Sustainability. Not a passing fad but a conviction

December 22, 2021 9:30 am

Marieta del Rivero is an independent board member of Cellnex Telecom and president of their Appointments, Remunerations and Sustainability Committee. She is also an independent director and member of the Sustainability Committee at Gestamp Automotive, president of Onivia and a board member of the Women’s Forum, amongst other posts. Much of her career has been involved with the world of telecom and tech corporations, she is an expert in Smart Cities, a corporate governance enthusiast, and ranks amongst the 500 most influential women in Spain. At the presentation of Cellnex’s first Environment and Climate Change report, we spoke to her about one of the most googled acronyms: ESG.

We are in the midst of an ESG boom. Authorities and regulators are trying to standardize reporting methods. What are the main challenges facing companies when it comes to implementing credible ESG policies?
I think there are basically three challenges. Two are strategic and the third is more technical and circumstantial. The first is governance. The crises of recent years in some big corporations have confirmed the importance of good corporate governance and having a board of directors able to help take the right decisions. The business purpose concepts put forward by Paul Polman and Larry Fink in relation to the long-term road towards sustainable culture that companies must define are now a cornerstone of any business with outreach. As Polman says “the moral obligation to be sustainable is a business opportunity” and corporate governance is the umbrella of this strategy.

The second challenge concerns internalization. ESG strategy must not be just about ticking boxes and fulfilling compliance policies, it has to be embedded in the DNA of companies and lengthen their life span.

The third is about the standardization of measurement, supervision and reporting models. Non-financial information still lacks a common language for communicating with stakeholders, measuring strategies and endowing these policies with credibility and reality.

How is Cellnex dealing with these challenges?
Although it is still a very young company, Cellnex has integrated extremely robust pillars of ESG culture into the board. They are measurable and based on merit, inclusion and fairness, but do not affect our principle of profitability and commitment to survival. Cellnex has progressed and innovated far more than our competitors and other listed companies that publish business reports according to different standards and defined strategies. In our second ESG Master Plan, for 2021-2025, the challenge is how to build this culture and make it permeate the company at every level.

The global fragility revealed by the pandemic has increased the importance of pinpointing and managing risks. To what extent do you think coronavirus has raised awareness or driven different policies?
Apart from the disruption and many personal tragedies caused by the pandemic, we have learned a lot. Citizens and companies have improved because the extraordinary circumstances this crisis has imposed on us have brought out the best in us.

We’ve learned to stop. We live in a world where stopping is lazy, but we realized that when the world stopped and we could spend time thinking, we’ve done really important things.

The coronavirus crisis has been the best chief digital officer of all time. After spending many years championing the advantages of technology, I ran up against corporate cultures in which working from home and goal-oriented work were not possible. In February 2020, in one of the companies I work for, I tried to attend a board meeting by video call and it was impossible. Less than a month later, we were all using Zoom.

Overnight, companies and citizens were forced to change their habits and how they understand and address the future, don’t you think?
The pandemic has been a tremendous facilitator of change in all sorts of companies and institutions and has had a positive impact in terms of work-life balance and a work ethic that is far more goal-oriented than the old face-to-face culture.

It’s also made us realize that we all depend on everyone else. The team culture has been bolstered. Individualism is dead. We’ve discovered new ways of working and collaborating. At the same time, it has showcased diversity in the broadest sense. Differences based on gender, attitudes, age, etc have made a very valuable contribution to reinventing business.

It’s also meant a new paradigm of risk management and analysis. In-house auditors, for example, play a decisive part when companies have to decide whether to close or reopen a business or how to design contingency plans. The objective perspective of a lateral viewpoint has taught me a great deal.

Do you think that boards of directors should focus on ESG strategies? How should they get ready to address and monitor them?

ESG is not a passing fad, it’s a radical change, a catalyst triggering a new approach to business that entails a long-term, sustainable mindset aimed at striking a balance between social, financial and environmental considerations.

There’s still room for improvement in the business world, companies still pay more attention to their P&L accounts and statements than their green shift plan (…) for boards to create this culture, it’s a matter of time.

It’s different at Cellnex. Our board’s ability to take responsibility has set an example for many other companies about how to speed up this implementation by taking very important decisions. The first decision was to make our commitment to ESG a priority for the board. The core is a specific committee, featuring representatives of the company’s main areas, to design and implement measurable, high-impact actions in line with the group’s strategy.

We have frequent up-dates, and also metrics and KPIs (key performance indicators) to monitor the fulfilment of targets. We hit 90% of the targets in our first master plan, and will achieve all the targets in our current plan.

What would you say to people who claim there is a sort of sustainability bubble with corporate hypocrisy and greenwashing, or simply think that ESG strategies adversely affect returns?
Convictions play an important part in all this and regulations, as I said before, will help bolster credibility. Some boards and companies still see it as a matter of compliance whilst others firmly believe in it. What makes a difference is when resources are earmarked and a plan for meeting goals is drawn up. The short-term cost of transition may be higher, but we’re looking further ahead than a 90-day horizon. Several studies have proven these policies to have benefits not only in financial terms but also for the company’s lifespan.

Knowledge is also very important for raising awareness and changing a culture, hence the great importance of training. ESG spans such a vast spectrum that its still not easy to find professionals well versed in ESG. Here at Cellnex, we’re now starting an ESG education and training programme at IESE for our board and management teams.

Sustainability is a transversal concept. It’s crucial for all levels of companies to share its outlook and purpose. Which of its aspects do you think can help increase employees’ commitment and make them proud to be involved?
The Cellnex culture is highly inclusive and has a long-term perspective. In our case, it has a lot to do with entrepreneurship and with welcoming people of any culture, background or nationality. One thing I’ve learnt during my career is that when companies lose diversity, they lose their ability to react, and then lag behind.

At the same time, I believe that the merit-based culture must be encouraged. I like the concept of fairness more than equality: equal opportunities, of course, but recognition of achievements.
Targets are also very important for creating a culture. Our own CEO and therefore the management team as a whole have specific targets and 15% of their retribution is variable and linked to compliance with ESG issues. This is snowballing and enables us to set an example.

In the digital era, access to telecommunications is a major issue for governments and society. To what extent do business and commitment go hand in hand at Cellnex?
The “S” in ESG covers many areas: inclusion, encouraging talent, diversity… But if I have to talk about social considerations, at a company like Cellnex connectivity is the factor that permeates everything we do. The Cellnex Foundation established recently is one example of making an impact on society, and we aim to bridge digital, social and regional gaps and make connectivity a universal right. This is not just about infrastructure, it’s also closely linked to education and culture for building a better world. The head of the foundation is Lluís Deulofeu, a great leader very committed to social issues, and two brilliant women, Angels Ucero and Virginia Navarro. Under their leadership, the foundation will be a sure-fire success.