Driving Diversity, Inclusion and Intentionality in Legal with Pavani Thagirisa, Associate GC, VP and Global Head of Legal for ESG at S&P Global
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Pavani Thagirisa, Associate General Counsel, Vice-President and Global Head of Legal for ESG at S&P Global.
Pavani joined S&P Global in 2009 and currently advises S&P Global’ s enterprise ESG business.
Over the past 10 years, she has held several management and non-management roles with increasing responsibility, ranging from commercial deal negotiation and M&A to helping set legal and operational strategies for the department. From late 2017 through the spring of 2019, Pavani served as Chair of the General Counsel’s Advisory Council. She assisted S&P Global’s General Counsel, Steve Kemps, and his Advisory group on cross-divisional and cross-functional opportunities and challenges across the Global Legal, Compliance and Corporate Security Department.
In addition to her daily work, Pavani is a proud Ally and board member of SPECTRUM, S&P Global’s LGBTQ Employee Resource Group, and an active advocate of various diversity and inclusion efforts across the company.
Pavani holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Wellesley College and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School.
In her spare time, she enjoys participating in outdoor adventures, attending music and dance performances, and spending time with her three children and jazz musician husband. Pavani serves as a Board Member of the Jazz Gallery and of the Brooklyn-based Kiddie Science not-for-profit organizations.
Gina: Pavani and I had the opportunity to meet last year in 2020, and that was via Zoom conference, at our first virtual LMA International Conference. You spoke to us about what in-house counsel looks for from their law firms. And since then, you and I have spoken a few times and it’s just been such a delight.
Pavani: I feel the same and that opportunity to speak about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and how in-house legal departments view partnerships with law firms, especially through the diversity and inclusion lens, was really a wonderful experience for me. It touched on all the topics that I find to be very important for any legal professional’s career development and growth.
Gina: Pavani, you are Southern Indian, from South India, correct?
Pavani: That’s correct. I was born in Andhra Pradesh, the state of Andhra Pradesh, which is in Southern India, but in the last few years there’ve been some geographic distinctions made. The state that I was born in now has been divided into two different States. It raised a lot of complex emotions in the population at that time and the citizens of the former Andhra Pradesh state and definitely for myself. Where my identity is deeply rooted in my culture and in my birth in that state and it’s evolved, but it took some time for me to fully process and understand the impact of that political and geographic decision on my own identity.
Gina: These are the types of things that in diversity, equity and inclusion conversations, I find that it’s not only fascinating, but it’s rewarding to learn about. As a white woman, I don’t know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of someone who’s Indian. And do you consider yourself a woman of color?
Pavani: I do consider myself a woman of color. Yes.
Gina: These are the types of distinctions that I believe are important for people to understand because even just as women in the legal profession, we have had our battles.
Pavani: I completely agree. I think that what also informs my perspective is not just being an immigrant, being a woman, being a woman of color, identifying as a woman of color, but also it is that immigration identity. I immigrated to the United States when I was very young and I think a lot of us have those immigration connections. One can argue that the majority of the United States has those immigration connections in the grand scheme of history, but for me, I was for four and a half when my grandparents brought me from a very small village to join my parents who had arrived a few years earlier in the United States.
I had arrived to join my parents in Brooklyn, New York, where I currently live with my family. There’s definitely a full circle feeling to that moment. But my first real United States experience, especially during my youth was being raised in West Virginia. I am very proud of my West Virginia roots, but it was a much different cultural experience than what I had been accustomed to in my youth in India, or even my first stop in the United States, in Brooklyn, New York. I’m grateful because it presented itself with a number of challenges for me in terms of really trying to understand my identity and the importance of diversity and what I brought to the environment to my friends, my family members, my social circles in West Virginia. I think that those early experiences from those very diverse backgrounds are core and critical to helping me build my perspective about diversity and equity and inclusion.
Gina: It’s so interesting to hear you say, you are an immigrant, whereas I’m a second generation. My grandparents immigrated here in the early 1900s. I have their perspective of what they dealt with and I still carry that in my heart, but it wasn’t my experience. I think that does shape a lot of what we do and probably shapes a lot of what you do with the ESG Business at S&P Global.
Can you tell us what ESG is, what that stands for?
That’s such a great connection because I think one of the reasons that I’m so incredibly proud of my new role in ESG is because it has very clear intellectual and emotional connections to diversity and to the idea of inclusion from a number of different perspectives. ESG is Environmental, Social, and Governance. And from a financial corporate perspective, it’s an assessment of a company’s ability to assess long-term sustainability while generating stakeholder value.
E, environmental. Factors include the contribution a company or government makes to climate change, their greenhouse gas emissions, renewed efforts to combat global warming, cutting emissions and decarbonizing to become more important.
S, social, human rights, diversity in the workforce, labor standards in the supply chain, any exposure to illegal labor and more routine issues just in adherence to workplace health and safety.
G, governance, refers to those set of rules or principles, as we all, as lawyers, recognize. It’s defining the rights and responsibilities and expectations between different stakeholders in the governance corporation. The goal of the governance pillar in ESG is to build a well-defined corporate governance system used to balance or align interests between stakeholders and work as a tool to support a company’s long-term strategy.
Gina: Just from the words you’re saying environmental, social and governance practices, it sounds like the perfect fit. What a gift? How did you end up there in this perfect fit?
Pavani: It’s great that you frame it that way, because that’s how I feel. When I began my legal career, my early intentions were very idealistic and I hoped that I would get to focus my legal career in international human rights or in the public sector addressing social justice issues. I think as many of us lawyers and other professionals can attest, life takes you in different directions. My life, my career took me to S&P Global. At that time, it was McGraw-Hill Financial.
Many people associate McGraw Hill with the old textbook brand, but it was much more than that. The McGraw-Hill financial brand has evolved into what is an amazing portfolio of financial services and benchmarks that is S&P Global now, including ESG.
How did you get involved in ESG?
How I got involved in ESG is that one of the reasons I love my company is that the leadership is very forward-thinking. They’re always considering where not just markets are going, but where market sentiments are going. And it’s the individuals who play a role in the market, it’s the shareholders, it’s the players like the legal industry, regulators, policymakers, governments. It’s all of that, that we’re always trying to really stay connected with and understand which direction, which area of focus, all these participants and to building these global markets are headed.
The last few decades, at least from my perspective, there’s been strong conversation around climate in particular. There’s been conversations about the role that the private sector plays in terms of addressing climate change and other climate risk factors. Being S&P Global, we recognize that we have access to strong data assets that can help others understand the climate environment, the issues, the tensions, the pushes, and pulls in that environment. We started to align our own thinking and strategies toward that, not just because it was an opportunity, but because it fit our cultural mindset and brand.
What changes did you see in 2020?
COVID brought the idea of a pandemic to the forefront. 2020 also challenged all of us, especially in the United States, to confront social justice issues and racial inequity in a manner that I don’t think as a society and as a modern society, we’ve fully engaged. S&P Global recognized that we had an obligation to our employees as leaders and to our stakeholders beyond just the employees to really try and quickly adjust and flex and solve for the challenges that we were being confronted with as a result of these different social, environmental changes going on in the world.
When a customer comes to you, what are they looking to understand about their own ESG issues?
When customers come to us, they’re looking to understand what ESG factors have relevance in their growth strategies and their future footprint within their industry, or in the broader market. The ESG factors they have brought application for our customers and overall, our customers come to us to better understand their own ESG footprint and understand the risks and opportunities associated with these ESG factors. Ultimately, if you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it. So, and I touched on this earlier, it’s like we have very broad and deep data assets. That is one of our strong value propositions. Our ESG data is critical to help companies mitigate their own risks and capitalize on these opportunities.
Gina: You’re helping them to sustain and grow?
Pavani: Exactly. We’re helping them think about sustainability actually in a very multi-dimensional way. It’s forward-looking as much as backward-looking to understand where they are and how they may benchmark against others or peers, or prepare even to reacting or responding to evolving regulatory and policy changes in sustainability.
When you and I spoke previously, we talked a lot about the importance of being partners with your employees and that’s something that’s personally important to you. What does that mean?
Partnering with employees means that I’ve built confidence and trust with my colleagues and regardless of where they sit in the organization or what role or function they play. Unless you have that trust and confidence with your colleagues, it’s going to be very difficult to execute on any strategies, on any philosophies that you, as an individual want to lead or direct the company toward, or that the company overall wants to move toward.
You and I also previously spoke about S&P Global having a people-first culture. That sounds like it fits right in with that people-first culture. What are some examples of things that S&P Global does that’s about their people or the people that it affects?
Yes, I am very people-driven, S&P Global is very people-driven. That’s been the mandate, the culture mandate, I would say for myself, but I think that’s the cultural philosophy that’s underpinned a lot of the wonderful engagement strategies that our Chief People Officer and her organization have put together with support from our CEO, our general counsel and our board of directors.
Gina: Before you keep going, I’m going to ask a question, tell our audience what a chief people officer is.
Pavani: Sure. The chief people officer is a C-suite executive who leads the HR organization across the company.
Gina: What I love about the terminology is it’s about people.
Pavani: That’s exactly right.
Gina: It’s no longer this idea of just “human resources,” but people.
Gina: Which in and of itself speaks to S&P Global’s people-first culture.
Pavani: That’s exactly right.
Gina: I love that. So really, the organization leads by example, in that simple of ways. I think that’s a point that I want to hit home because of my next question.
What advice would you give to legal leaders who want to help their organizations achieve diversity and inclusion objectives?
This ties into people and partnership. As legal leaders, our skillsets position us to be advocates and advisors across a broad spectrum of responsibilities and roles. The first thing that we must do as legal professionals especially as in-house counsel, is that we have to recognize the value of our skills beyond just the legal function. That takes building partnerships and thinking more critically about problems from a multifaceted, multi-dimensional perspective.
It’s not always just reading the regulation, let’s just say, and determining whether or not something applies to the black letter of the law or the regulation. But in-house, in particular, I see myself as an investigative journalist. I see myself as sometimes a therapist. I see myself as a problem solver. And that’s because I focus on building partnerships across the organization. That’s key.
Then the other kind of factor that I think is very important to success, whether it’s about diversity, equity, and inclusion, or any other areas that are important to a company’s culture and brand, it’s intentionality.
If you are not intentional about the actions that you take, about the interactions that you take, about the partnerships that you build, about the decisions that you make, then you are not going to be able to really provide a complete solution and a complete solution that has longevity.
What do you think will be three skills legal leaders need to master to succeed amid the challenges of 2021? And I think your first would be intentionality.
Yes. I agree. Intentionality, flexibility, I think it can be difficult. It is not always difficult to approach people and problems with a flexible mindset, but having that flexible mindset going into a situation is going to be important to all of those other skills and partnerships that you want to build. I also think somewhat more pragmatically. The legal profession needs to get more sophisticated with technology, data analytics, operations. It goes back to my earlier comment that, unless you have data about what you’re trying to understand and what you’re trying to solve for, you’re not going to get to the end result quickly.
What do you think about the law firms who are bringing other professionals in, professionals without legal degrees, to help run their business and look at that data? What does that say to you as an Associate General Counsel?
It’s great. I think that’s the direction that we need to go, right? We need to recognize that legal thinking is not reserved for somebody with a law degree. It’s a way of thinking, it’s a language and languages can be learned by anybody. I understand the importance of certifications and the risk minimization of going through that process and having those experiences, but that’s the way the legal profession is evolving, that it’s not just about providing legal advice.
Gina: Those people who come in with an experience of running the systems of an organization to make it more efficient and effective for the end user of their services. I think it’s a wonderful thing to see especially as one who’s educated as a lawyer and runs a business. I had to learn everything from the ground up about running a business.
Pavani: It’s empowering, right? Whether you’re in-house or at a law firm, to have diverse perspectives, diverse skillsets, what that does is that it enables efficient guidance. It allows attorneys to be able to focus on the strengths that they spent years honing.
Gina: I’ve seen attorneys criticize their own firms for bringing in professional leaders. Why I asked that question is I want those attorneys to hear from an associate general counsel that you do find that to be a smart solution.
Pavani: Absolutely. And guess what? We adopt that solution ourselves. If we’re doing it, then I think that we’re going to be incentivized and appreciative of our legal partners outside of the company who also have the similar mindset and similar approach. Part of always engaging outside counsel is finding alignment. And this is an important forward-looking point of alignment. Law firms really need to recognize that they need to come to the table when it comes to technology and operations and developing very efficient systems to provide advice and guidance to their clients.
Even on a more practical level, is the fact that having those types of diverse perspectives and skillsets as part of your portfolio means that not only are you using your time more efficiently, but as all companies are doing, they’re always looking at budget and financial efficiencies. With those operational efficiencies will come, hopefully the ability for law firms to be financially savvier in the way that they enter into fee arrangements with companies. What their hourly rates are.
Gina: It’s interesting you should say that. Jennifer Simpson Carr, who I know you’ve corresponded with, did a podcast interview with Bryon Koepke, General Counsel of Suburban Propane, who talked about how he ran a convergence program. I thought it was fascinating. These are the types of things that we all need to be mindful of in the legal community, why it’s important and what the law firms can be doing better to serve organizations such as S&P Global.
Do you have any books that you would recommend either business or pleasure for our listeners?
There was a great book that one of my mentors had shared with me a little over a year or so ago called the Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. It’s a series of very digestible chapters outlining the best and worst ways to encourage and develop and lead teams.
Gina: I’m afraid to read it because I’m afraid I’ve violated all the worst somewhere along the way.
Pavani: We all have, right? I mean, it’s a process.
Gina: It is.
Pavani: Becoming a strong leader, becoming a leader that has the trust and confidence of one’s stakeholders, it means having the self-awareness to recognize that it’s a process. And we’re not perfect, but as long as we keep trying and we keep evidencing change, because this goes back to intentionality, you can want to do well and right, but if you don’t evidence that with actual behavioral change, then it’s meaningless. In my opinion.
The other book is written by my neighbor in Brooklyn and his children and my younger children were in preschool together at the same time. He’s remarkable. His name is Rumaan Alam and his latest book, Leave the World Behind. I’ll leave it as that it’s nail biting, it’s slightly dystopian feeling. It seems very apropos to the times. You have to be in that mindset, but there’s life to it as well. And Rumaan has several other books that are worth picking up and reading. And you can learn more about him, his husband and their two adopted children.
Gina: I love that. I’m so glad you shared someone you know. That to me really shows what community is all about. Thank you for being a guest on our show.
About S&P Global
S&P Global is the world’s foremost provider of credit ratings, benchmarks and analytics in the global capital and commodity markets, offering deep data and insights on critical business factors including ESG. The Company’s divisions include S&P Global Ratings, S&P Global Market Intelligence, S&P Dow Jones Indices and S&P Global Platts. S&P Global has approximately 21,000 employees in 35 countries. For more information visit www.spglobal.com.
Additional S&P Global Resources
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S&P Global, in partnership with AARP, examined Corporate America’s family leave policies to understand the relationship between family-friendly benefits and female representation in the workforce and senior management.
ESG Data and Analytics Tool
S&P Global helps companies take control of their ESG presence with practical, useful data and expert analysis. Their specialist teams are actively engaged with companies and investors worldwide, understanding and evaluating thousands of factors that drive successful environmental, social and governance practices. This insight gives companies the power to determine, benchmark, and communicate ESG opportunities and risks to avoid pitfalls and accelerate progress.
S&P Diversity and Inclusion Commitment
“S&P Global’s commitment to diversity and inclusion helps us deliver the essential intelligence that markets count on around the world.” ~ Douglas L. Peterson, President and Chief Executive Officer, S&P Global
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