Christine Gillespie ICD.D, MBA, is a corporate director who has served on the boards of Neptune Bulk Terminals, the Calgary Economic Development Board, and the Highbanks Society.  She has additionally served on several subsidiary and joint-venture boards in both fertilizer and ocean shipping in Europe and North Africa. Ms Gillespie is VP, Transportation, Distribution and Logistics with Nutrien in Calgary.

What drove your interest in serving on boards?

Board service enriches and enhances my professional experience. I’ve had a long and rich career with Nutrien and wanted to understand how other leaders thought and approached the same types of business problems from the perspective of a different organizational culture.

I also really value board service as a way to give back to my community through my service with Calgary Economic Development and the Highbanks Society.

When did you start engaging with ESG-related issues? 

When I first joined Agrium (now Nutrien), it was bit of a boys’ club. I would be the only woman in meeting rooms with 20 men.  We were hiring women, but they weren’t staying. We were losing women at a 2:1 ratio versus men.  A few senior women decided to start a group to address the question.  I put up my hand to be one of the original volunteers, because I wanted the next generation to come in and not be the only woman at the table.  Lots of other people got involved. I have since sponsored an evolution of that group for women in non-traditional manufacturing roles.

The environment and sustainability have been concerns ever since I’ve been in the company.  In recent years with the institutional investor focus on ESG and putting their proxies where their priorities are, the tone and emphasis has changed.  It’s really permeating our culture and informing everything we do.  When we’re looking at capital projects or negotiating agreements, we try to understand the potential ESG benefit and if there is a way to reduce our carbon footprint in our interactions with vendors, for instance.

How do you measure success? 

We have metrics on both the environmental side (particularly around reducing our greenhouse gas footprint) and the social side, regarding diversity.  We have metrics linked to our short-term incentive program.  I just heard an interesting discussion about whether ESG metrics should be linked to short term or long-term incentives, because they are long term strategies.  We haven’t gone there yet, but it’s the responsibility of the business to understand what’s going on in the marketplace and bringing forward strategies and solutions that the organization can execute.

An ESG focus is not only for investors and financial performance but also for a future generation that cares about working for a purpose driven organization. Employers will have an advantage if they can really walk the talk of being true leaders on ESG performance.

Tell me about how Nutrien approaches ESG innovation?

Nutrien recently stood up a new part of the organization on innovation.  It looks at product innovation, but it is primarily focused on ESG and monitoring current developments and progress in that space. It has been totally key. For example, we recently announced that we’ve signed a partnership agreement with an ocean vessel company to collaborate on building a vessel fueled by low carbon ammonia as an alternative to diesel fuel. That’s really exciting. Without the Innovation Group constantly looking and thinking about this, would we have gotten as far on this as quickly as we have? I’m not so sure.

Nutrien has a really comprehensive ESG report.  How do you use it as a communication tool?

We have now implemented an ESG stakeholder day.  We invite investors and other stakeholders and go into more detail on what we’re doing on ESG, kind of like an investor pitch day.  Then we make commitments.  That group is sort of the keeper of the commitments that we’re making on all fronts and reporting back on our progress.

That’s really interesting. That lets you have two-way communication and get some proof of concept as to whether your approach is resonating with key stakeholders.

I think that’s right.   The other thing I would just say is that it’s not just a department looking at ESG. It’s really about everybody in the business getting focused on what are we doing in this area. It just has to permeate what you do, sort of in the same way safety or quality has to permeate your everyday life. If it’s a department that “does” ESG, you’re not going to be effective in making transformational change in the long run.

What approach regarding ESG would you suggest for directors of smaller, resource constrained organizations?

There is an expression that I love, which is that you can have it all – just not all at once. For smaller organizations, it’s about picking priorities. It can be easy for the board to believe that things are better than they are. Look at metrics to get a good assessment of what is going on at the organization.  Use site tours where you have access to employees at different levels in the organization to assess whether the boardroom messaging is congruent with lived experience.  Understand the organization’s process for assessing opportunities and developing strategies and innovation.  Consider potential opportunities for joint ventures or partnerships or alliances if the organization is too small to do it all by itself.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?

We can’t continue to ask women to change the corporate culture. That’s the job of management.  A women’s support group can lead to a “we’ve checked that box” attitude.  What we actually need is the hard work of leaders who drive culture change to ensure that people are really bought into diversity and that women and other under-represented groups are truly included. Under-represented groups shouldn’t have to deal with always being the ones to carry the burden of the diversity initiative.  We’re still evolving, but I’m so pleased to see that Nutrien has heard the message on leadership accountability.