Amplifying the Future of Transparency
On this between-seasons bonus episode, ESG Talk’s Mandi McReynolds joins Steve and Catherine to recap Workiva Amplify, the annual conference for ESG, finance, and risk folks. Hear how Amplify 2022 went all in on the bold future of transparency, plus listen to a clip from two keynote speakers: professional rock climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell!
Bonus episode: Amplifying the Future of Transparency | Transcript
Catherine Tsai: Hello and welcome to Off the Books where we surf the uncharted waters of accounting, finance, risk, ESG, and wherever else the waves take us. We are kicking off season four with an episode brought to you by Workiva, the risk, reporting, ESG, and compliance platform that simplifies your complex work so you have time to go to the best accounting, audit, and ESG conference of the year—Workiva Amplify. If you couldn't make it to the conference this year, you can still register to watch select sessions online for free at workiva.com/amplify. My name is Catherine Tsai. I'm not an accountant or auditor, but I can figure out what to tip people without a calculator. We're here to talk about Workiva Amplify, and I'm happy to be here with accounting enthusiast and Diet Coke aficionado Steve Soter and special guest Mandi McReynolds, head of ESG at Workiva and host of our sister podcast, ESG Talk.
Mandi McReynolds: Steve, tell us more about Amplify. What is it, and what was the discussion around ESG and regulation that you heard from the thousands that attended?
Steve Soter: Sure, Mandi. So Amplify is something I look forward to every year. I went when I was a customer of Workiva and now attend, of course, as a member of the team. And it's a bit of a Woodstock of sorts for financial reporting, ESG, and risk practitioners, which include many customers but some non-customers of Workiva and our platform. This year's theme was going all in, which was very appropriate considering that the conference was hosted in Las Vegas. So picture three days of networking, thought leadership, best practices sprinkled with great special guests like DJ legend Girl Talk, a surprise visit from Flo Rida on the last day, reliving something that he had done five years ago, which everybody still talks about to this day for the closing event. Flavor Flav joined him on stage, which I thought was just hysterical and great. I'll point out that the conference actually opened with climber Alex Honnold from the Free Solo movie, as well as his very close friend climber Tommy Caldwell of The Dawn Wall movie, which was so cool to see them both together on stage. And I think we have a clip actually that we're able to share with our listeners right now. So maybe we should get to that.
Alex Honnold: Trust is an important part of calm. And I think part of what's made the partnership work well is that we have a surprisingly similar risk tolerance and the sort of risk profile.
Tommy Caldwell: It's not only risk tolerance, but it's morale in the midst of kind of stereotypically terrible experiences.
Steve: Such great takeaways there. And again, it was such a surreal experience to see them both on stage. Now, in terms of your question, Mandi, about the discussion, so Workiva generously invites members of the SEC, SOX and ESG Professionals Groups to join the conference each year. These are not customer groups or user groups. These are true professional communities talking about these very issues. So the SEC procession included a recorded interview that I had with Paul Munter, who's the acting chief accountant at the SEC. Paul talked about a lot of different, very interesting things. But one of the things that he's been talking about lately, including in our interview, was financial statement materiality. I'm paraphrasing here, but basically something is financially material or material from that financial statement perspective if that thing, whatever it is, would change the way an investor would view the total mix of information about that investment. Now, that's a Supreme Court definition, and accountants care a lot about materiality because, honestly, if something's material, well, then it doesn't really matter. You don't care about it, especially if that thing was an error in your financial statements. On the other hand, if that error was material—and this is what Paul has been talking a lot about lately—then all hell breaks loose. You have material weaknesses. You have restatements. People might lose their jobs. It is absolute pandemonium. Of course, there was a lot to talk about from a financial statement perspective, but what's really interesting to me and your audience might find this interesting as well, Mandi, is that this definition of materiality is hotly debated with respect to ESG disclosure, because ESG disclosure is directed to an audience of stakeholders, which may or may not include investors. So as we look through SEC proposals about climate that are being discussed right now, a lot of discussion about, hey, what business does that have being included in largely financial statement disclosures, and does the SEC even have authority? I've got my own opinions on that, but that is being talked about a lot.
Mandi: I think it wass a really interesting takeaway to build on that. What I was impressed by among companies who are tackling ESG and some of the conversations preparing for the change of regulatory landscape both here and around the world is the role of internal audit. And that really shaped some of the discussion that I thought was new or different in the market, where I had the privilege to be on a panel there as well and talk around the value of internal auditors as a line of defense, the value of internal auditors, and the advisory role that they have and the capacity to have before you have to go into a full audit or assurance. I'm curious, Catherine and Steve, did that surprise you to see the role of internal audit play a little bit more into the ESG landscape?
Catherine: It doesn't surprise me. I think this is where ESG is going. I think not only regulators, but investors, employees, customers, ratings agencies—they are looking for ESG data from companies, and they want to know whether they can trust it. So it makes a lot of sense to me.
Steve: And I think that from my perspective, again, I watch these SEC matters a lot. And so, you know, in the SEC, we had all sort of anticipated the SEC's climate proposal as well as anticipating yet additional proposals likely on human capital. I knew that there was going to be this really strong intersection emerging between ESG and financial reporting. But what really struck me back in March again was just how prominent and how important the role of audit and risk is going to be in this new environment. And a real trifecta, and I suppose that accountants might be inclined to maybe throw shade and make fun of the internal auditors, which is terrible, but, you know, maybe dismiss it as something that might not be quite as important. But I actually feel like ESG really, really gives those practitioners a moment to shine because of all the reasons that Catherine just pointed out—just how critically important their role is going to be to help ensure that this data is accurate, that it's transparent, that it's reliable for some really important recipients of that information, whether it's, you know, a board of directors, whether it's a regulator or rating agency, and a whole host of others.
Mandi: When I think about the internal audits that auditors that I've had the chance to work with and opportunities over the course of my career, and I often look at that as a great first line of defense. And we talked a lot about in the ESG landscape, people trying to attack like all 712 disclosures that you have to provide, like you said, Steve, to the multiple stakeholders and maybe an easy step forward and a practical step forward for these finance and ESG teams coming together is to take one section or one segment. And as we look ahead to SEC or other global regulation, it may be leaning in to your human capital disclosures with more definition as we hope to see that come maybe October, right, Steve? Is what we are thinking?
Steve: Yeah, well it's funny you bring that up actually. I was going to say that was another hotly debated, and in fact debated there on stage with me and another speaker. I personally have been pretty adamant that I didn't see anything happening until, you know, next year, early 2023. My fellow panelist, Alan Wilson, who's also a former Off the Books guest, was very confident that it was going to be this year. He was thinking October. And one of the things that I'll point out, just with respect to timing, is that when the SEC proposes a rule, it will be proposed for a certain financial reporting period. So often it's periods beginning after December 15 of the current year, or the next year, whatever. Why December 15? I have no idea. That's a little silly to me. But what he was saying is that it takes the SEC a minute to deploy rules, and so they would actually have to do something in October in order for it to have enough time to be published to what's called the Federal Register, which is, I guess, basically the list of all the rules that the government, you know, requires of everybody, I guess. In order for it to have enough time to do that and still be effective by that date, we'd actually have to look forward to October, and if it doesn't happen, then yeah, maybe my earlier view is correct that it would be next year. I actually trust Alan's opinion more than my own. If I recall correctly, I think he and I bet a cheesesteak sandwich, so Mandi there are some really high stakes here. Pun intended.
Mandi: Really high, really high for a cheesesteak sandwich. And I think the question is where are you going to get the cheesesteak sandwich. That's what matters more.
Steve: We also had Jonathan Gregory there, who is from Pennsylvania. He's not in Philly, but he's pretty close to Philly. So, yes, that was that was sort of implied. And I think he was looking for some action to get one of those cheesesteaks from whoever it was that lost the bet.
Mandi: Love it. You know, it's interesting to me, we also had another keynote that was the next day, and it was a popular actor who has also been a producer and an investor. Some of the guests may know him from a very popular decade show, maybe in the 1970s setting. We'll leave it that way and keep those guessing. What I thought about as he shared his story was the new generation of investors and how they're thinking about their own capital and this idea of investing in things that have a longer-term purpose, but also some personal connectivity. Catherine, what were some of your reflections from that very intimate conversation around this professional journey that this individual had, this personal journey that then ultimately is impacting how they set up venture capital or philanthropy investment funds?
Catherine: It was interesting to hear him talk about how he's looking at technologies that can help people save time with the ultimate goal of just focusing on happiness, which I thought was really interesting because it shows how people are putting their investment dollars where their hearts are, where their values are, and I think that's where ESG really comes into play.
Mandi: Steve, do you have any other takeaways or anything that surprised you from that session?
Steve: It was a really emotional session actually. I mean, he talked about some fairly heavy things that, you know, some some topics and content—sex trafficking, child exploitation—which were clearly really important to him. And, you know, in my opinion ought to be important to all of us. You don't get a lot of that at a, you know, connected reporting conference, let's just say. But actually being able to tie together his aspirations and ambitions as an investor, as a business owner to these really, really important things that are should be important to society but are certainly important to him and being able to tie that together in a meaningful way. And that really resonated with me. I thought that was really special and, again, a fairly unique moment of maybe vulnerability or, you know, some insight into this human being that you probably otherwise wouldn't have got. I thought it was fabulous. It was just fantastic, and again, pretty emotional. Not something you typically get, I think, at most conferences, but, you know, Amplify has got everything.
Catherine: And I will say if you weren't able to catch the speech in person, you can go to workiva.com/amplify, register, and watch it for a limited time on demand as well.
Mandi: Thanks so much, Catherine. We'll make sure to put that in the show notes so that anybody who would want to catch that session, and I would agree with you, Steve. It was a very humbling and also insightful way of thinking about the future consumer, the future investor that is here and now that has capital to spend and how they are thinking about the betterment of the world as they enter into what I call the more legacy decades or the decade of care—when you have children. That was a big theme from all of the speakers too: Okay, as a parent, how has your life changed? And I think it will really resonate with those listening and can be an intriguing, thoughtful, thought-provoking listener watch as as you move in your journey.
Let's pivot a little bit to the ESG Executive Summit. So we had an executive summit that was ESG practitioners, executives on a journey. It was pre-conference, and then that led into other ESG tracks for different users. Catherine, you had a chance to flow in and out of those sessions. What was interesting to you as you heard ESG executives talking about the next quarter and the next 12 months?
Catherine: Oh, so much. But I think one thing that stood out is that as some companies are looking to create their very first ESG reports, those who have been doing it for a long time are actually looking at how do I do this more often than just once a year so I can report results more dynamically, maybe, you know, two times a year, or quarterly, just so people can track progress, not just externally but internally.
Mandi: I think for me some of the biggest takeaways as we moderated that session and had a collaborative session is there is this collide of multiple risk and opportunity factors that companies of all sizes are trying to tackle when it comes to environment, social, and governance. And the data is an underlying opportunity to help manage and look at those risk and opportunities together. And so I look at some of the ideas or concepts that were shared, and it was how do we get better at decision-useful data? How do we get better at, like you said, the frequency in which we're pulsing and checking and operationalizing our work? And then how are we thinking about some of these risks? Some of the most insightful ones were when colleagues were talking about the reputational risk that comes with putting out your ESG data. And looking at how that might impact your employee as a stakeholder, how that might impact the investor lens, how that might impact the regulatory lens? What I found interesting—building on Steve's comment—is it's more focused on those other stakeholders and less focused on regulation. I thought the overall theme from executives is regulation is coming. We need to be prepared. We need to be on it, but that isn't why we wake up every day. We wake up every day to add growth, opportunity, and risk for business and society, and that includes all of those that we work with. Also, the notion of an external or stakeholder board has become a really big hot topic. We saw that and talked about that on the show. I think as reputational risk becomes a bigger challenge, I wonder if we're going to see more stakeholder engagement formalized with an external advisory to companies over the course of time.
Steve: I think it's so interesting, Mandi, that point that you and Catherine were talking about here just a moment ago about, hey, we need to be ready for the regulations, but we're really doing that for a different audience. And what's so interesting, and again, not that this is about the hot debate that is happening right now about where ESG disclosures belong. But you would think that if you had this demand for information from investors or others, that the existing mechanisms that are used to communicate that information to a broader audience really ought to come together in a way that is going to be consistent and comparable, have some type of oversight. And it's one of the things that I struggle with about just not understanding the disconnect there that seems to be, you know, really coming up just more and more often here. I don't have an answer to it, but just the way that you and Catherine describe that just now, just again, reminds me of sort of that issue that it seems like everybody's grappling with. And to me, it feels like it maybe isn't quite as hard as we're making it. It should be debated. It should be discussed. And you're a bigger proponent of that really than anybody, I think. But, I mean, at the end of the day, I don't know if it's as difficult a decision or an analysis as maybe we all might be making it. Just an observation.
Mandi: I agree. I think there's a part where teams are coming together and leveraging strength. I think that was the secondary theme and that it's about putting together opportunities for these teams to come together. And you see that over and over and over again that people who start with assembling the right team and then move into the operational sessions end up being, I think, a little further along in their journey and a quicker step in their journey to that business value. And we saw that with a session that was about the SEC and ESG collide and it was looking at it a little bit from the reporting side, less on the business strategy side. What I valued was whether you were on the strategy side or on the reporting side, the assemblance of the team is what helped people move as fast as possible. And so I think that's something that we're going to see more in looking at opportunities for low, easy entry collaboration. I think people that come in and they try to tackle everything at once end up really harming the long-term collaboration of the team. And so I think the ones that I was most impressed with were thoughtful. They assembled a team, and they moved really quickly through what was a one to three-year journey.
Catherine: Speaking of teams, it seems like people are really open across companies to start getting into ESG right now. So a theme that I picked up on was now is the time, because people are interested in ESG. There are so many people in ESG sessions who didn't have ESG in their title. And so I think now is the time people are at the conference we're talking about start mapping out those processes for how you're going to do your ESG reporting and build those internal controls around them and be able to get assurance around the data. And then once you have those steps mapped out, start looking at technology that can help you automate some of those steps, because I'm sure most people would prefer to spend less time on reporting and more time actually focusing on driving those ESG actions and reaching ESG goals.
Mandi: As a good call out, we've got a show coming up where we're looking at what is the ESG cost avoidance and how when you only focus on the report, you end up losing that long-term business value and looking at the broader connectivity of business value. And like Steve said, there's so much more to the reporting than necessarily an annual ESG report or even the 10-K disclosure that might come. And when companies zero in and they focus on that one aspect, they end up closing off all these other business opportunities for their organization. And so I think it will be exciting to see the evolution continue and the amplification of transparency, because that transparency could unlock a lot of either cost avoidance or other capital for an organization. So closing out our time together, what do you think is going to take place in 2023 that will truly amplify transparency? Catherine, I'll turn to you first.
Catherine: Oh, man, big predictions. Okay. I think in 2023, teams are going to start coming together and incorporating ESG into overall corporate strategy and making sure it touches all parts of the business.
Steve: And I know it's super boring, but I would actually agree with Catherine's assessment exactly. When we heard from ESG and financial reporting teams, they were saying the same thing. Actually, we had a cybersecurity session. It was talking all about how with the new cybersecurity proposals, which is I think kind of an ESG thing as well, I would say. But how, you know, legal and financial reporting, and audit, and IT teams are going to need to come together, Catherine, exactly the way that you describe. That to me feels like a very strong theme that we're going to see in the coming year, and I think beyond.
Mandi: I think in 2023, I love where Catherine went on the idea of like automation and innovation. I think there's something very special to this idea of how small and mid-sized companies, startups could solve for current and future ESG problems. Some of that may be the automation so that companies can focus more on other business value drivers. I think some other plays that might come in is real critical sort of unicorn-like companies that are solving really complex social problems or complex ESG problems in the world. And they benefit and have a bottom line, but also have a benefit to the company. You've seen some of the news right now around Patagonia and how they've moved to their only shareholder being the planet. Interesting move. I also look at that and say that was a great brand move, knowing their brand and who they focus on. Thinking about some of those other plays in 2023 where we might see a smaller company or a startup, something come into play that really changes the game. So I'm looking for the game changers in 2023. We've got a chat coming up that we'll talk a little bit more about that.
Steve: So that was our conversation with Mandi McReynolds. So grateful that we were able to join ESG Talk and have her here on Off the Books. Very big thanks to Mandi McReynolds, Head of ESG at Workiva, and big thanks to you, dear listener for surfing along with us. This has been Off the Books presented by Workiva. Please subscribe, leave a review, tell your buddies if you like the show, and please feel free to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us what you'd like to hear us discuss on upcoming episodes in season four. Surf's up and we'll see you on the next wave.