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The GreenBiz Interview

Meet John Hancock’s first sustainability director in the United States

The insurance giant has sustainability members in most of its departments, but recently created a global head to steer them all.

Welcome back to the occasional series on first sustainability directors in their firms. This time, we bounce back to the East Coast and move into the financial services industry with John Hancock. The company is well known as an insurance provider, and also for philanthropic gestures, such as sponsoring the Boston Marathon. It recently was acquired by Manulife, the Canadian insurance and financial services provider, and actually has many more business lines with sustainability implications than one might guess.

But like many companies that have a deeply rooted tradition of community investment, it is in the relatively early stages of broadening its view of corporate responsibility to incorporate sustainability more systematically. 

I had the chance to catch up with Kyle Cahill, John Hancock’s first U.S. sustainability director, as well as Tom Crohan, who heads corporate responsibility and government relations, to learn more about this evolution.

Mia Overall: Tom, you head corporate responsibility for John Hancock in the United States. How did the new sustainability director role come about?

Tom Crohan: We added Kyle to our team just over a year ago. The creation of his role is really a case of pairing practical realities with opportunity. Someone left, and we took the opportunity to recalibrate, adapting our team to meet evolving needs. Historically, we did not have a sustainability lead for the corporate office in the U.S. But since the acquisition by Manulife, we are endeavoring down a path of developing global strategy, and having someone focused on sustainability is critical for that. 

Plus, the expectations that customers and employees have of us are now higher, as they should be. We started with a community relations function. This evolved into a corporate responsibility function. We’ve had people focused on community investing and philanthropy for a long time. We partner with nonprofits to create social impact and have skills-based volunteering in the community. The interaction with stakeholders we have in corporate responsibility has been very relevant in government relations. 

But we realized we needed to up our game, so Kyle is now the first person to really head up sustainability. 

We have so many significant opportunities with our business: investments; real estate; ESG funds; and other new products coming online. We have also been consolidating into a new headquarters which brings up issues related to sustainability in our real estate, the movement of people and carbon offsets, healthy and sustainable food choices in the new cafeteria.

There are so many things like ratings, surveys, data collection, etc., to manage, where you really need an empowered quarterback.
Meanwhile, our business partners are asking more of us because they are receiving more inquiries related to sustainability. For example, there are so many things like ratings, surveys, data collection, etc., to manage, where you really need an empowered quarterback. We needed to have the resources in place to respond to those inquiries. Kyle has filled critical gaps in environmental oversight, engagement and employee health and well-being.

Overall: Do you think this kind of thing is relevant to other companies?

Crohan: Yes. There is an element of evolution that is important to acknowledge for companies journeying through this. You might not hire someone for sustainability, or you might think to hire differently, but it's important to identify the skills you need to get you to where you want to go. 

Overall: Kyle, what has it been like to step into the role as John Hancock’s first sustainability director in the United States?

Kyle Cahill: John Hancock is unique as a financial insurance company and asset manager. We are a significant real estate owner with 65 million feet of real estate globally, we manage a $1 billion-plus portfolio of certified sustainably managed forests and we operate around 300,000 acres of farmland globally. So, the opportunity to come to financial services organization that is also involved in much more felt really unique. The company was also embarking on its first global sustainability strategy, and there was not yet someone at the company helping to bring that together. That has been a key part of this position.

Yet despite not having a dedicated person working on sustainability, there were already many active efforts across the company. For example, our real estate business has been working on sustainability for a long time. Our asset management business has an ESG team. In our agriculture and timber businesses, we have a wildlife biologist. My position has been to be the first to focus on global alignment and strategy in a way that brings together a number of different initiatives and activities that emerged organically. 

Overall: What can you say about the process of pulling all that great work together?

Cahill: The biggest challenge has been figuring out how to continue all the things that John Hancock is doing really well and integrate them into the business, while at the same time identify gaps and create a cohesive global strategy. 

It’s not just tactical — it's a mix, and you are forced by the nature of the work to wear many hats.
It’s not just tactical — it's a mix, and you are forced by the nature of the work to wear many hats. You are challenged with maintaining ongoing initiatives while finding ways to put more time and energy into things you just want to do more of. Resources, particularly time, are limited.

Let’s take reporting as an example. As a public company, we are eager to be thoughtful and have a robust disclosure and reporting program. In many ways, the integration work we are doing has been much easier because we already have a set of people and initiatives across geographies that are active in reporting and disclosing.

But the ability to continue that work alongside doing the bigger picture things has probably been the most challenging.

Overall: What has helped to unlock progress?

Cahill: Think big while staying grounded in what you have to do day to day. One of the specific things we’ve done is to formalize a governance structure and operating model.  Without having a horizontal view of what’s happening across the program or a formal body to escalate issues and opportunities to, you tend to move from thing to thing, staying on the back foot and being reactive. We formalized an executive group to have oversight of the program with representation from different parts of the business. This has allowed us to have much better coordination across the business, to prioritize and be smarter in the development of the strategy. 

Overall: As someone who is new to the role and to the company, you have the double task of building your own credibility and delivering results. How have you done this?

Cahill: Being successful in this role is as much about empathy, diplomacy and collaboration as it is about knowledge of the issues or being certified in some sort of standard.  Because of that, your own personal brand in an organization is very valuable. One of the most daunting things about taking on this job was starting somewhere new.

Overall: What has surprised you?

Cahill: There seems to be an untapped interest in this work. I’ve been surprised at the number of colleagues I’ve been able to engage. Many are in roles that can have a specific impact on sustainability, such as people on the real estate team. A number of people were excited to have someone on board at the company who had sustainability as the main part of their mandate, a proof point that the company does care about these things.

A number of people were excited to have someone on board at the company who had sustainability as the main part of their mandate, a proof point that the company does care about these things.
It seemed to make them happy to know that there was an additional voice to theirs focusing on sustainability. It’s been very exciting to get to know people who are not in sustainability-related positions, but who have been thinking about these issues and are very interested in supporting the company’s sustainability efforts. This includes people from the innovation team, the marketing and web team and others.

Overall: Can you give me an example of something the company has done really well in one specific area that you are transforming into a key part of a larger strategy?

Cahill: Within our real estate business, they have developed a model for green champions and there are over 50 colleagues that act as a point person on their location. They are the local drum beat around sustainability.  We are meeting with them to learn about their model because we see an opportunity to bring that out of the pocket of real estate to the broader organization. When I learned that this network existed, I realized it could be valuable as we look to spread the sustainability ethos across other parts of the company.

Overall: When it comes to achieving the results you want, what are some of the questions you grapple with on a daily basis?

Cahill: Trying to establish the structure for something, while in the meantime convincing colleagues of why it is valuable. I need to make sure we move forward at a pace that satisfies the executives and aims high enough to make a difference. How do you move incrementally and also be ambitious enough? Is what we are doing meaningful enough? Is it at the pace and scale that it needs to be? There's a lot of looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what needs to happen.

How do you move incrementally and also be ambitious enough? Is what we are doing meaningful enough? Is it at the pace and scale that it needs to be?
Integrating sustainability across an organization requires a huge amount of effort. At the same time, there is a big opportunity cost to society from incrementalism. The sustainability community is realizing that our approach to sustainability isn’t good enough. So I think every person in this field is really doing their best to drive their organizations to think about the purpose of organizations and the potential of organizations to drive some of the systems transitions and change that are necessary so we can start having the impact we need to have across a range of issues.

Overall: What’s something you are really proud of?

Cahill: It makes me proud that my colleagues who run the employee engagement and volunteering program and the community investment program have approached me with an interest in figuring out how their work can contribute to the greater sustainability mission. They each have their own programs, goals, targets and priorities, but the fact that they are interested in aligning how the organization views sustainability with how it views investments in the community and volunteering is very satisfying.

Overall: What advice would you have for someone else in this role or for a company that hasn’t created this role yet?

Cahill: This may sound hokey, but never stop asking why and why not. It can be easy to accept an organizational norm or responses like, "This is how it's always been."

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