has a clear role to play, but the resolution of societal issues is largely dependent on collective action. To stimulate the type of collective action that is required needs better dialogue between business and its stakeholders.
In your experience, what would be the basis of that better dialogue?
To make progress in nutrition, water or rural development takes collective action. For collective action you need good relationships, you need deep dialogue and you need partnerships. Even if the company is making progress in certain areas on its own it needs the advice of the very best thinkers. Hence we saw the need and the opportunity to intensify that dialogue through stakeholder convenings. When we talk about stakeholder convenings in the business, the words I use foremost are: listen, listen, listen. The point of a stakeholder convening is for Nestlé to listen first and react second. That is how we build our own capability and better address critical societal issues.
How would you describe the progress in stakeholder relationships since you have been at Nestlé?
Nestlé has been on a two-part journey; the first part is transparency, the second is engagement. We have worked really hard at increasing transparency in our reporting – aiming to be as transparent in our commitments and on reporting of societal issues as we are on financial issues. Transparency underpins the engagement and the stakeholder convening process. When you are transparent you have the basis for deeper dialogue, which, in turn, builds understanding. Our stakeholder convenings are about building that fundamental understanding of issues and enabling collective action and they have a by-product, which is a clear improvement in levels of trust, respect and reputation.
You use the term ‘collective action’. Can you talk about why you use this term rather than the more familiar ‘pre-competitive collaboration’?
I think when you talk about pre-competitive collaboration you are simply talking about different companies in the same sector working together. Collective action goes well beyond that. It could involve several corporations but also government, NGOs and academics working together to address a common issue, or to respond together and address the many issues faced by one community.
How has transparency and stakeholder engagement had an impact internally? What changes has it brought about within Nestlé?
First of all, engaging with stakeholders and the community is one of the CEO’s top priorities. An ability to engage with stakeholders is required of senior leaders at Nestlé going forward.
We are also seeing improved understanding with the business leaders who are making public commitments to deliver, for example, reductions of salt, fat and sugar in our recipes, or reductions of greenhouse gas emissions or water use per unit of production. There is a much better dialogue between the people who manage these efforts internally and the external stakeholders who have expertise on these issues.
This has created confidence within internal management that transparency is a good thing. Whereas before we might keep our commitments and our operational plans to ourselves, now we share them. Being transparent has led to recognition not only through opinion surveys but also through indices such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, inclusion in FTSE4Good, being at the top of Oxfam Behind the Brands, and so on. So external bodies have also recognised Nestlé’s progress, which in turn is highly motivating for internal management to get behind our societal commitments.
You are enjoying a rich and varied career moving across sectors. From your experience, what advice would you give a corporate sustainability manager who is in the early stages of his or her career?
First, you need to get ownership and commitment at the highest levels of your corporate leadership. Secondly, you need to engage based only on what you are doing. Do not try to have a stakeholder engagement process based only on what you are saying. You also have to be very honest internally and externally about what is working and where you have challenges. Transparency is an expectation of today’s corporation and in order to be transparent you need good measurement and metrics in place.
And having worked in the NGO world, do you have any advice for the NGO, civil society, not-for- profit community who engage with business?
I think there are many new challenges, but also many new opportunities for the not-for-profit sector. The challenge is to maintain the role of critic while also stepping up to the role of expert and implementation partner. It will require new behaviours for some in the not-for- profit sector. Societal issues are so difficult today that just being critics and pointing your finger at a company and saying “go sort it” – we all realise that is not enough. What the not-for-profit has to do is seize the opportunity to help fix it, even if it is only through dialogue, advice or policy guidance.
How do you think the relationship between business and NGOs will evolve over the next decade? What can we expect to see beyond 2020?
I think these are very exciting times for unleashing incredible creativity behind collective action to address societal issues.
I do think we are going to see some really creative experiments around collective action. We are moving beyond the simple public-private partnership to collective action where you will have multiple players working on a common issue with a common set of goals.
Tomorrow’s business leaders must absolutely have a better understanding of environmental and social challenges and how they are intertwined with the business. NGO leaders must have a better understanding of the business world. This may call for a new dictionary that translates a few of the terms on one side of the fence or the other, so that people can better understand each other.