(Originally published in Authority Magazine, Medium, on March 22, 2022)
Part of the series about “authors who are making an important social impact”,
Helle Bank Jorgensen is the CEO of Competent Boards. She has enjoyed a 30-year career working with global Fortune 500 board members and senior executives, as well as small- to -medium-sized organizations and investors. Helle has unrivaled expertise in how to convert environmental, social, governance (ESG), climate and sustainability risks into profitable and innovative opportunities for businesses.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in Denmark, in the same city as the storyteller and fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen. I’m not good at telling stories myself, but I believe in fairydust and I hope that it all will be okay in the end (although that is not the case in all of the fantastic stories Andersen wrote!). His stories are actually a study into human nature and psychology. Stories like Snedronningen (The Snow Queen), Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne (The Little Match Girl) and Kejserens Nye Klæder (The Emperor’s New Clothes) all have important messages that we all can learn from. I encourage everyone to read his stories.
Apart from fairytales, I loved, and still love, walking and playing in the forest. I think I was a normal child, although perhaps I was a bit more curious and serious — and quiet — than the others. But I loved playing with my friends and many of us are still in contact.
My grandmother influenced me a lot on how she took care of her garden and animals (including spiders). She always had time to talk and let me reflect. My parents were both born during the Second World War and they had a deep, lasting gratitude for peace. My dad always teared up on the day of the Danish Liberation when we heard the reply of Denmark being free. Well, if you could see me now, you would see I’m tearing up just thinking about it. Peace is not a given, and we need to do all we can to secure peace.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
Although I did not read it when it was first published in 1972, Limits to Growth has really impacted me and how I think about climate change and the environment. The same applies to Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report), which came out in 1987, as well as a book about spaceship economy.
Back then, I was studying to become a business lawyer and later an accountant. I was interested in the laws and regulations about the environment, how we have a spaceship economy (what we today call a circular economy or perhaps even some of the mindset from a regenerative economy), as well as what we did or did not measure in business and financial reporting. I also read a lot about incentives and physiology. I just loved the library.
As mentioned above, I also read, and continue to read, Hans Christiansen Andersen. His stories hold so much wisdom and have impacted how I think about right and wrong.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I had a fantastic career with one of the Big Four accounting firms. There, I got a chance to build the sustainability practice in Denmark and was then absolutely thrilled to be asked to move to New York and lead the US and Americas Sustainability and Climate Change Practice. I firmly believed that the firm should embed sustainability into every part of its actions and services. When I was interviewed by The New York Times in 2009, I said: “The way that we see it is that it should be implemented, integrated into what we normally do.”
That holds true for the company now, but not so much back when the interview occurred. At the time, I was saying something untrue! The lesson I took from that was that you need to have everyone on board with an idea before telling people about it.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
The first step is that leaders read it! That part seems to be going well and I’m proud that it is now an Amazon bestseller in the Corporate Governance category.
However, in order for the book to have a real impact it must lead to reflection and action for business leaders. Each chapter ends with an exercise for boards to use. Many people who have read the book have told me those exercises lead to deep board discussions. These include a reevaluation of the mindset, policies, processes and sometimes the purpose of the company itself. These in turn bring not only cost reductions, but innovation and better financial as well as environmental and social results. All of which are of great interest to shareholders and stakeholders: a positive circle.
I want people to find the book valuable. So far, based on the fantastic reviews it has had, it’s very encouraging. Martin Wolf from the Financial Times, Mervyn King, the godfather of Good Governance, Paul Polman, Sarah Keohane Williamson, Chief Executive Officer at FCLTGlobal and Chad Holliday are just some of the many world-renowned leaders who have been kind enough to praise the book. That gives me the confidence that many senior business leaders will find inspiration and tools in the book that will help them reduce risk and capture opportunities.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
I’ve heard from readers that many of them are most interested in the chapter “What Stakeholders Want… But Are Not Getting.” In that chapter, I share about how to build trust, partnerships and engagement to ensure the best possible truthful communication. It’s difficult, because the number of expectations and demands on board members from both stakeholders and shareholders is exponentially increasing. Nobody wants to be accused of greenwashing or unethical behaviour.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
Honestly, writing a book has been something I’ve wanted to do for a few years. My daily work is educating boards of directors, executives, investors and asset managers to understand the ABCs of ESG and climate.
I started that journey 30 years ago when I got a chance to do the world’s first green account, and later the world’s first integrated report (integrating financial and sustainability issues and results). I have seen how much money and opportunities as well as environmental and human suffering that is left on the table when boards of directors do not understand the impact and influence of stakeholders and ESG.
So I started Competent Boards to ensure that global business leaders and board members were well equipped to be stewards of the future. We have more than 150 board members, executives, investors and experts from all over the world who contribute to our programs.
I know that not every leader will take advantage of our training programs. Therefore, I wrote the book as a mini-version of our those to give the knowledge wider exposure so those readers become better leaders and stewards.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Tricky! We’ve had so many board members and executives tell us that our ESG and Climate programs have helped them, that identifying one isn’t easy. In this case, this person was elected to be a board member and to chair an ESG committee. They told me that their confidence in themselves had improved as a result of taking our program, and as a result they had obtained a board seat. Now they are fully confident in both their position as well as how to oversee and strategize about how ESG impacts their business so they ensure value creation while taking into account all stakeholders.
By being a chair of an ESG committee, this person can now influence thousands of lives: employees, customers, suppliers and society at large. Don’t forget: board members hire and fire the CEO, they’re the ones influencing the company.
In general, the people who go through our programs tell us they are doing work that they’re proud of, that their kids are proud of. Having that impact on so many business leaders around the world is humbling.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Communities hold a lot of power. You can engage in city council meetings, bring up your concerns and advocate for change. But make sure that you first do some research, that you read and understand what you’re advocating for. No-one benefits from a public fight without any facts. Society is made up of communities
Politicians are not my area of expertise, but when the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that people trust business more than government to deliver on their promises, we are not in the best spot. I see some businesses are stepping up and seeing the bigger global picture and understand that they can’t do good business in a broken world.
That’s why we need board members and executives who advise and direct those businesses to get formally trained. That way they can provide insight and oversight on pressing ESG and climate issues. If not, we are cheating ourselves.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think leadership is about being curious, serious, courageous, caring and communicative. Included in Stewards of the Future is a survey: Future Boardroom Competencies examines what leadership looks like in the 21st century.
A curious leader is someone who asks questions, who is interested in understanding problems and doesn’t push them away if they don’t fit with their own world view. A serious leader is someone who not only listens but also actively works on finding solutions to those problems.
If you are courageous, you make decisions that might be difficult but ultimately the right thing for the company and your stakeholders. As a leader, you must care about your stakeholders. You have to care about their wellbeing, about their happiness as individuals, and you have to care for the environment in order to preserve it for future generations.
Communicating a purpose with conviction is integral to being a good leader. They need to communicate a roadmap that gets others to join that journey even though there might be hurdles along the way.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Can I just go with four here please? That’s one of my lucky numbers!
Believe in yourself: I have always struggled with self-belief, never sure what I was doing was good enough. Sometimes that has led to excellent work, but sometimes not so much as that mindset is draining, leading to very long days. An injection of self-confidence would be a great help.
Say yes: I have been given some fantastic opportunities, but I have not always said yes right away as I wanted to ask my family if we could make it work. That has unfortunately resulted in some not believing I was interested. I believe we need to give people time to reflect — and I think especially women are asking at home before committing. So perhaps this is more of an advice to leaders. Even if you don’t get a big yes after asking if a person is interested, it does not mean that the person is not open for opportunities, but is responsible and wants to make sure that they can actually deliver.
Trust but do your due diligence: I’m trusting and open by nature but you need to kick the tires. I struggle with this even now, as that goes against my basic values, but that simple advice would have saved me from some bad memories.
Things take time: I hear over and over that things take time and I never want to believe it. However, it always ends up being true.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It is not so much a quote, but the Seventh Generation Principle is a philosophy to live by. It’s an old Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) way of thinking of how your present actions will affect the future. Any decisions we make in our time should result in a better world seven generations from now. We can’t make short-term decisions, we have to be wise and make long-term decisions about how we treat our world so that we can leave it better for future generations. The investors and other business leaders that I talk to appreciate that mindset.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Clara Shih. She founded her own company at 27 years old and was elected to the board of directors of Starbucks at 29. She’s recently rejoined Salesforce as the CEO of their Service Cloud. I’d love to hear her thoughts about how to get more young, talented people in board positions, as well as about good governance, supply chains and the future of businesses.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
A nice simple one to end on! You can follow Competent Boards on LinkedIn or visit our website at staging.competentboards.com. Stewards of the Future is available on Amazon or you can follow me on LinkedIn.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
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