This edition of Active Voice celebrates the platform’s anniversary through a conversation with Cathy Saunders, who reflects on progress made and future themes.
AV: Cathy Saunders, what is Active Voice?
CS: When I started my position as Head of Corporate Sustainability and Public Policy at Putnam, I felt we needed a platform to reflect the conversations we engage in as we blend the evolution of our active asset management business, public policy, and community outreach. At Putnam, we take the concept of “active” seriously. It’s in our DNA as an active asset manager, and we are also active in our engagement of sustainability, community, public policy, and thought leadership.
AV: Where has Active Voice taken you?
CS: Across the first year of Active Voice, we’ve explored a wide spectrum of public policy issues and community affairs. The platform helps us to showcase values like inclusivity, collaboration, and creativity that we practice every day. We were surprised to find the program also helped us sharpen a sense of our corporate culture and our business relationships with clients.
AV: The emergence of Active Voice coincided with the United States making its way out of the Covid-19 lockdowns and dislocation, a period of profound reappraisal around life and work as well as relationships with team members and business partners.
CS: Absolutely. We addressed this theme right out of the gate through the publication of our series “C3: Covid, Community, and Climate.” We saw that the horrific health, social, and economic impacts of Covid-19 were accompanied by a reinvigoration of community engagement. This was reflected in the principles of diversity and inclusion [D&I] and in sustainable finance, with the boom in environmental, social, and governance [ESG] investing. Covid-19 drove a rethink. Our businesses and communities came out of it stronger.
AV: The platform spends a good bit of time exploring emerging technology and its impacts on corporate practice, asset management, and client relations.
CS: When Covid-19 landed, we reached for our phones! The virtualization of American business, education, and community was an amazing thing to experience. And now that the public health impacts of Covid-19 have abated, we are running our businesses in a completely different way. In a conversation with Putnam’s Chief Information Officer Sumedh Mehta, we discussed how technology can help leverage a healthier, more sustainable economy, more creative and responsible public policies, and more supportive communities.
AV: One of the Active Voice essays, an interview with Putnam CEO Bob Reynolds, was entitled “Leading smart change.”
CS: In his book about the 401(k) retirement savings industry, From Here to Security: How Workplace Savings Can Keep America’s Promise, Bob drew on several decades of policy engagement building what would become the largest pool of worker savings and wealth in history. It took a huge leap of faith and decades of commitment to make that happen. We believe that embracing change is essential for economic progress — for human progress. We are today in a period of super-rapid transformation around community engagement and inclusion, economics, public policy, technology, geopolitics — the whole spectrum. It’s an exciting time to be thinking about the future.
AV: You came to your current position as Putnam’s Head of Corporate Sustainability and Public Policy after a career in distribution and sales. Was that an interesting transition?
CS: It was challenging and stimulating to have a whole new project at mid-career. I brought to the new job a commitment to Putnam’s core mission of helping investors to raise their families, educate their kids, live out their dreams, and retire with dignity. Can we do this in a sustainable fashion? We can and we must. Do we need enlightened public policy, engaged communities, and inclusivity in all its forms to make this happen? Absolutely.
AV: Tell us about your perspectives on diversity and inclusion.
CS: “Active” again. As a financial services firm, our people are our number one asset, and we are active in sustaining this strength. In order to help our people perform at their best, we need to foster a corporate culture that values team members with different academic specializations from varied educational institutions, as well as diverse ethnic, gender, and social legacies. Stephen R. Denny, Putnam’s Head of Human Resources — Diversity and Inclusion, guides this strategy. We have associates from all over the world. What’s really exciting is to see how cognitive diversity improves all decisions, starting with investment decisions.
AV: ESG investing seems poised to define finance for the foreseeable future.
CS: ESG has been fundamental to Active Voice since its inception, beginning with our conversation with Katherine Collins, Putnam’s Head of Sustainable Investing. Early in the Active Voice series, we asked whether our CEO Bob Reynolds considered ESG to be an investment philosophy, an investment product, or a philosophy for managing the company. He responded, “all of the above.” Our team leveraged this concept of sustainability in policy, community relations, investment practice, and company management as we developed Putnam’s first annual corporate sustainability report.
AV: Tell us about your exploration of the future of the workplace, investment, and financial advisory.
CS: Millennials, Gen Z, and coming generations will experience a workplace that is perhaps more volatile in terms of job security, but potentially more rewarding both intellectually and financially. Many are employed in professional categories that barely existed a few years ago –– digital marketing, data science, social media, and artificial intelligence. They have new ideas about the culture of wealth –– savings, retirement, and the changing role of financial advisory. And they’re embracing careers with “purpose.” This was a primary theme of Bob Reynolds’s 2022 commencement address at Bentley University’s Graduate School of Business.
AV: Putnam has a legacy of policy engagement around the development of workplace savings plans like 401(k)s and similar savings vehicles. Will Active Voice continue to engage that theme?
CS: Of course. The 401(k) system continues to grow through automatic payroll deduction, and it has proven to be resilient. Through the collapse of the technology investment bubble in 2000, the global financial crisis in 2008, the Covid-19 market correction of 2020, and the 2022 inflation spike and bear market, savers didn’t withdraw funds, cease contributing, or even alter their allocations. We will continue our commitment to retirement savings policies that make it easy to succeed and hard to fail.
AV: What are some new public policy areas of interest?
CS: We are exploring the theme of tax fairness and level playing fields for investment funds. The legal structure of mutual funds in the United States has been largely unreformed since its inception nearly a century ago. Recently, exchange-traded funds [ETFs] have gained popularity, largely because their structure puts them in an advantageous tax situation. Given that millions more Americans own mutual funds than ETFs, we think policies ought to ensure that financial innovation proceeds fairly.
AV: The Active Voice platform seems to repeatedly return to the themes of financial culture and trust.
CS: Trust is the foundation of everything. It’s difficult to define and measure, but vastly important. Savers must have faith in the fairness of policy, markets, and counterparty relationships.
AV: What’s next for Active Voice?
CS: We will continue research into the changing American workplace, and we’ll broaden the platform across new media and events. We’ve articulated Active Voice themes at conferences of the Investment Company Institute [ICI], the Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association [DCIIA], the New England Council, and others. We will continue our weekly video conference, open to all Putnam associates, focused on national policy, geopolitics, economics, global finance, and emerging social and technology trends. Mostly, we’ll be attuned to the brilliant collective thinking that we experience among our team members, clients, and stakeholders.
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