A social license to operate
Katherine’s social licence to operate methodology and problem-solving approach has made organisations more successful in an era of quickly shifting community expectations and instantaneous communication.
In 2002 she founded Futureye which provides market research, sustainable innovation, public policy, public affairs, risk communication, foresight and strategy and change management. Futureye operates in Australia, Asia and Europe and is currently expanding in the Americas. In the past five years she has also founded WikiCurve that provides a two-way engagement platform on public policy.
Her pioneering social licence to operate methodology has improved the corporate responsibility for a broad range of industries including, food, water, energy, mining and pharmaceutical. She has worked at many different levels from sites, to national and international supply chains when there is reputational, political, regulatory and technical challenges.
Katherine is a board member of the Castan Centre for Human Rights at Monash University and sits of the advisory committee of the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne. She has been a director on a series of boards including: Chairman of an Academic Advisory Board for International Studies, environmental purchasing, independent private school, leadership school centre and women’s enterprise-development.
She has won a number of awards including the Golden Target award from the Public Relations Institute of Australia (1994), Telstra Business Woman of the Year private sector awardee (2001) and Victorian Women’s Honour Roll (2003). She has been listed in Who’s Who of Australian Women from 2007.In 2015, Katherine was appointed as a Global Advisor for the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme (http://citiesprogramme.com/archives/global_advisors/katherine-teh-white). She is currently a mentor for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Young Innovators Fellowship Programme.
“We are not asking corporations to do something different from their normal business, we are asking them to do this business differently.”
Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan
I started life off as a journalist working for the Age Newspaper, I was fascinated by current affairs and by the way things worked in the world. As a result of being a journalist I got to cover everything from entertainment news to business news, it was the field of business news that I was really drawn to. I was greatly fascinated in the disparity between what the PR team for a company and what the stakeholders of that company were telling me. I wondered how they could be talking about the same company or the same event, if I look back now at the career I have built, my specialisation has been looking inside-out and then outside-in as to what arises as the internal and the external points of views of a company. My passion has been around understanding why those differences happen and how you can close those gaps which I have done in my career from a range of different perspectives. After journalism I went into the field of major project approval where you are dealing with the legal compliance requirements, political expectations and community expectations which you have to align as much as possible in order to reduce the project approval risk. It is not just the technical approval that you need but also the societal and political approval. I then went on to work in fields such as public policy, reputation and risk management which all utilised these same skills that I had developed, revolving around resolving the problems that a company faces. It was very much about what we now know as corporate responsibility. It has meant that I have become very familiar with the people side of things, the aspects such as organisational and social challenges.
Most people, and in turn most companies, think that when they find themselves in trouble all they need to do is sell a message, what we refer to in the industry as benefit selling (BS). This only works when people are not really upset about the issue, where there is no real emotion attached, when there is that emotional attachment benefit selling does not work as people only become more upset as it comes across as though you are ignoring the concerns that they have. When those who are ambivalent about the issue hear what you are saying in the benefit selling pitch, and then hear this in the context of the opinions of those who are upset, they naturally fill in the gaps of what you aren’t saying. They will internally bring up all of the negatives and go from being ambivalent to being in the group of people who are upset or who disagree with your view. Most social movements and socials concerns are evident decades before they become a concern. Within a company, a risk manager needs to scan the external environment and understand what is happening in respect of society’s views and expectations, in order to ensure that your company continues to align with them. There are a number of social issues that are useful to think about when talking about benefit selling, areas that create a greatly emotional response such as fracking, banking and live export. Instead of actively dealing with the emotions associated with these issues, and showing that they are taking steps to address the concerns and to be accountable, companies are resorting back to benefit selling. This approach makes sense to those who agree with the approach to the particular issue as your are affirming their views but for those who are sceptical or undecided, it becomes emotional and leads to them becoming angry. Over time you get a more and more polarised argument, with each side accusing the other of being ridiculous or illogical. The impact of such polarised debate can be seen in respect of Brexit and Donald Trump, the conflict begins to erode at the respect for one another’s opinions and for one another’s human rights. It is when the concerns of one side are ignored that it becomes necessary for processes such as Royal Commissions, as we have seen in Australia recently in relation to banking. From a business of industry point of view you need to look at and determine what values you are incorporating and what actions you are being seen to take in order to adapt at a fast enough rate to be future proofed.
I guess there are two ways I can tell this story, the glass half full or the glass half empty way but I have always preferred the ‘you can always fill up your glass again version’. I had decided it was time to leave my position as a CEO of a risk management company; I didn’t even think about applying for another position but automatically assumed I would be starting my own business. I reflected on my experience that I had gained from 1993-2002 and started to this about the gaps that I had experienced first-hand, my view being that the real gap was that people did not genuinely believe that you could turn a conflict situation into a sustainable development situation. I wanted to address this gap from a personal point of view but also from a business point of view. I had the goal of being able to sell out of my business when I turned 60. I interviewed 11 accountants and lawyers who worked in the area of mergers and acquisitions and asked them the questions about how they went about valuing a business. Whilst they had varying approaches, the bottom line came down to a professional services business only being as good as the contracts that it had written previously and the types of contracts it has in the pipeline. I had a social mission but also this financial driver. The first thing I needed to do was find a name which had to embed the vision of the business, my husband and I came up with Futureye. I had spent 8 hours checking names to see whether they had already been registered, eventually deciding to wake my husband up and ask him for help, it took us 15 minutes to come up with the name together.
I then needed to secure my first client; I went out to a networking meeting where I bumped into someone who had been a former client of my previous company, the current vice-president of BP. He asked whether I had anytime for a chat, I was then able to secure BP as my first client, working on a great project of global social policy. Things kicked off from there, I knew with my vision we needed to be a global business and to secure the best projects available, at the time the business was only composed of me. I had to establish the resource structure and a community of practice globally. We have now been involved in projects worldwide, from Germany to Thailand to Argentina.
As of this year our company is 15 years old, the first ten years were focused on building up the case studies andwith the next 10 years the focus is on leveraging the global access. We have been able to prove the success of our methodology on a global basis, take for example the project we are currently involved in located in Argentina. They are aware that they need to deal with the social issue of deforestation and that they need to have deforestation commodities, our jurisdictional approach to resolving such conflicts is therefore of great value to them. Our approach has first been trialled in Australia through the likes of projects such as the Fairfax project and the introduction of the WikiCurve for debating public policy issues, and we are now exporting this methodology globally. One of our global projects has been in Europe involving the sustainable palm industry, resulting in an 116% increase in trust in just 9 months. We were also involved in a series of projects revolving around social licence and dealing with significant community projects, the Indian project we are currently working on involves relocating 1 million people. We are also involved in communications projects; these however can be harder to export as the corporates of companies often take the view that they already have their own strategy consultants and communications specials. What is easier to export are the packages of products that give an outcome that other people aren’t necessarily able to piece together. The fact that we have now done a number of partnerships makes it easier to develop new partnerships, because of our proven experience. We are now in a position where the small projects in Australia provide us with the revenue that we need to survive but where we can also be involved in special global projects to demonstrate the capacity that we have built over the last 15 years in a global context.
I have always been one to work very long hours, even at the age of 18 working at The Age when I knew that if you discovered an exclusive story then you got to write it regardless of seniority. I had heard that Woody Allen was going to be bringing out a new movie to Australia but that he wasn’t going to be doing any interviews. I stayed up until 11pm at night, ringing his agent persistently until they finally granted me access to Woody Allen. The news desk was shocked when I told them that as an 18 year old, I had managed to secure this interview with him. I have always been driven to achieve the outcomes that I desire.
Fortunately, what I consider to be long hours today are not the same as what I considered them to be at the age of 18 when I needed less sleep. My hours use to be between 60 to 80 hours a week, but as I get older I found I have needed more sleep. I now wake up most mornings and start the day with yoga, when I come to work the first thing I do is prioritise what I need to achieve for the day. I am constantly reviewing my diary to see if I am achieving what I need to be within the timeframe and if I am doing what the business needs done, this is vital as otherwise you get distracted by the things that don’t make a real difference.
I utilise social media, sometimes doing a pre-yoga check on Twitter. I follow all of the key players in the industries in which I am interested in as well as social activists so that I am aware of the emerging issues and upcoming campaigns. I ‘scout’ the challenges that are likely to arise. The organisations that really need you are the ones that can’t or don’t act responsively to these issues.
Once I have finished my scouting and yoga, it is time to get into the day. At the end of each day I go through a wrap up, ticking off my list what I have done and marking for the next day what I have not. If there is urgent client work I will stay back or come in the next day, I am involved in a lot of international calls which I will usually start from 8pm to 11pm because of the time differences between the countries we are working with.
Advice to self and others
The key thing I see all the time, and I don’t believe it is isolated to just Australia, if you are doing work and you are working with other people, the people you work with are going to be the key to your enjoyment at work. Just in January I celebrated a 30th anniversary with someone that I work with, we first began as co-cadets at The Age. Last January I went to Sweden for a conference and made 6 good friends, who I am still in regular contact with, you can cook up great things when you know great people. You need to keep on building these great networks throughout your life, the more human and ideas based connections you make the better off you will be. Some of the best projects I have ever done, such as a sexual harassment and bullying project I worked on in the late 90’s, have led to friendships that I still have today. Value all of those people, keep in contact and maintain those friendships.
My favourite fun quote I heard when I was 17, apparently when Countess Margot Asquith met actress Jean Harlow, Jean Harlow said ‘Hello Dame Margot’ (sounding out the ‘T’) to which she replied ‘no dear the T is silent as in Harlow’. I still think it’s so funny and quick witted.
My favourite serious quote comes from the Head of the UN in 2000; the Secretary General was launching the UN Global Compact to bring together corporations and NGOS to strive to achieve a set of principles. He said ‘we are not asking companies to do their business differently, we are asking them to do business differently’. It is a differentiation between are we asking people to change their business or can business be a force for good if they are re-invented? For example if instead of reducing our environment impact, we had an impact where the environment actually benefitted.
My favourite book is Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, I think every young professional should read it as the novel follows the experience of a person’s human development. It starts off with a person, Joseph Knecht, who is incredibly smart but whom has difficulties with dealing with emotions, the story focuses on how he comes to terms with being intelligent whilst being emotional. As he becomes more emotional, the book becomes more engaging as you can connect to it. I can connect to it on a personal and a professional basis as I have always been working towards this harmony. I think this book is a great prompt in showing that in this sense, you can have it all. From our experience this has led to a lot of product innovation, for example last year we were involved with a company launching the world’s first carbon neutral fisheries and we were involved in a project with BP around inventing the world’s first non-sniffable petrol.
You can always find me on LinkedIn or on my twitter handle @ktehwhite. I also have two websites I can be reached on www.futureye.com and wikicurve.org, which is our site for engaging on policy issues.