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We understand that no two organisations are the same. Find out more about how we've customised our recruitment offerings to help clients across South East Asia meet their needs.

Read more
About Robert Walters Philippines

Since our establishment in 2016, our belief remains the same: Building strong relationships with people is vital in a successful partnership.

Learn more

Work for us

Our people are the difference. Hear stories from our people to learn more about a career at Robert Walters

Learn more

Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E16: Conversation with Nicole Liu, ESG advocate

As organisations start to focus on the ESG transformation of their companies, how can you develop a career in ESG? What are the key skills and capabilities needed by the workforce in order to drive this initiative successfully? And what are the common challenges that leaders face in executing their ESG roadmap?

Nicole Liu, former Head of Communications in a financial services company and a passionate advocate of ESG in the country, shares more about the importance of ESG in organisations in this episode of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters in South East Asia. 

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights into the world of work. Watch the videocast of this episode here.

To find out more about how effective recruitment and retention elevates environmental, social and governance performance, download our latest eguide Empowering people to deliver your ESG transformation.

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Alejandro Perez-Higuero: Hi. I am Alejandro Perez, Director at Robert Walters Philippines, and I'm your host for this episode of Powering Potential with Robert Walters. This is our leadership series where we interview leaders, recruitment experts, and career specialists on their careers, leaderships lessons, and the latest talent trends.

So today, it's my pleasure to have with us, Nicole Liu, a passionate advocate of ESG in the country, joining us. Welcome Nicole and thank you so much for making time for us today.

Nicole Liu: Thank you so much Alex for inviting me to talk about a topic that is very relevant, critical, and a topic that I'm very passionate about.

Alejandro Perez-Higuero: Thank you very much. So for our listeners who might not know Nicole, she brings with her over 23 years of professional experience from several reputable banks and financial organisations, both domestically and overseas, with experience in the Philippines, in the US, and in other countries. She has also integrated her finance background into expanding socially responsible, beneficiary-focused, and internationally recognised programmes with her different companies. So we are thrilled to have Nicole onboard today to have a chat on how to develop a career in the ESG industry, how to integrate best practices of ESG within disciplines of diverse organisations, given that this is now a topic that is gaining importance, and more and more organisations are actually gaining interest and focusing on their ESG transformation. So, Nicole, if you don't mind, I'll start with my first question.

Okay. ESG is a key priority for many organisations nowadays as we were discussing. So just share with us about what ESG means to you just from your perspective and based on your experience.

Nicole Liu: Great. Thanks Alex for that question. So, actually, ESG, if you think about it, Corporate Social Responsibility is actually the precursor to ESG.

What is ESG? ESG, stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance, is the set of practices that an organisation implements to reduce negative impact or to enhance positive impact on the environment, society, and governance bodies. But what is it essentially? It starts with a basic principle of giving back, doing good, acts of gratitude really, that an organisation knows that they have the responsibility to give back to their people, to the people, the stakeholders, and the planet. And then they can do so, while still making a profit. So companies need to find that sweet spot in their business strategies, where they can both do well and do good. Their business models that support this balance of sustainability and profits. But there is also the opportunity to innovate and create new models. That's what it means to me.

Alejandro Perez-Higuero: So, Nicole, in your experience, what are some common challenges that leaders in Asia face when it comes to embracing and implementing ESG initiatives? These may be structural, cultural, or, you know, people or personal related issues.

Nicole Liu: Sure. That's really interesting. I think as with anything, change is always challenging, right? Managing other changes in the environment, the changes in ways of working. So the first change that actually all countries, all organisations face in different countries is change in regulation. Regulatory bodies are requiring companies now to have sustainability plans and reporting, seeing how they progress.

In the Philippines specifically, the SEC or Securities and Exchange Commission has required publicly listed companies to report and have sustainability plans. Specifically in the finance industry, the Central Bank or the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) also has a set of regulation which pertains to sustainability.

You have to grapple with the fact that more evidence and shared information influences perspectives that change the values and impacts the culture of stakeholders. Stakeholders mean clients, customers, shareholders, and employees. Next is the impact or challenge to employees. Well, actually more of a challenge to an employer.

An employee now considers potential employers who have values and initiatives that impact society. Employees can decide to work for a company that is committed to making a difference and is 100 percent committed to a sustainability agenda. Many have actually gone the entrepreneurial route because they have the freedom to customise a business model that aligns with entrepreneur values, and goals. And then they become the employer, right? Because it now aligns with what they're thinking, and what they want to do to impact society. Basically, the challenge is with the increased awareness in doing good, we must take action as organisations, whether employer or employee, to do good, right? So companies need to commit to doing well and doing good.

That means this will have to drive innovation. The innovation now influences industry cooperation, and influences consumer and investor behaviour. So you see that wheel of change. That wheel of change obviously can be the reverse, where the change in consumer and investor behaviour influences or drives the companies to innovate and influence an entire industry.

So with the basic tenets of with the introduction of ESG goals also derived from the UN Sustainable Development Goals. People need to change mindsets. So mindset changes, number one. Then the mindset change influences the business model change and innovation that happens in the company. I think it's all for the better. And I think it just increases our accountability to each other and the communities that we serve.

Alejandro Perez-Higuero: Thank you very much. It's interesting that you are not speaking about very strange concepts to business. At the end of the day, we are speaking about leadership, we're speaking about getting the buy-in from your stakeholders, right? As we see in many different strategies related to many different segments other than, or areas other than ESG.

So, I think this is what I get from your answer, and it's an interesting view. You've had a series of leadership positions in both profit and non-profit organisations. So when it comes to ESG strategies, ESG goals, would you mind sharing with us what's the difference in your experience between ESG in profit and non-profit firms, how have you lived this? And what are the main fundamental differences - if it's easier or more difficult, or more often or less often embraced, in profit or non-profit organisations?

Nicole Liu: Oh, that's quite interesting. So, yeah, I've had quite a journey.

But I think there is really a narrowing of the gap. In fact, it's kind of invisible already. Let me explain that a bit more. So, there is a notion that for-profit companies only have regard to the bottom line and they would do anything to make a profit, and that non-profits only focus on doing good without regard to profit. But the reality is sustainably profitable companies profit because they do good, and sustainable non-profit companies, while profit is not the primary goal, ensures that they secure funding to continue to create impact in the communities they serve, or advocacies they promote. So for-profit and non-profit organisations, they actually both have to develop measurable goals and they have to commit to it and execute based on the goals that they set out.

It's actually quite the same for-profit organisations have profitability targets. Why? To increase shareholder value, for example. But non-profit organisations, measure it by impact, right? In the way they're able to improve or penetrate a social issue that they're focused on. However, one must remember, ideal for-profit companies really measure at the triple bottom line, right?

These are social, environmental, and financial bottom lines. Simply put, the 3Ps - People, Planet, and Profit. So I think that while there is a difference in perspective, the goal is the same. And if you start from a standpoint of I want to do good for the people I serve and the people who are in my team, then there is really no difference and it will continue your business. Organisations will continue, business for-profit or non-profit organisations will continue for as long as you have this mindset and foundation that you're working on. All decisions will revolve around that basic tenet of People, Planet and Profit.

Alejandro Perez-Higuero: Thanks Nicole for your answer. And I fully agree with the fact that no matter whether organisations are for-profit or not-for-profit, they have organisational goals and strategies, right? And the fact that they build sustainable strategies to hit those targets or those goals has a positive impact on the long-term success. So despite not being experts on having much to learn about ESG, it is great to have you here because Robert Walters is really trying to learn and raise awareness about the topic. As a recruitment firm, we feel like we have also a role to play in this whole area.

So, we are learning again about all these ESG world. We have released our Robert Walters ESG guide to help our help organisations with the talent strategies for ESG transformation to build a stronger employer proposition that is aligned with sustainable goals, is aligned with environmental, social, governance lines, views and strategies.

So it's particularly clear that given the ESG field is quite new, and talent pools have not fully caught up on companies hiring needs, what hiring managers need to focus on is not only the ESG job titles, hiring someone who is an ESG manager or ESG head, also transferable skills. So, let's say someone who's leading different areas but still have been taking part on ESG initiatives or, you know, have developed easy strategies somehow. So in your opinion, or from your perspective, what will be the advice you'll give to other professionals looking to specialise in or develop their careers, in relation with the ESG field?

Nicole Liu: Yeah, that's a really good question. So, I'll give you like an interesting perspective that's quite new. So as a parent I have school-aged children, and now when they're doing problem solving, critical thinking projects, they're always asked, "Now, how does this impact your community and society?". That's a bit different from when I was going to school. So you're already training young people as early as school-aged children to think that the world is bigger than themselves and that they're going to school and learning skills to solve problems that will affect the world, right?

So really, one hones their skills in school, training and experience. But personal values, perspectives, and philosophy are critical. So once you're looking for a job now, you have to think before you have to package yourself with your skills. Think about what and who are important to you. You can contribute that also when you get into a company, because as you said, we're all learning. Any company will welcome employees who want to serve them to do better in general. In addition to their specific specialisations or skills, as I mentioned earlier in the conversation, employees now also consider companies that commit to ESG initiatives. They look into what are they doing to help Sustainable Development Goals.

Is this aligned with what I'm truly passionate about now? The key though for the employee is to apply their technical skills in order to provide innovative solutions and help the organisation fulfil their business objectives and ESG goals. So it's kind of a double purpose. When you come into a role now, right? Now, all skill sets are actually needed. What I'm saying is everyone still finds their talent and specialisation. It's just that you add an additional layer or perspective to, you know, you're contributing to the triple bottom line now. So my skills contribute to the to the for-profit angle. And my perspective and innovative problem solving ideas can help with ESG goals.

So what are the roles normally, and skills? Communication - I mean, talking about theoretical and philosophical perspectives and how it manifests in practical application is a skill. Second is project management because now you have to add an additional metric which is impact. Third is obviously strategy because now your big picture vision is now wider. Obviously, critical thinking skills, and there are specialisations because of regulation, right? So legal and finance are key in running organisations that also have a value and place critical emphasis on ESG. So just as an example, my background is finance and fundraising. A very successful venture capitalist recently told me, "You know, you seem to have a problem with money. You have told me how much money you have raised for advocacies, but you have a problem raising money for profit alone". That's what he told me. My response to him was that working for a company with clear ESG goals is important for me because a company like that diffuses the tension of doing well and doing good. So lucky for me, the world is now all moving in that direction. I mean, I believe in making a profit, but making a profit for the benefit of others. A company that measures the triple bottom line. And some have even gone a step further that they commit to people and planet before profit, and this is guided by senior leadership.

I also think in the employment pool, and I go back to my first point is values. My family values and educational background has helped me form this personal perspective. You know, I was raised to pray and work, be a person for others, and doing more for the greater good. That has been my guiding principle throughout my career, and that's also why it's been seamless moving from for-profit to non-profit and back. So that's already like there are blurred lines because now, for-profit companies are being held accountable to do good.

Alejandro Perez-Higuero: Yeah. Thank you very much. Actually, I think this conversation is going to be interesting for many of our friends listening because as you said, narrowing down very much what ESG means, how it can be applied for competitive organisations nowadays, and what are the type of skills you need for, just applied in every single box of the organisation, right? You don't need to be an absolute expert to start, taking the first step. And I think that's one of the takeaways, right? Easy takeaway and at the same time, very powerful.

For our last question, what's one key piece of advice you'd like to share with other senior leaders practicing ESG?

Nicole Liu: Well, senior leaders must commit. I think commitment is absolute and is key to make this all happen. They have to be open and agile to change and committed to fulfilling their responsibility to the world and the people they work with and work for. You must find a champion to meet your ESG goals and initiatives. I think that you obviously need to be good at what you do, right? I mean, that's critical. You know, like you need to understand regulation if you're in legal, you need to know how to do and adjust risk modelling if you're in finance. The key is to see a bigger perspective that you have to now marry ESG goals and your for-profit goals, and make sure that they are aligned. That is the critical juncture. However, you can be supported in doing so by a leadership that's committed, open and welcome to out-of-the-box thinking to meet these goals. Because the world is changing rapidly and we are the only ones responsible to sustaining it. Obviously, we have to act now so our leaders really must drive that. The leaders obviously drive that but your base, your consumers and your employees will also push that up. So how much faster will turnaround be if both sides are actually working on the same goal? So commitment is key, having a champion is key to further that commitment and you will get organisational transformation that will lead to success. So, going back to the earlier question about skills, the skills are not very different. They just have to be repurposed. And let's not go into a career or a job without thinking that you have to be good at your game. You do have to be good at your game. You just have to come with a different set of goals, and these are the ESG goals and sustainability goals. So really it's not much different from a first grader being taught math, but saying that math will help them with critical thinking and problem solving, and they can become architects and help with disaster management later on.

It's that kind of mindset that really sets individuals apart in this time. It's really that, I believe, as someone who has employed people, and someone who is an employee herself, that's the kind of, environment we are in.

Alejandro Perez-Higuero: Thank you, Nicole. Well, we have come to the end of this session. It was great hearing your insights on the very interesting and relevant topic of ESG, and your personal advice on growing a fulfilling career. So I have some points I thought were particularly interesting out of your sharing.

First of all, ESG is here to stay. There are growing and increasing regulatory and environmental requirements nowadays within the information era. Second, this is a long-term race. And we'll have a responsibility to start from the very beginning. And this is values with our social circles, within our families, et cetera. It's a mindset, as you said. It's an extra layer to add when it comes to critical thinking and decision making. Doing good and delivering sustainable may have a relation with innovation. I thought this was a very interesting point and definitely not strangers definitely, can walk hand by hand. And finally, some key skills or some key areas where ESG can be especially relevant are communication as this is how you can both internally and externally get alignment on a common purpose, which in this case is ESG; project management, as you said, adding an extra layer and repurposing was the term you used, the way you deliver projects, the way you make things happen within a business environment; strategy, of course, one pillar to incorporate within any business strategy is ESG; critical thinking; and of course, legal and finance, without forgetting of course, leadership in general, because let's not forget that sometimes, leaders are the ones who need to start with all things related to innovation, right?

And at this point of time, we can consider that ESG is a new topic and should be part of the innovation agenda of any company, right? So these are the several points I take away from our conversation, Nicole, and I think it was very interesting and definitely eye-opening to hear you speak about all these points and ESG in general.

Nicole Liu: Thank you very much, Alex. I hope we can inspire a whole new perspective in the workforce.

Alejandro Perez-Higuero: To our listeners and viewers, don't forget to stay tuned for our next episode. Thanks again, Nicole, very much for your time today. And thank you all for listening. Take care and goodbye.

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