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Q&A with the New Head of GRI, Michael Meehan

Elaine Cohen headshotWords by Elaine Cohen
Investment & Markets

Editor’s Note: A version of this post originally appeared on the CSR Reporting Blog.

Earlier this summer, the Global Reporting Initiative welcomed a new chief executive, Michael Meehan.

Certainly, he has a strong legacy left by Ernst Ligteringen, who did a sterling job leading GRI in the face of many challenges over the past 12 years. After chatting with Michael, I am left with optimism that he knows how to embrace the value that GRI has created and will skillfully navigate new themes in the zeitgeist of sustainable development and sustainability disclosure.

It's a complex map, and the sort of practical entrepreneurial spirit, driven by clarity of vision and collaborative orientation that Michael Meehan brings, seems to be the right mix.

As Michael takes up his role, I am sure the word strategy will feature quite a lot in the first few weeks and months. Everyone will want to know what his priorities are, goals, targets, new ways of doing things, more of this, less of that, new broom and all that. I expect there will be quite a few who have some advice and recommendations, seeing a new chief as a new opportunity to get some things straight and promote an agenda.

Allen White was top-speed off the mark in an open letter to MM published in the Guardian (I always wondered about the point of open letters ... seems a bit oxymoron-ish to me) in which he lays down his priorities for the new boss. I expect there will be plenty more open, closed and ajar letters that attempt to influence the new boy on the block as he scans the landscape. However, for me, what's more important than giving Michael Meehan my views about where he should lead GRI is understanding who he is. I am interested in knowing more about what's important to Michael and what motivates him, because that will influence what he does at GRI.

I was privileged to have some time to chat with Michael on the phone ... and am pleased to be able to share a bit about his thinking.

Elaine Cohen: What's most important to you as you take up your new role?

Michael Meehan: What's most important to me, I think, is the same as what's important to most of us. We are all working to the same goal of a sustainable future.

The reason I am here is to help strengthen GRI's role as a driver and integrator of sustainability disclosure. The reporting landscape has changed, not necessarily unexpectedly, but it has changed. It is shifting rapidly, and that's a good thing. GRI is moving toward a standard-setting approach. This is an evolutionary step that GRI has been considering for some time. The emergence of other frameworks is also evolutionary. The perception out there is that these frameworks compete. But they do not. There is no competing version of materiality – there are different internal contexts that may apply, but this is not competition.

The thing that differentiates GRI is that it is a strong network that we can leverage to increase collaboration and innovation to create new frameworks. There is a perception is that more frameworks are bad. I don't see it that way. More frameworks are good. We want to see more frameworks that help corporations manage governance and disclosure more effectively in ways that move them forward. GRI has always been that network in the middle that helps things come together.. a sort of backbone of sustainability disclosure, holistically capturing all of the universe of things in CSR reporting that need to be addressed. No one else is doing this. My interest is to strengthen that backbone to improve collaboration and facilitate innovation. We can learn from industries – such as the technology industry – that have done this well and apply those learnings to the sustainability disclosure landscape. GRI is an inclusive framework. We can build on this.

EC: Who are the key stakeholders that you will be looking to engage and work with as you take up your new role?

MM: The world of stakeholders, for GRI, is expansive and we have to move forward on several fronts as we target to strengthen our collaboration and innovation in sustainability disclosure. We will set our sights in working more closely on the labor and human rights side, and supporting new regulatory initiatives relating to reporting, while continuing to build our international leadership. I'll be reviewing the excellent relationships that GRI has maintained so far and looking to accelerate and broaden the momentum in areas that support improved collaboration and innovation.

EC: What has been your interaction with GRI to date?

MM: I have been familiar with GRI for ages. In fact, early on in my career, I invented one of the first carbon management platforms, to help companies calculate and manage their carbon footprint. This was part of the emerging sustainability disclosure world at that time. The first things clients would ask was: how does this fit with reporting frameworks such as GRI? That was my first taste of sustainability reporting -- using a data collection and reporting framework to help companies improve their impacts.

EC: What do you see as the biggest opportunities for expansion/acceleration of sustainability reporting?

MM: The number of reporting entities is increasing rapidly. There's no doubt about that. At the same time, there are concerns about the quality of reporting. Part of our role at GRI is to help drive not only widespread acceptance but also help improve the quality of reporting overall. That's one opportunity. Another opportunity is in the area of helping remove the confusion that exists in the area of competitive frameworks. Other frameworks for sustainability disclosure understand the need for collaboration but from the outside, this looks like competition. I have already spoken to the leadership of several other frameworks and I hear a genuine desire to collaborate. We have to build on this desire and make collaboration more apparent and transparent to all those who are watching what we do and are affected by what we do. This challenge has been met time and time again in other industries. It can be done.

EC: What are the specific skills you bring that will be of most use to moving GRI forward in the next phase?

MM: One of the key things is related to my point above. One of the areas I specialize in is helping markets come together. One of the things I love most is being in a place at the time when everything starts to coalesce and helping it happen. I have experience in this area. It's what I find most challenging and most rewarding. There may be lots of different interests but everything has the same goal. That's the skill set that I bring to the table, and that's my focus. The outcome is for GRI to get through it with a stronger backbone. The work we are doing on standards is a part of that. We need to focus more on how people are reporting, how we interconnect with other frameworks and how we define the architecture of the reporting landscape. GRI is the only de facto sustainability metrics framework in the world. We can play a very significant role here.

The second thing that I bring is my experience with developing and using technology. The ability of organizations to capture data and information in reports is now facilitated through technology. At one time, it was impossible. Now, technology enables you to get data very quickly, cut it up in different ways and reuse it in different formats to meet different reporting requirements. A GRI report is an incredibly robust source of data and this fits very well with many aspects of corporate governance. I believe I can help advance the use of technology in reporting that will help companies become more efficient in the way they report and also enhance innovation in the reporting market place.

EC: What can we count on from you as GRI's new chief exec?

MM: You can count on my mantra: collaboration and innovation. I'll be looking to drive better outcomes for GRI and for all of us in the field of sustainability reporting. Communications is a big part of this. We need to make sure everyone knows what's going on.