The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Hugh Welsh of DSM North America
Events of the past few years have thrust corporate leaders into the spotlight in new ways and raised expectations for action. The dialogue has certainly changed in terms of the national conversation about corporate responsibility, particularly in light of growing recognition of the need for urgent action on climate change.
We have the good fortune of working with a number of corporations and other leaders shaping this national conversation. One such person is DSM North America President, Secretary and General Counsel Hugh Welsh. Hugh is a visionary leader with a direct, focused approach to management and communications that has placed him in the center of conversations about climate and agricultural policy as well as recovery from the pandemic and the importance of food and nutrition. It’s a privilege to be working with him and his team.
In addition to his role leading the North American subsidiary of the Dutch-owned conglomerate DSM, Hugh serves on several DSM global and regional management teams. Hugh is a member of the Board of Directors of Partners in Food Solutions, the National Diversity Council, the Global Business Alliance, the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, the Tri-State Diversity Council, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Board of Governors of Union County College. He is also co-Chair of the Ready Nation CEO Council focused on early childhood issues in America, a member of the CEO Climate Dialogue and a former Board Member of BIO and the American Chemistry Council.
You can check out Hugh’s thoughts on decarbonization policies in this webinar we conducted recently. He’s also regularly included in coverage about pressing issues: check out his recent interview on climate policy with Abby Smith of the Washington Examiner here. With his experience and background, Hugh’s perspective is both insightful and valuable and I’m grateful for his willingness to be the latest participant in the Common Sense Colloquy series.
My thanks to Hugh for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.
Q: You’re recognized as an excellent communicator. What’s your approach and why do you think it’s successful?
A: As the oldest of nine children, I learned early on if you want to be heard you better learn to be a pretty good storyteller. This has proven to also be the case in the courtroom and the Board room. I also learned that people thirst for honesty and authenticity in a world where they are confronted with polarizing messaging every day. I try hard to communicate this way and be curious not judgmental.
Q: In your role at DSM North America, you’re also the General Counsel in addition to the President. What advice do you have for communicators to consider in working with lawyers and understanding the important nuances related to legal considerations, particularly as they relate to communicating about challenging or complex issues?
A: A good General Counsel can take the most complex legal issues and reduce them to business terms that address both the risks and opportunities, with suggested actions, for the CEO and executive team. Outside lawyers have the luxury of qualified opinions; General Counsel need to bring explanations and options.
Q: How do you view the responsibility of corporations to be good corporate citizens? How should companies communicate about their activities on climate policy, environmental protection, sustainability, or any other corporate responsibility topics?
A: I am a firm believer in Stakeholder Capitalism. I think companies have a responsibility to generate returns for their shareholders but also have a responsibility to customers, employees, suppliers and the communities within which we live and work. We live in an age of virtue signaling and greenwashing. Companies need to be authentic, sincere and factual in their communications concerning climate matters, sustainability and social issues. It cannot be just rhetoric; it also needs to be about remuneration and reporting. I have long stated the CSR is dead. There is no need for a separate CSR team. Global executives today need to have a CSR mindset and be excellent communicators – not just about their strategy, products and business but also on climate, racial and social issues. Stakeholders now demand it - and executives with a stakeholder capitalism mindset need to satisfy this demand.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Understand your audience
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Be authentic and speak from your experience. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and never compromise your integrity.