top of page
  • Foto del escritorThe Corporate Reviews

Helene V. Gagnon

CSO and Senior VP, CAE Inc.


Helene, throughout your life you have worked in several places and in quite different fields, including law firms, and large corporations. You’ve also been very involved with numerous Boards of non-profit organizations and corporations. How has your legal background influenced your career?

My McGill legal background has certainly been instrumental to my career trajectory. Law school teaches you to be extremely rigorous, to get the facts and data, and to think strategically about a problem to find a solution. You also learn to simplify complex issues and to explain your ideas in a convincing manner both verbally and in writing.

These skills have served me well in leading Public Affairs and Global Communications in complex multinational corporate organizations.

Starting my career as an environmental lawyer in a big law firm at a time when only a handful of lawyers were specialized in that field contributed to my credibility as a subject matter expert when I started to lead Corporate Social Responsibility and ESG in large corporations.

My legal background also prepared me well in understanding corporate governance as well as the roles and responsibilities of Board members, allowing me to be appointed to more than 25 Boards of Directors in my career.

You are the Chief Sustainability Officer and Senior Vice President of Stakeholder Engagement for CAE, a company with more than 13,000 employees in over 40 countries. What does it take, in terms of personal and collective skills, to hold such a position?

When you are part of the executive committee of a multinational corporation, you must first act as a business partner. Therefore, business acumen, strategic thinking and a global mindset are of paramount importance.

Being a subject matter expert on ESG with a deep knowledge of current and upcoming policies and regulations in multiple countries as well as being able to anticipate ESG trends are all core competencies. As ESG comes under growing scrutiny, exercising cautious optimism while keeping a careful eye on potential risk and a strong focus on data are critical skills in my Chief Sustainability Officer mandate.

ESG is all about inspiring people to do better for the planet, for society as a whole and for all stakeholders. An inspiring leader must show empathy and be mindful of the different levels of ESG maturity in various regions and cultures.

In my role, I need to influence certain colleagues in my aim to drive an ESG agenda that creates value and manages risks. Confidence, assertiveness, charisma and executive presence help in that regard. I need to set an ambitious vision and goals that are inspiring for all employees as well as all of our stakeholders, and rally my executive colleagues around them.

Strategic communications skills are also key. If you cannot effectively convey your social and environmental impact to your stakeholders, no one will do it for you. We need to be both convincing and educational as the ESG topics are new and not everyone trusts or understands their contribution to the long-term growth of companies.

It’s important to highlight that even a small number of individuals and companies can have a large social impact by acting as trailblazers and inspiring others to do the same. I am invited to speak at numerous conferences where I explain that CAE was the first Canadian aerospace company to become carbon-neutral; that while our civil aviation market collapsed during the pandemic, we quickly ‘pivoted’ to invent a new ventilator design and manufactured thousands of them to help society in a matter of months; and that we instigated the mobilization of companies in Quebec that led to 400,000 COVID vaccines being administered by companies, at their cost, to accelerate vaccination and help restart our economy.

In the past years there have been considerable advances in the field of corporate social responsibility, which is now a major issue in many countries around the World. Why this happened? What comes next in this evolution process?

The multiplication of extreme weather events all around the world has certainly contributed to the public’s understanding of the impact of climate change and of carbon footprint. The increased public and consumer awareness related to the impact of businesses on society is a key factor.

Companies have become aware of the risks and opportunities generated by social and environmental turmoil. Stakeholders’ expectations on sound impact management have dramatically increased. Businesses have started to proactively take ESG factors into account when formulating their strategy, to do the right thing for the corporation and society. They have also realized the value creation potential of ESG by:

  • Fostering employee attraction, retention and engagement: In a world where talent is scarce, employees choose to work for companies that have a positive impact on the environment and society.

  • Getting access to capital: Financial institutions have developed sustainable financing mechanisms that companies can leverage.

  • Strengthening relationships with customers: When ESG is integrated in the business model, it can be a competitive advantage that contributes to companies gaining new customers and market share or fostering customer loyalty.

In terms of what comes next, we see a multiplication of government policies and regulations that will progressively force those who have not yet launched their ESG journey to jump on the bandwagon. We can expect more scrutiny of ESG data, including mandatory external verification of data by auditors.

Everyone in the ESG space certainly hopes for more standardization. We know it is coming but right now the ESG ratings by various entities vary tremendously – CDP, MSCI, ISS and Sustainalytics rank companies differently; large investors generate their own questionnaires and rankings; large corporations require their suppliers to provide data in different formats; etc.

The ESG reporting frameworks (GRI, SASB, TCFD, CDP, etc) will progressively become more standardized and very soon, ESG disclosures will become mandatory and part of the financial statements of corporations.

Companies are expected to demonstrate measurable social and environmental impact. On all fronts, the bar keeps rising every year and companies are held to higher standards by their stakeholders and increasingly, by regulators as well.

Around the world the development of projects is facing enormous challenges. Stricter regulations in many fields, environmental concern, local communities, are some of the issues to deal with when designing and developing new infrastructure. In fact, there are many Countries around the world that are no longer an attractive investment destination, because of the hardening of these positions. How do you harmonize these issues with corporations’ existence and their goal of being profitable?

It’s true that expectations are rising for companies in a lot of jurisdictions and that’s linked to their ‘license to operate’. To be sustainable, companies must be profitable. To be profitable in today’s world, you have to balance various stakeholder interests for long-term value. Corporations must engage communities in which they operate to ensure social acceptance of their projects. They must engage in a dialogue and be transparent to build long-term trust and engagement. If a company cannot attract and retain talent, it cannot operate. If we don’t collectively take care of our communities and our planet, there will be no business opportunities. That’s where open and transparent communications meet business imperatives. Successful companies harmonize these interests for long-term value.

For example, in the aerospace industry, we have been working together collectively to set the ambitious goal of net zero by 2050 and that goal was also approved by countries through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) last year. We have a roadmap to get there through technological advances, sustainable aviation fuels, more efficient air traffic operations, etc. All companies from the sector know that considering our carbon footprint, delivering on this roadmap is the foundation of our license to operate. We work together as a sector to make the right investments for our long-term business success.

Although there are no legal requirements for companies to make ESG or climate-related disclosures in Canada, that is likely to change soon, with the appearance of several regulatory modifications aiming to make those disclosures mandatory. In your opinion, are companies prepared for what is coming? Do you see any problems or difficulties in the implementation of such regulations?

It’s hard for me to speak on behalf of all companies but there are various levels of preparedness for sure. Companies, like CAE, which have already started to voluntarily publicly report their carbon footprint and climate change data (including risks and opportunities) aligned with TCFD are more prepared than others. However, even for us, preparing for the external audit of this data will be challenging. That said, we are committed to enhancing the robustness of our data collection processes across our 200 sites in more than 40 countries.

In my mind, the real challenge is at the level of small- and medium-sized businesses that are not as mature when it comes to carbon footprint and climate disclosure. All companies will need to disclose their scope 3 carbon emissions, meaning the carbon stemming from their supply chain. As such, when it comes to carbon footprint and climate-change impact, all companies are interconnected. Our impact can only be as strong as the weakest link in the chain. As large companies, we have a role to play in engaging with our suppliers and bringing them along the ESG journey with us. We have started to do that at CAE but also with the aerospace cluster, Aero Montreal, to help guide industry suppliers to greater maturity.

How do you see the situation abroad? Is ESG even an issue in other countries?

Europe is more advanced than others. For years now, European investors have asked more ESG questions than other investors, and the regulation is slightly more advanced. Some countries, like the UK for example, consider social value as a qualification criteria in their public procurements.

In the US, we have seen a certain level of ESG-backlash in some states. This ties to the challenge of marrying ESG considerations with business agendas. We see more progress at the federal level.

Canada is probably somewhere in the middle.

The UN Conferences of the Parties (COP) on climate change - and more recently, on biodiversity- are giving a lot of visibility to these ESG issues, not only for countries but also for corporations. All countries are involved in these discussions and although levels of maturity may differ from region to region, it would be hard to find a region of the world not concerned about ESG. The standardization of norms at the international and regional level will help companies to start or continue their journey, wherever they operate.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page