Asking the right questions – The Sun Tzu Art of War for engagement
Christine Chow, Associate Director, Hermes EOS, Hermes Investment Management, is practised in the art of engaging companies on their approach to environmental, social and governance issues. In this interview with CSj, she discusses her career and shares some tips on how to get the most out of the engagement process.
Thanks for giving us this interview. Can we start with your personal and professional background?
‘Certainly. I attended a convent school in Hong Kong from an early age. Early childhood experience has the most profound impact on one’s personality. As Echo Chan or Sanmao, a famous female Chinese author has said before, ‘characters determine your fate’. At Maryknoll Convent School, we were encouraged to explore our interests freely, whilst sharing a common mission to serve society. Teachers were our guides as well as our friends. We didn’t spend all our time at private tuition classes. We went into communities to experience life. We visited hospitals and old people’s homes. These experiences gave me a wider understanding of society and the challenges facing it – why do people live differently? Why are we where we are? Why are they where they are? Is there a meaningful way to live and to create a better world?
My work in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, in ethics and sustainable investment, are part of a life principle that has guided me throughout my career. I am very proud of the school and am grateful for the education and upbringing that it offered.
I then went to the UK to finish my education, and joined Schroders, an established international fund management company. I was lucky enough to have had very good mentors and colleagues. Many of them remain as lifelong friends.
Then I got married and my career took a different course. As a woman, there are many choices you have to make in life and when you make them, you don’t know whether they are right or wrong, or whether you will be happy or not. I left Schroders and moved to Abu Dhabi in the Middle East. My husband had an international career and his career took priority for a period of time. This was a very difficult choice to make for a career woman. In the following years, we lived in different parts of the world – mostly places where I couldn’t work.
That was when I decided to do a PhD on shareholder engagement and responsible investment. That way I could look after my newborn son but also deepen my understanding of an emerging investment topic. That was back in 2004.’
When you started your PhD, there wasn’t much of a focus on shareholder engagement – what got you interested in that topic?
‘There were growing numbers of retail investors in the market, mainly through retirement funds. This was especially true in Hong Kong when the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) was introduced. People work hard for a living and save for retirement. When we invest, it should be about making money work for us, not the other way around, so generating a good financial return was not enough for me – we should expect a good financial return and good purpose with positive impact. It was a new and weird concept at the time – and now of course everyone knows that this is in line with the idea of responsible or impact investment.
At that time, shareholder engagement was mostly constrained to a niche type of investment, commonly referred to as ethical or socially responsible investment (SRI). In 2001, I remember attending a meeting on ESG at the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) in London. There were only about 20 people in the room – and that was the whole industry for ESG. Our discussion topic was about drafting a questionnaire for trustees so that they could ask fund managers questions about ESG issues. We have come a long way since then. Now we have a lot of focus on how to quantify ESG information and how to integrate that data for company valuations. At Hermes, we have been engaging with companies on ESG issues for many years. Through constructive and purposeful engagement discussions, we continue to drive positive change in the investment industry and in companies.’
Do you think the current ESG disclosure requirements in Hong Kong are adequate? I recently did an interview with Jonathan Labrey, Head of Asia Pacific at the International Integrated Reporting Council, and he argued that simply reporting on ESG metrics does not necessarily help investors understand how ESG factors affect company strategy.
‘I think that is absolutely where we need to be going. At the moment, there is a disclosure-based approach to ESG. We tend to ask questions such as – what are your emissions and what are your emissions targets? These are closed questions. We need to be asking open questions. For example, in integrated reporting, we have a framework that gets companies to think about the capitals they have. We are not just talking about financial capital here, we are talking about human capital, natural capital and social capital as well – and how they can harness these capitals by integrating them into the business model. This is not a disclosure-based approach, this is a strategic approach.’
Do you favour a principles-based approach to corporate governance?
‘Yes. This is both the house view, as in the Hermes’ view, and my personal view. This is how we ask questions in an engagement meeting as well. If you ask a company whether it has a grievance system or an environmental management system, the representatives will say ‘yes’ – but what does that tell you? At Hermes, we have seven key steps to effective engagement – from objective setting and preparation, to meetings and follow up. We have a strategic approach that focuses on positive change and milestones that take us forward. We use different techniques and styles to engage depending on the culture and policy framework. Some people consider engagement as a battle between shareholders and companies. It could be, but I remember the teachings of Sun Tzu in the Art of War, ‘the greatest victory is that which requires no battle’.
There are many different ways to ask questions without being unnecessarily confrontational. If you are asking about a company’s whistleblowing system, you can ask which departments get the data and how they use it. When an issue has been identified, how long will it take to escalate the information to the person who makes decisions? What if there is a difference of opinion? Has that happened before? How did you deal with the situation? Who has the authority or ability to close a case and why? If you ask these types of questions, it helps you to understand the company and it helps the company to improve too.’
This is very relevant for company secretaries since part of their remit is to ensure that the right questions are asked in board meetings.
‘Yes. If you can find different ways of asking questions, you will get different insights into the subject. It’s like the story of the blind scholars trying to understand an elephant [see ‘The parable of the blind scholars’ below].’
Your career has straddled both the academic and the business worlds, do you think that has helped you juggle work and personal commitments? It sounds like the PhD gave you something that you could fit with your other commitments?
‘Yes, exposure to both the academic and business worlds has allowed me to become flexible in my problem-solving approach and in my ability to communicate complex and sensitive issues. When I started my part-time PhD, I had no idea how it would contribute to my career, but when I finished – that was six years later in 2010 – I received a call from the PRI [Principles for Responsible Investment – an investor initiative supported by the United Nations, see www.unpri.org]. They had shortlisted my thesis for an award in Sweden. My PhD examiner, Professor Gordon Clark from the University of Oxford, highly recommended that I should publish my results, and five years later, I have found fulfillment in both academia and business.’
You mentioned earlier that we have come a long way in our attitudes to ESG over the years – do you think the social contract for businesses is being rewritten?
‘This is the type of question that attracted me to my study. What is the role of a business? Is it there to make money or is it there to serve a social need? I think these are great questions which have baffled people over decades. One of the first books on this subject is The Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, written by Howard Bowen in 1953.
Sixty years on, we have experienced different versions of capitalism. I think attitudes are changing. The millennials, for example, have a much stronger sense of the importance of the mission of a business and the impact it can have. I get that from teaching as well as from being in the start-up space. Increasingly, socially-minded businesses are the only ones attracting the new generation, so more and more businesses will have to have that kind of approach if they want to attract talent.’
You have travelled a lot… what role do you think our cultural assumptions play in our attitudes to issues like ESG, ethical investment and sustainability?
‘The more I travel, the more I realise that far too often people focus on the differences and a lot of those differences are just on the surface. We need to look a lot deeper at what makes people who they are, our values and our world view. On that level, people are remarkably similar. We care about our families; we want to have a work/life balance and we want to be happy. We educate our children to be honest, diligent and responsible.’
Do you think we will eventually have a globalised standard of corporate governance?
‘That would be hampered by legal practices, but in terms of best practices, yes. We should bear in mind, though, that it takes a long time to negotiate what is the norm and what is achievable and acceptable. Look at climate change, for example, or look at board practices. Interpretations of acceptable practices amongst companies are different. A lot of companies here have directors who sit on multiple boards. The argument is usually that it is very difficult to find good non-executives, but in Hong Kong we have good access to talent. Is it really that difficult to find a diverse pool of board talent? I have reservations.’
What are your personal plans for the future?
‘In March this year I was elected governor of the London School of Economics, my alma mater. As one of the first governors of Chinese origin, this will be a great opportunity to contribute to education and the opportunities it represents. In the years ahead, I hope to work hard, play hard, make change and enjoy life. I will try to continue with my dressage training (a type of equestrian sport) as well. Continuous learning in multiple disciplines is good for the brain.’
Christine Chow was interviewed by Kieran Colvert,
Christine Chow is also Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Finance, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Her article on responsible ownership was published in the April 2016 edition of CSj.