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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Lionel Johnson of Pacific Pension & Investment Institute

The role of institutional investors in climate change mitigation is not always well understood, despite a great deal of attention being paid to the impact of such investments in driving business changes designed to help address the global threat of a changing climate. At the same time, diversity, equity and inclusion decisions are increasingly important to investment considerations and are now contemplated in concert with climate and related topics.

Fortunately, we have a friend who can help shed some light on this complex and challenging topic. Lionel C. Johnson is president of the Pacific Pension & Investment Institute, a role he assumed in July 2014. Lionel’s career spans nearly four decades and includes service in the private and public sectors both here and abroad.

Highlights of Lionel’s career include service as: senior vice president of the Initiative for Global Development; vice president of Turkey, Middle East and North Africa Affairs at the Chamber of Commerce of the United States; senior vice president of public affairs at FleishmanHillard; vice president and director of International Government Affairs at Citigroup; and deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for International Development, Debt and Environment Policy in the Clinton Administration. He also had several roles at the U.S. State Department and in the U.S. Foreign Service. He has held assignments in the U.S. Embassies in Haiti, the Philippines and Kenya and was a graduate instructor of U.S. foreign policy and American politics at the City University of Manila in the Philippines.

Lionel is chairman of Foreign Policy for America and of Sudoc and a member of the board of trustees of the RAND Corporation. He serves on a number of other boards as well. Whew. Just reading that list makes me tired. To say Lionel is accomplished is a bit of an understatement. I first met Lionel at FleishmanHillard more than 15 years ago, and I’ve always been impressed by how down-to-earth and approachable he is, even with all of his impressive experience and influential positions. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to include Lionel in this ongoing series of conversations and to welcome him to The Common Sense Colloquy.

My thanks to Lionel for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.

Q: You work with institutional and other long-term investors on a number of topics. How does climate change factor into your work? What have you learned from interacting with your key stakeholders that might be helpful for communicators to understand in addressing the role of investment in influencing climate change mitigation efforts?

A: Climate change factors prominently into our work at PPI as a multi-year, possibly multi-decade, recurring theme – a theme for programmatic engagement with PPI member organizations, climate scientists, political leaders and lawmakers, and other stakeholders. We also make it a point to ensure that these engagements occur at an international level, involving countries in vastly different economic growth and development stages because a planetary crisis like climate change calls for international, if not global, cooperation.

Through working with an international community of long-term oriented institutional investors, including sovereign wealth funds, state and local pension systems, endowments and foundations, family offices, asset managers and advisors, and benchmark providers, during the last eight years, I learned a great deal from many thoughtful and strategic leaders, whom I consider my colleagues and friends. One often-repeated concern within this group is that divestment may be too blunt of a tool, or too expedient an exit, for dealing with climate change.

While the global energy transition is already underway, many carbon-heavy industries will remain a part of the evolving energy mix for some time. Strong corporate governance must be present in these industries, and large institutional investors are better equipped to act as responsible stewards and partners to help guide best practices. Forcing this class of investors to divest from troubled industries may ultimately lead to ownership structures that further deprioritize climate change mitigation.

Q: How are you and your colleagues at PPI using your influence to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in investing? What kind of response are you receiving and how are you adjusting your approach based on that response?

A: Diversity, equity, and inclusion at PPI start with the composition of our management team – each team member not only brings with them a unique set of professional skillsets but also, and perhaps more importantly, unique backgrounds and perspectives as minorities, first and second-generation immigrants, and legal permanent residents of foreign citizenship. This level of embodiment drives us to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion through all aspects of our work, such as program design, speaker selection, external partnerships, member, and board engagements, etc. One specific example is that PPI programs are intentional about featuring women and minority thought leaders – we strive for and often achieve gender-parity in our speaker lineups or no “manels” (men-only panels).

The response and support we have received on this set of issues are also highly encouraging. Our members welcomed and contributed to several discussions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, in various contexts. Their responses certainly reflect the significance of these issues within their respective organizations and how they approach investing. We expect to continue to convene our members to further explore the nuances and challenges in regularly implementing supportive cultures and practices.

Q: Your impressive career includes diverse experiences in the public and private sector over several decades. What lessons have you learned about the role of communications and how are you applying them to your current role at PPI?

A: Communications are critical in any organization, public, private, or non-profit. Yet, what constitutes effective communication can vary depending on culture, norms, and sometimes individual personalities. Over the years, I have learned to adapt my communication style to the specific audience, situation, or the best available channel. Today, in a leadership role at PPI, I apply different approaches and formats of communication daily; sometimes, it takes a blend of formal and informal contacts to convey the intended message (and elicit a timely response). Getting to know individual team members, board members, and member representatives can go a long way in finding optimally personalized (and personable) communication modes.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?

A: Be a good listener. Communications entail a mutual exchange of information. Being an attentive listener (or reader) can help bridge communication gaps, avoid miscommunications, and sometimes help move conversations forward to addressing more significant underlying issues at the core.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?

A: Communicate proactively and far in advance. Procrastination in communications, often due to fear of confrontation or disappointment, could turn a salvageable situation into an irreversible one as time passes. This advice could be especially applicable in principal-agent or client-manager types of relationships.



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