More companies have set sustainability goals than ever. But many will struggle to meet those goals. Baker McKenzie's Alyssa Auberger shares insights from a special survey that reveals business leader worries and the blindspots that some might overlook. As the global law firm's first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer, she also shares her unique journey to the role -- from pianist to lawyer to her current position -- and how the discipline and creativity required in music shapes how she works even today.
To read the survey, click here: The Race to Net-Zero: Is the global business community on course to beat the clock?,
To learn more about Baker McKenzie's approach to navigating risks, check out its podcast Solutions for a Connected World sharing advice on driving growth that is both sustainable – and inclusive.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Welcome to Meet The Leader the podcast where top leaders share how they’re tackling the world’s toughest challenges. Today's leader? Alyssa Auberger, the Chief Sustainability Officer at global law firm Baker McKenzie. She’ll talk about a surprising blindspot that could be standing in the way of climate progress at your company
Subscribe to Meet the Leader: on Apple, Spotify, and wherever you get your favourite podcasts. And please take a moment to rate and review us.
I'm Linda Lacina from the World Economic Forum and this is Meet the Leader.
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: You know, the GC was the person you go to get the answer "No." And that's not the case. The GC is the person you go to find out how to do it, right? How to get it done.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: More companies than ever have set sustainability goals. And in fact and I bet you don't know this, nearly two thirds of the annual revenue of the largest 2000 companies in the world are actually covered by a net zero target.
But as you and I know very well, setting a goal is not the same as meeting it. And to know how we can all get a little bit closer, global law firm Baker McKenzie conducted a survey of 1000 business leaders to get a temperature read on what leaders thought could go sideways and what they were worried about most.
It's an interesting bit of research, and it covers worries over things like inconsistent reporting standards and how companies can be better corporate citizens. And many of these worries drive home the need to engage with a team that can sometimes be overlooked when it comes to sustainability conversations: legal
Baker Mackenzie's Allison Auberger talked with me at Davos this year about how important it can be to pull legal into sustainability planning from the start, helping to tackle the new realities of progress: Things like navigating regulatory requirements, understanding penalties and disclosures, managing reputational risk so you're never getting overzealous and overpromising.
She'll also share her unique journey to her role. Alyssa is Baker McKenzie's first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer. And she'll tell us how she went from pianist to lawyer to CSO -- and how the creativity and discipline she honed in music has helped her shape how she works even today.
She'll talk about all that, but first she'll tell us more about that survey and why those questions are so important.
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: So the reason we wanted to do the survey was we wanted to understand where people really were, because coming out of COP26 my impression was there was a lot of talk around sustainability, lots of talk around net zero in particular, everybody making net zero commitments, you know, by this date, by that date. Yet when I would talk to people in the trenches, the feeling was we don't really have a handle on our scope three emissions. It's not even a question of how to reduce them. It's more a question of how do we even get our arms around what that is.
So we wanted to do the survey to kind of dig in and figure out what are the -- I wouldn't say problems -- what are the barriers, what's holding people back? Why are they not comfortable yet with this concept? And, you know, tease that out a little bit more. That was the genesis of it.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And was there any kind of statistic or finding from the survey that really stuck out to you?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: There was one, which is more anecdotal than anything else, but there's a finding that came in that didn't go into the final report but is interesting. And it was like 26% of the survey respondents said that they felt that the greatest sceptic in their organisation was the general counsel, which I found to be incredible because A I'm an external counsel and B, I was a big law partner for a long time. So I deal with general counsels and they are the last people I would say are sceptics. They're the ones that are coming to us constantly wanting to understand the issues, really trying to get their head around how they can help the business. So that really jumped out at me, even though it wasn't a huge percentage, just that the GC would be viewed as a sceptic struck me as interesting and peculiar.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: There's a finding here, so I'm going to read it, so I make sure that I say it correctly. 38% of organisations have a net zero transition plan in place and 40% believe that their organisation is at risk of setting objectives that they aren't able to meet. And so given all of that, what do you think is needed to move forward?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: I think there are a lot of things needed to move forward, but I think from where I sit, what I would say is people absolutely need to get a handle on the data. The data is really kind of the key to all of this. So my sense is people are saying things, not saying things. But again, coming back to why we did the survey. Where is that data? And that's what people really need to do. And like the nitty gritty, granular look at their value chain, whether it's upstream or downstream, depending upon what the way you fall out in your industry. But it really is the sort of key point. And so start with the data. Map out your supply chain and then decide what you want to set as a realistic target.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And then only 15% of those surveyed said their organisation had published their net zero plan. Right. Let's talk a little bit about that.
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: That one's coming out, I would say, just because of external concern or concern of greenwashing, for lack of a better name. So people really nervous about either being too ambitious or coming out and stating something that they can't meet. And then, oh my God, what am I going to do? How am I going to justify that?
And then on the flip side, coming out with something that maybe could be perceived as not ambitious enough, right? So really trying to find that that sweet spot of, you know, you've got employees and consumers and activists and NGOs, you've got people all over the place kind of waiting for you to make a false step. So I think that's really what holds back a lot of organisations. But there are other barriers we identified where the need for finance that weren't, you know, were weren't quite there, the supply chain opacity, just not being able to identify the need to have global harmonisation of standards. I mean there's a variety of reasons, but I think there's one that's a real sticking point for people about not publishing, and that's because they're worried about what that could mean in terms of reputation or in terms of litigation.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: I think it's really interesting the idea of making sure that general counsel is involved early on when there's these sustainability plans. And I don't know that there's been too much sort of visibility of that fact in the talk of what needs to be done. Yeah, we talk a lot about technology, we talk about mindset, you know, but we don't talk about the nitty gritty of how things have to get done. Right. So. So tell me a little bit more about that and why it's so important.
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: Having the GC involved I think is really important for a variety of reasons, including the one I just mentioned about greenwashing, right? I mean, you want to make sure that whatever you're saying publicly is vetted and that somebody is looking at it and lawyers are uniquely placed. I think there is a unique skill set to sort of see risk where it might not be visible to the naked eye. So really getting in there and being able to say, we're not going to come out with this claim, we should be saying this. That's one reason.
Lawyers are uniquely placed to see risk where it might not be visible to the naked eye.”
Another reason, I think, is because the way the regulation is going to go and the way you're going to have to disclose and there's going to be financial reporting, but you're going to have to explain what you're doing. If you don't have that vetted by a lawyer -- I don't think I would feel real comfortable not having your GC on board.
Kind of think the GC has a really unique position in the organisation because they tend to be sort of a dot connector, if you will. So historically they might not have been involved because it was sitting in facilities, because sustainability in the old days was very operational, right? It wasn't a C-suite issue.
Then you had like the whole philanthropy part that wasn't necessarily the GC either, but now you're seeing the regulatory aspects, the planning aspects, the governance aspects. All of that means that the governance has to be up to speed because the C-suite is going to come to them. The board is going to come to them and they have to be able to equip the organisation and GCs want to help the organisation. They need to be viewed as -- for a long time I'd say, you know, the GC was the person you go to get the answer "No." And that's not the case. The GC is the person you go to find out how to do it, right? How to get it done.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: The other thing that's interesting is that a lot of the chief sustainability officers that I have talked with, they have very diverse backgrounds. Some of them have been journalists. Some of them have worked in public policy, of course. But you have a legal background and all that. Tell me a little bit about your path to Chief Sustainability Officer.
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: So my path, as in all things sustainability, was not a straight one. I was a musician, I was a pianist turned lawyer. So I already had one bizarre career turn. And then as part of my job as being a lawyer, I was an M&A transactional partner and I took on the role of the global chair of our Consumer Goods and Retail Industry Group. And this was in 2016. And that was about the time where we started to see consumer pressure really on that sector, about environmental sustainability, about what was in products, about what claims were being made. And so at that point in time, I had to invest the time and energy to understand it, because the GCs that we were just talking about we're coming to us saying, "I'm getting questions from my board, I need to get my head around this."
So I spent tons of time investing, you know, trying to figure out how to help the GC, how to help them understand how to communicate with the board and how to work with the sustainability team, right? Because the sustainability team is very operational. And at that point in time we were in like 2019 early 2019, I decided that I really wanted a career change and it was something that I felt really passionate about, something I wanted to do. And, good fortune, Baker McKenzie needed somebody. They decided to elevate it to a C-suite role and industry. I know clients I love. So it really felt like I could be in a great place that I know already to help the firm, but also to help our clients sort of get their head around it.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: You said that you had gotten your start as a pianist. What from your music background sort of helps you?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: I'd say there are a couple of -- a couple of different things.
First of all, there's an insane amount of discipline in any of the performing arts. I mean, not just the performing arts, but in the performing arts, insane amount of discipline. So ability to focus on an objective and really do what it takes to meet it. I think that's something that I grew up doing from the age of six. So, you know, you're just really able to focus. That's one thing.
I also think there's a lot of creativity, a lot of, you know, thinking in different ways, collaborating with other musicians, having to transmit something in a medium that's not your speech or something else, but nonetheless can communicate with people. So I'd say that probably that shapes certainly who I am. It certainly shapes how I deal with my team, how I deal with my colleagues, how I interact as a person. So probably also interacts or affects the way I approach my job.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And would you say also because I mean, a lot of what needs to happen for sustainability has not been done yet. And so there needs to be creative solutions, not just for the actual block and tackle of maybe the an innovation, but also how people work with each other. Who to partner with? How do we find someone that's got a solution that I don't have? Do you think how important is it your creativity in problem solving?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: For me, I mean, it's very important. And I think I don't -- maybe it's the musician background -- very rarely feel constrained that I need to respond to something in a certain way or in a certain convention. So I will have a very unconventional approach to a problem. I will blurt out things in meetings that might seem completely crazy to people. That doesn't really bother me. It doesn't really trouble me. So I think that probably does influence the way I come to making decisions or maybe the ability to throw out an idea and not be too self-conscious about doing it.
And there's also a huge amount of resilience I think, that comes out of being a performing artist because, you know, you enter competitions, that's what you do. You don't always win. So there's that, you know, real "I'm not going to give up and I'm going to do it again." And if the solution didn't work, I'm going to try this solutions. I think that probably also has a lot to do with the way I approach problem solving.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Yeah, I think that's really interesting because I think that for a lot of these sustainability solutions, there has to be sort of new incentives for success, right? So you're not making the numbers for the quarter, you can't be too focussed on that, but you have to be thinking about something that's a little bit bigger than that and that maybe doesn't have the same type of reward. It's a lot more long term. What do you think about that?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: Yeah. Your eyes on the prize far out. You're not -- you're not looking for the quick win. You might have a great quick win as a pianist, but you're really looking for what is the ultimate, you know, how are you going to ultimately present yourself. So that is probably very true.
And also coming back to that resilience point: you're not going to get bummed out about one quarter because you know that. And that's what I always say, even in our leadership meetings, is my objectives. I don't have the ones that I'm going to say, you know, done. They're not done next quarter or next month or next fiscal. They're like 2030 objectives, 2050 objectives. So they're really you kind of need to think about it for the long haul. So there's definitely a tie.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: When we talk about resilience, I mean, we look at the polycrisis. We got the economic recession that could start this year, global recession. There is an energy crisis. And of course, the climate crisis, there's the conflict in Ukraine, all this. So given all of this, what should leaders be prioritising?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: I think leaders need to be prioritising their values. Yeah, I think there's a real need for people to stand up for what they believe in. And as hard as that might be, it's not always the, you know, taking the high road or whatever. It's not it's not always the easy choice. But I think if we're going to make progress, leaders need to fix their objectives. They need to stick to those objectives and they need to lead with their values. They need to make sure that they're true to their purpose and that that's what's coming through. They need to live those values every day. It's not a one off. We do it once a year. It's every day, and you need to demonstrate that. I think that's how you build the trust and that's how you get more transparent. And that is what you have to do in this time where everything is in flux. Nothing is a given anymore.
Nothing is a given anymore. If we're going to make progress, leaders need to live their values every day.”
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: I think what's interesting about that is that with values, because the word value is such a beautiful, lovely motto-esque word. And so we maybe think that a value is something that you, you say or you post and not necessarily something that you do. Right. But it's meaningless unless there's action attached to it.
What's a way that maybe can be a gut check to people that to help them connect to their values like to ask themselves, am I really connecting to my values? Did I dig in to this?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: What I would tell anybody is you absolutely need to trust your gut because, you know, deep down, if that resonates with you or not. You know, if it feels right. And that sounds kind of kooky, but I mean, there is there is really something to that.
So I think you start by asking yourself the question and when you get into that sort of shaky ground, if you're already on shaky ground, you know that there's something about the value that you're maybe not quite comfortable with. So you're already like your radar should go your whatever your antennas should be, like perking up because something's not feeling right. But I think that's how you need to constantly check yourself and challenge yourself. You need to stand up for it. This is what you believe in. You need to stand up for it. It's not just like, Oh yeah, I feel like that in private, but I'm not going to say it publicly. There's a way to say it. To not, you know, be overly aggressive with people, but you do need to stand up for it if you want to actually be true to yourself. I think.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Is there a piece of advice that you've always been grateful for?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: That I've always been grateful for? Gosh, that I don't know. But I would say a lot around resilience and a lot around going with your gut, having the courage and the self-confidence to go with your gut. I'm not sure that, like the younger me would have been able to do that because I would have been like, "Oh, I'm not sure I should probably sound this out." I think you really need to go with your gut. That that would be what I would tell myself. Yeah, as a young person, like just, just go with it. There's, you know, you're the person who knows what's right for you, not somebody else. So you just need to do what is right for you.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Is there like a turning point moment where you you've thought, you know, they were going to hit a wall? You weren't sure how you're going to get through it. You get through it. But it was because ultimately you trusted your gut.
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: Yeah, there were probably a couple of different moments. So there was one when I decided to start being a pianist. So that was one. And that was one where actually I had come to France. I had gotten a scholarship. I was young. I just turned 21 and I found myself with all of these amazing pianists who were 25 and they couldn't get an agent. And I was thinking, "Oh, my God, like, how am I going to be self-sufficient?" Do I really have it? So it was a tough decision because it had been all of my life, but it was one that, yeah, that I got through it and I forged a new path. I took a year off. I prepared for law school, I went to law school. I had a great career as a lawyer.
And I had that second turning point when in 2018 -- this was maybe too much information -- 2018 I had breast cancer. And so that was like a moment where you're kind of like, "Okay, this is scary. I came through it fine, no problem" But that was where I think I was like, okay, I want to do something else. And that was the sustainability. That was like my, "Aha, it's time for a career change. Like, be courageous." This is what you want to do. You can do it. So the two moments, I'd say.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: If you were to define it, what is a resilient leader?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: Somebody that gets up and does themselves off and comes back at it? .
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: What do you think is needed from public leadership at a time like this where there's so much sort of disruption?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: I think I'm a firm believer in empathy and I'm.a firm believer in giving of yourself and showing yourself as a human being. So I think what people need from public figures is in order to build that trust that we so desperately need, and we're all craving to really give a little bit of themselves. T not just have sort of the status quo, the party line, but really make it real. Bring it back to people, help them understand where you're coming from and why it's important and what you believe. And I think that goes a really long way to get people behind you. And that's what we need in our public sphere. We have to we have to be behind them.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And if you were going to describe maybe the the traits or even the hallmarks of excellence for a public Leader:, what would those be? What's the one thing that they absolutely have to do or be?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: True to their values? And willing to be unpopular. But remain true to their values.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Is there a book you recommend?
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: Oh, gosh. So many. No, I just actually started reread. I'm a huge fan of Adam Grant.
He wrote a book called Give and Take that I read a long time ago that I've recently started rereading. And I have to say it resonates with me as much this time around as it did the first time. So definitely recommend that one.
And a friend of mine, so I plug for a friend, wrote a book that I find really good called Become the Fire, and it's a variety of women's leaders stories, some more inspirational, but kind of helps you pull out your unique characteristics and why that's powerful and why that's something to embrace as opposed to downplay, you know, being the only whatever is actually a good thing. So that's another book that I would recommend by Elisa Schmitz
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And how it's a made change. If they read that.
Alyssa Auberger, Baker McKenzie: I think they would maybe just be more confident or more comfortable with their quirks. You know, you need to embrace the quirkiness. That's a good thing. It's not a bad thing.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: That was Alyssa Auberger. Thanks so much to her and thanks so much for listening. A transcript of this episode and my colleagues' episodes Radio Davos and the Book Club podcast is available at Wef.ch/podcasts, This episode was produced and presented by me with Juan Toran as studio engineer, Taz Kelleher as editor and Gareth Nolan driving studio production.
That's it for now. I'm Linda Lacina.with the World Economic Forum. Have a great day.
To learn more about Baker McKenzie's approach to navigating risks, check out its podcast Solutions for a Connected World sharing advice on driving growth that is both sustainable – and inclusive.
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
March 1, 2024
February 28, 2024
Mattie Rodrigue and Diva Amon
February 23, 2024
February 22, 2024
Pasquale Frega and Katrine Luise DiBona
February 21, 2024
Ameya Hadap, Thibault Villien De Gabiole and Laia Barbarà
February 20, 2024