January 2023

Chris Clark conducts interviews with leading corporate directors and subject matter experts for Stuart Levine & Associates, a global consulting and leadership development company. The Planet Governance™ interview series features the views of corporate directors, chief executives, and governance experts on timely issues from succession planning and board composition to cyber-resiliency to stakeholder activism.

This pioneering corporate director says ESG is becoming political, highly detailed, and industry specific… 

Rose McKinney-James is a former state utility regulator, government leader and clean energy advocate. A native of Detroit, McKinney-James currently resides in Las Vegas and is the Managing Principal of Energy Works, McKinney-James & Associates, and the Managing Principal of Advocacy BL/ACK (Building Leadership Advancing Community Knowledge). She is currently a member of the board of directors of MGM Resorts International, Ioneer, Pacific Premier Bancorp, ClearResult, and Toyota Financial Savings Bank. 

Rose McKinney-James

Rose McKinney-James

Chris: Rose, how do you properly evaluate your board in terms of being ESG-competent?

Rose: Great question, I can’t offer a complete answer, but I’m happy to share a perspective. ESG is an increasingly critical, evolving, and important aspect of corporate governance. The competent board is engaged and well informed on all the key governance trends and supports a comprehensive environmental, social and governance strategy. However, some would argue that while the basics are well settled, the reality is that much of the work around ESG is becoming increasingly political, highly detailed, and industry specific. Understanding the basics and applying the general board responsibilities of oversight, risk mitigation, and strategy should be of paramount importance to the truly engaged and ESG-competent director. This includes setting realistic goals that are consistent and compatible with publicly stated corporate priorities. It is also essential that the collection, disclosure, and reporting of the data to support the ability to meet these goals is conducted in a thoughtful and credible manner. 

Transparency is crucial to establishing a credible path to achieving the internal support necessary for a successful ESG effort. While it isn’t necessary for every corporate director to be an expert in ESG, it is essential that directors understand the expectations of a diverse set of stakeholders. Historically this was limited to the shareholder or investor community. ESG has expanded the focus to consider customers, employees, local communities, and suppliers as key stakeholders. 

For me, the focus on ESG has become an exciting part of my board service journey. There are a wide range of approaches to the work so the ability to evaluate competence is likely best tied to measuring the effectiveness of individual company ESG performance.

Chris: Who was the single most positive influence in your career?

Rose: If you’d asked a slightly different question, say the most important influence in my life, the answer would be simple, my maternal grandparents.  They provided the inspiration and foundation for everything I do. 

Regarding my career, I’m grateful to several mentors, role models and influencers all of whom helped to shape my career. However, the single person providing the most influence was former New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. I was incredibly fortunate to have the privilege of interning in her office during my second year in law school. She was larger than life and an absolute force. She was courageous, thoughtful, determined, strategic, and the embodiment of professional excellence. 

She was fierce in her advocacy for those who had been marginalized. She was an incredibly effective spokesperson for education, economic empowerment, and community service. I knew immediately that her approach to work would become my North Star. She provided me with a unique opportunity and platform to observe up close the true virtues of public service.  That exposure led to a lifelong interest in the complexities of the regulatory and legislative process. She gave me a safe place to grow, the courage to question and to learn.  She was far from perfect, but she taught me the importance of personal grit and commitment to purpose — these are attributes to truly admire and embrace.

Chris: From your vantage point, Rose, do you agree that the CEO today is more coach than steward?

Rose: I believe that the most effective CEO is both steward and coach. Given the choice, I prefer steward. If the goal is to advance a culture in an organization that promotes shared values, I’m not sure coaching alone can achieve the most impactful outcomes. In my experience, the CEO that leads as a steward and demonstrates the ability to drive others to pursue excellence can also earn the same level of respect and loyalty given to a coach… coaching then becomes additive. 

It’s important for the board to encourage the CEO to pursue a leadership style that leads the organization toward positive results.  The CEO as steward requires a unique skill set that is grounded in the ability to clearly communicate the company’s values. The importance of teamwork can’t be underestimated. The ability to coalesce a company around shared values requires stewardship. So, the CEO that sets the tone and serves as an example to provide the requisite leadership necessary to inspire, encourage and develop talent is likely both steward and coach.  The success of the entire enterprise is dependent upon the ability of leadership to deliver solid financial and corporate performance and that requires the support of a strong team. 

A successful CEO as steward can create the vision necessary to shape and elevate the importance of culture in an organization. It’s said that culture eats strategy for breakfast.  I’d add that the CEO as steward takes the lead in setting the table. 

Chris: Rose, thank you for sharing your insights and experiences.

Rose McKinney-James is a former state utility regulator, government leader and clean energy advocate. McKinney-James is the Managing Principal of Energy Works, McKinney-James & Associates, and the Managing Principal of Advocacy BL/ACK. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of MGM Resorts International, Ioneer, Pacific Premier Bancorp, ClearResult, and Toyota Financial Savings Bank. 

Christopher Y. Clark joined Stuart Levine & Associates as a senior consultant after a distinguished career at the National Association of Corporate Directors. He has over thirty years of entrepreneurial and corporate business experience. His expertise ranges across a variety of disciplines including corporate governance with board assessments as a cornerstone, team building, strategic communications, and digital content creation.