« critical friends » : interview with Jean-Michel Severino

“We form a useful and unique space for free expression”
Published in the dossier of May 2020

Since its creation in 2013, the Critical Friends committee, today made up of some fifteen members who are experts in a wide variety of domains, has supported the Group in its thinking, at the crossroads of its major ethical, societal, strategic and operational challenges, in an atmosphere of critical candor, which is what truly sets it apart. Hence its name… There are two rules of the game: complete freedom of expression and confidentiality of the debates.

Jean-Michel Severino CEO of Investisseurs & Partenaires (I&P) and chair of Veolia’s Critical Friends committee..

How is the committee useful for Veolia?

Veolia counts on its “critical friends” to debate complex questions, without making any concessions when it comes to intellectual and ethical rigor or any obligation to reach a consensus. The great advantage of how this committee works is the vast freedom of thought and interaction that prevails and that we maintain with General Management. For instance, when Veolia questioned us about its activities involving radioactive waste, shale gas and coal, three topics about which the “critical friends” did not see eye to eye: does helping improve the environmental performance of activities otherwise denounced from an environmental perspective represent an improvement or deterioration in outcome? While they may seem philosophical, these debates have tangible repercussions in reputational, strategic, and operational terms.

How do you view the formalization of the purpose, in which you were involved?

I see it as the incorporation into managerial life of an approach long championed by its CEO, namely the company’s usefulness for its stakeholders, underpinned by the strategic as well as CSR initiatives undertaken by Veolia. As early as 2014, the committee began debating the high standards implied by the ‘Resourcing the world’ tagline; helping define and draw up the purpose was therefore a logical extension of this. We focused concurrently on its text, its approach, and its governance. A complex step for the committee, for which the interaction with General Management was very engaging, concerned the new anchoring accorded to the committee regarding governance of the purpose. This led to in-depth discussions, particularly the limits not to be crossed in order to allow the committee to maintain its distinctive features of freedom and non-consensus, which are useful to Veolia. From 2021, we are thus going to take part in critically monitoring the purpose’s performance indicators

In this respect, what particular influence did your involvement have in the creation of the performance scoreboard?

An indicator system’s stability doesn’t lie in its ability to describe the whole world but in being credible and legitimate with regard to the part it does describe. The committee was therefore keen to encourage Veolia to accept that aspects of the purpose cannot be recorded on the basis of an indicator. By way of example, we had a very rich discussion about measuring the contribution to ethics on a scoreboard… A major topic in terms of purpose, which is reflected in the scoreboard’s final structure!

How do you plan to support Veolia in preparing for the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis?

Covid-19 is a multidimensional upheaval for Veolia. The crisis highlights two themes already more present than elsewhere — Health/ Environment and Biodiversity — that will move back up on the Group’s strategic agenda. It is also leading to careful consideration of Veolia’s organization, especially its social dimension. I’m thinking about its Waste business line, whose staff members are on our streets each day while the world is in lockdown. In this kind of rehabilitation underway, Veolia’s status as a service provider comes fully into its own.