Friday, December 11, 2009

Some Tips for Informational Interviewing

Most CSR practitioners I know usually get many, many requests to conduct informational interviews. I probably average about an interview every week, and I rarely decline. After all, I too was once a job-seeker who begged CSR practitioners to do informational interviews and I consider this payback for all those who were kind enough to meet with me back in the day.

While an informational interview isn't as formal as a real interview, there still are some do's and don'ts that the interview-seeker should consider. Below are some tips for the interview-seeker, given from the perspective of the interview-granter.

1. Research the Company A huge pet peeve of mine is when I meet with someone and they ask me what my company does. No one expects you to be an expert on every company, but it takes a minimum amount of time to visit a company website and understand its basic business. Furthermore, know a little about the company's CSR efforts. It helps guide the conversation and won't make me feel like I would rather be getting work done.

2. Be Clear About Your Purpose Obviously, at the heart of any informational interview is the hope that there's a job opportunity that will be a good fit. But if you're about to ask for an informational interview, it typically means there isn't a job open. So, why do you want to chat? Are you interested in learning about a particular CSR program? Are you trying to get an understanding of how CSR jobs differ from company to company? Are you just learning about what CSR is?

3. Tell Your Story Every company approaches CSR differently. Consequently, jobs look very different from company to company. As someone who's granting an informational interview, I'm happy to help guide you to resources and companies I may know about, but I can't help you unless I have a sense of your interests, experience and goals. You'll get a lot more from the conversation if I know you're interested in sustainable design than if I only know you're currently an MBA student.

4. Ask About Job Experiences You've asked for an informational interview, so you should lead the conversation and ask questions about what I do. If I spend 30 minutes with you and you don't ask about what I do in my role, I'll feel like you're trying to give me a sales pitch. And since we've already established that there's no open job, I have no context in which to absorb your undoubtedly terrific skills and experiences.

5. Be Prepared to Take Notes It's hard to believe, but during our conversation, I may point you to a resource or company you've never heard of. Nothing interrupts the flow of a conversation more than having to pause while you dig around your bag, looking for a pad of paper and asking someone at the cafe table next to us to borrow a pen.

6. Thank the Interviewer I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I appreciate a quick email thanking me for my time. There are many other things I could be doing other than meeting you to chat.

7. Follow Up Let me know what you end up doing! If I've taken a moment to get to know you, I'm interested in learning more about where you ultimately end up. Chances are, if you're in CSR, we'll bump into each other again. Or I may want to call you one day to ask about your job!

These may seem like elementary tips, but you'll be surprised by how often they're broken. At the heart of any informational interview (any meeting, really) is building a relationship. Not only do you want to get immediate information from this conversation, but you ideally will also establish a relationship to which you can turn during the duration of your career.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Sustainable Facilities: Taking a Deeper Dive

It's said that buildings (the construction and maintenance of) account for nearly half of the United States' greenhouse gas emissions, so companies that commit to environmental sustainability should look to their real estate portfolio for opportunities to reduce their environmental impact. Since we don't manufacture and since we're not in the extractives industry, the majority of my company's environmental footprint comes from the operation of our real estate portfolio.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an expert in buildings and facilities management. Our Real Estate team has been exploring energy management technologies, alternative energy generation, water conservation tools and lower-impact construction techniques for years. Stepping into my job as the company's sustainability strategist, I've been playing catch-up and learning about the impact that "greening" our facilities can have.

Last week, I accompanied our head of facilities and a facilities manager at one of our locations to a day-long seminar on sustainable corporate real estate in Washington, DC. I was a bit apprehensive at first, since I don't have expertise in facilities management and I wasn't sure that the level of detail being discussed would hold my interest.

However, I was pleased at the seminar's balance of inspirational thought leadership and practical implementation tips. It's not often that I attend a conference or event where I walk away with some new ideas and ways to bring them to life.

And while we've done a fair amount to make our facilities more sustainable (including Energy Star and LEED certification), I know there's a lot more that we can do. Our primary challenge, like many other companies, lies in the fact that we don't own all the buildings we occupy, so we have to work with landlords who may not be open to our sustainability suggestions. Furthermore, we're rarely the sole tenant in a building and sub-metering isn't available in most commercial buildings yet. It's therefore impossible for us to understand the impacts (from an environmental and cost perspective) that sustainability initiatives potentially can have.

Nonetheless, it seems like there are some interesting tools out there to help practitioners with "greening" their real estate portfolio. A few that I'm planning to review in the near future are Energy Star's Portfolio Manager, Tririga's TREES software (despite a horrible, horrible experience with Tririga at my last company) and another proprietary system used by one of the presenting companies.

In addition, I learned a lot about green cleaning, alternative workplace strategies and some pretty cool new technologies. All topics that, a few years ago, I would never have guessed could contribute to my success as a CSR practitioner.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Looking for No-Brainers

Thanks to an email I received from an employee at one of our distribution centers, we've identified an unnecessary process that, when discontinued, has the potential to save the company thousands of dollars in paper and postage costs.

Since I sit at the corporate level, I don't have insight into the day-to-day operations of our business units, and this is one of my biggest challenges as a CSR practitioner. How, then, do we uncover all these inefficiencies that can help reduce the company's environmental impact and save money? I've been in my role for approximately a year and a half and in that time, I've received close to 200 unsolicited calls or e-mails from employees around the world with ideas (and complaints!) and it's all thanks to shameless self-promotion.

I'm lucky to have an internal communications team that sees value in CSR and they've been very generous with real estate in company newsletters, our intranet and internal articles. When I first arrived in my role, my position was featured in an intranet article that announced a point person for CSR and sustainability. In our employees' minds, there was now a concrete person to direct inquires. This, however, is a blessing and a curse. While some ideas have the potential to have a significant impact, I find myself responding to and researching many other employee concerns about temperature control and recycling, often in locations across the country.

Beyond that first introductory article, our weekly company news round-up has featured more than a dozen articles on CSR in the past year. We've highlighted volunteer activities, employees who've brought to light a significant environmental opportunity and other accomplishments. This steady stream of internal communication has helped to reinforce the idea that we're working together to get things done. Ideas will be granted an appropriate audience and we will move toward resolution.

At the same time, you have to maintain an "every little bit helps" mentality or you'll go crazy. I recently spent several hours working with employees in Florida, North Carolina and Texas, trying to figure out how to digitize a process and reduce paper usage. I thought this might be a breakthrough that would result in saving tons of paper and a whole lot of money. The result? Approximately $50 in savings per year. But, the employee who brought this idea to my attention was so grateful for the help in getting rid of some unnecessary paperwork.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Does Executive Buy-in Really Mean?

The only reason I'm in my job is because someone at our company had the foresight to declare that a commitment to good corporate citizenship and environmental sustainability is important to the company. Fortunately for me, that "someone" was our CEO. Less than a year after his formal declaration to our company's leaders, I was hired to lead our environmental sustainability strategy.

Every academic, pundit and CSR practitioner insists that executive buy-in or commitment is an imperative for CSR to be "strategic" at a company. I don't argue with this notion, but I've come to realize that executive support can take on different forms and degrees of strength, each leading to different approaches when it comes to a CSR practitioner's duties.

I've been thinking about this lately because I'm trying to engage some senior-level executives in our CSR work. While our CEO has declared a formal commitment, I don't think it's crystal clear to those who report to him (and the layer immediately below that) what that commitment means for them. It's my job to help make this commitment relevant to their day-to-day jobs and to give them the insight and tools to bring this commitment to life.

In thinking of the best way to engage these executives, I've been talking to some consultants and to peers at other companies to understand how they've helped their executives "get it." Through these discussions, I've seen a range of executive commitment and the ways that they influence a CSR practitioner's work:

Executive Champion - When your CEO truly believes that CSR will help drive innovation, differentiate the brand and contribute to a company's overall success, the CSR team is in a great position. Within that team, however, are varying roles and each practitioner is likely highly specialized. Some will be setting strategies while others will be managing programs. There are many opportunities for CSR practitioners here, but each person is valued for a highly specific set of skills and experiences.

Engaged Leadership - Company leaders may understand the importance and value of CSR, but they may not see it as a common thread throughout the entire business. This situation can cause some tension between the CSR practitioner and other business units or departments, but from this healthy tension arises potentially innovative solutions. It also demands that the CSR practitioner remain vigilant in expressing the business value of his/her work and brings some rigor to analyzing the benefits of CSR projects.

Limited Scope - Many companies seem to be in this category, where an executive (or a few executives) understand that CSR is valuable to their companies, but they don't see the whole picture. For example, an executive may appreciate the enhancement that philanthropy has on the company's reputation in a community, but may not connect this opportunity to creating a license to operate in new markets. In this case, the CSR practitioner is typically trying to expand the scope of his/her work in order to make these connections clear and seamless.

Executive Curiosity - In this case, an executive wants to understand what CSR is and how it can bring value to the company. They've heard about it from the press or their peers and they're curious to know what shape it might take within their organizations. This can be a golden opportunity for a CSR practitioner (or more likely, a manager in a traditional function who takes the initiative to build the business case for CSR at his/her company). If taken cultivated properly, an executive's curiosity about CSR can mature into a full-fledged strategy that's aligned with the business.

Nominal Commitment - Some executives discuss a company's commitment to CSR, but don't truly believe that it's of any importance. If any resources are devoted to CSR, it's typically in the communications or marketing space. While it sounds bleak, this is also a great opportunity for the initiative-taking manager who can clearly define CSR in new terms. Instead of "CSR," the conversation must shift to other drivers of value. Whether it's cost-savings from environmental sustainability, brand enhancement through ethical business practices or community goodwill from public-private partnerships, every company with a sophisticated CSR strategy started somewhere.

Cold Shoulder - There will always be executives who refuse to engage in CSR and where it may be a losing battle for any employee who's interested in taking responsibility for CSR. This probably isn't the right environment for someone who is interested in CSR as a career. Maybe wait for a change of leadership!

Obviously, these are simplified scenarios, but my point is that many people in this space discuss executive buy-in without really thinking through what that means. Sometimes, the opportunity can be greater at companies where there is no executive buy-in (yet) and some CSR practitioners may be frustrated at other companies where there is an authentic commitment to CSR but not a lot of opportunity to be entrepreneurial.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


There's no question that McDonald's golden arches represent an iconic brand. The bold arches on a red backdrop are ubiquitous around the world and signify a variety of things (positive and negative) to consumers everywhere.

Some might associate the logo with happy childhood memories and cheerful television commercials (Who doesn't love Ronald McDonald? Or, at least, the Hamburgler? Robble Robble!). Others may view the logo as a corporate behemoth that has industrialized food and agriculture, dive-bombing a nation's nutrition. A few may also view McDonald's as a pioneer in partnering with environmental nonprofits such as Conservation International, the Environmental Defense Fund or the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It seems this last opinion is one that McDonald's hopes to strengthen in its customers' minds, at least in Germany. By changing the red background to green, McDonald's wants to signify a more environmentally friendly brand, one that innovates in the corporate sustainability space and seeks credit for its progress.

The McDonald's CSR journey is well-documented in business school cases, articles and its own publications. I've had the opportunity to meet many members of the company's CSR team and I can tell you that they take their responsibility seriously and are among the most well-intentioned practitioners I know. Even though I knew of much of the company's work, its Global Best of Green 2009 publication was an eye-opener for me and I was impressed by (and jealous of!) the wealth of ideas that have bubbled up from its employees around the globe.

But I still have to question the company messing with its branding. Does the average consumer truly believe that McDonald's is making honest strides at environmental sustainability? Did the company consider the economic value of its brand equity in making this change? Is it wise to drastically alter the brand promise in one region of the world, but not in others? Will consumers still care about sustainability in a few years?

I don't claim to be a marketer or an expert when it comes to branding, but I'm skeptical of this move. As a CSR practitioner, I'm excited to see a company take on this type of change in such a big way, so I hope my initial misgivings are proven wrong!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Remembering Neal Kearney

In the world of CSR, there’s much discussion of “stakeholders” and whether or not a company is appropriately engaging them. My last company, an apparel retailer, had an especially sophisticated approach to stakeholder engagement. It’s a years-long evolution that has resulted in very strong relationships.

One of the company’s most important stakeholders is the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF), a global union federation that advocates for workers’ rights in apparel supply chains. Neal Kearney, who sadly passed away unexpectedly last week, was the general secretary of ITGLWF and a very passionate, committed defender of human rights.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Neal several times during my tenure at my former company. He was fiercely intelligent and did not compromise when he thought the well-being of workers was at stake. His tireless efforts took him around the world, and his perspective was respected and sought by many multi-national apparel companies.

But beyond the great work he did on behalf of under- (or un-) represented garment workers everywhere, he was a very charming and kind man. As a representative of a major apparel retailer, I often found myself at the receiving end of his criticisms, but once the “work” part of our meetings ended, he’d be the first to suggest grabbing a drink. In these social situations, I found Neal to be funny, engaging and a pleasure to be around. He stood firm on what he believed, but he also knew how to enjoy life.

In Neal’s passing, the world has lost a true champion of the underprivileged. He will be missed.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I Have an Idea!

Companies are networks of individual people. So, to be successful, you need to build relationships with your colleagues in order to get many things done. This especially holds true in CSR where you’re often part of a very small team with limited resources and you depend on others to help bring your work to life.

One of my biggest challenges in working for a large company is identifying the right person or people to help take a project from idea to execution. I’ve only been with my company for a year and a half, so I feel like I’m still learning the ropes and trying to figure out who’s in charge of what.

As a result, I often spend time following up on e-mails and voice messages that seem to have fallen on deaf ears. For example, I just spent about 45 minutes going through sent messages and either re-sending them to the original recipient or forwarding them to other people, in the hopes that someone will bite.

In my (very humble) opinion, I have some interesting ideas! The problem is, when you’re approaching a busy colleague who has no idea who you are (or what your job is), it’s tough to get them to understand how you can help. In CSR, you’re constantly engaging internally and building not only the value of your work, but also the value of your self.

So, especially during the early days of working for a company, you spend a lot of time re-sending, re-explaining and hoping that someone “gets” what you mean and agrees that you have an idea worth chatting about.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Downstream Pressure and Collaboration

For those of you who think working in CSR is all about aligning initiatives with a company's strategy, rest assured that there are much more tactical projects that cross my desk. It's no secret that everyone in this field is thinking about supply chain impacts. With Walmart pushing for asustainability index and requiring that its suppliers answer 15 questions regarding their sustainability practices, every company is thinking about how to go about this in practice.

My company is a Walmart supplier. And Walmart's focus on sustainability is great for someone in my position. Here's an important customer that cares about my work and here's a fantastic opportunity to show how what I do adds real, tangible value for our company.

Recently, this "customer pressure" has translated into a new project for me. I've been working with one of our sales executives and several Walmart executives on demonstrating the financial and environmental value of one of our service offerings.

I just got off the phone with members of the Walmart team and I think we have our project mapped out. Now, it's a matter of finding the right people in my organization who have the information and data I need to perform my analysis ... all before our next call in two weeks.

It's an interesting project, but it's one that's very tactical. I'm looking forward to working on something a bit more tangible and data-driven, but it requires me to dig deep and remember some lessons from modeling (financial and otherwise) classes. What's tricky (and exciting) here, is that there's no clear and easy way to approach this. It's a new project and it requires the company to think in a different way. I cannot lean on the past work of other colleagues, but I have to chart a new course.

Having worked on similar projects in the past, I know that the math may be fuzzy and no one will confirm that I'm approaching this in the right way. Instead, I'll get a lot of questions and people will (rightfully) wonder if my approach is the most logical one. There are no clear answers to these questions, but we can arrive at a good approximation of our environmental impacts.

In the end, it's a great chance for me to work with people from other companies and to see firsthand how they approach sustainability. It will give some visibility to my work and hopefully demonstrate that I can be of service to other parts of the business as well!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

CSR and Social ME-dia

As I mentioned, I attended the Net Impact annual conference recently and I noticed that there were many sessions on social media. When I attended my first conference nearly a decade ago, there obviously were no panels on the topic, so it's interesting to see the momentum behind this.

Social media seems to vex many big, established companies. Not only from the perspective of how it should be used with regards to CSR, but also from the perspective that companies want to "control" what is said about the enterprise as much as possible.

Clearly, since I started this little blog, I'm dipping my toe into the social media world. I think I've also figured out how twitter is useful, after playing around with it for the past few months.

But are companies really using social media for CSR? We recently released our biennial Corporate Citizenship Report and were approached by a number of companies that wanted us to tell this story through social media. We decided to use one of these services to communicate the report's launch and to tell some of the stories within it, but I'm not sure I've seen any value from it. As a result of this month-long contract, I find that many of my days are spent preparing content to be distributed through these channels. I re-package information from the report, think through new storylines and I struggle with uploading videos through a cumbersome online portal. It's taking up a lot of my time, but where are the results?

We've scheduled a conversation about measuring the impact of these services, so it will be interesting to see what the company claims as value derived from the partnership.

As part of this social media "campaign," I had to sit for an on-camera interview in preparation for the report's launch a few weeks ago. Even though I've gone through media training a few times, it was still a very anxiety-inducing experience.


Having spent my entire professional career in the private sector, I think I need to make it absolutely clear that everything I post on this blog is my own opinion and doesn't represent the position of my employer (present or past), any organizations of which I'm a member, nonprofits on whose board I serve or any community of which I claim membership.

Basically, you can hold me accountable for anything I post here, but don't think that everyone I associate with agrees with me!


With so many corporate social responsibility (CSR) blogs and resources out there, what could I possibly add to the dialogue/noise? And in such a new "industry," certainly no one can profess to have all the answers or claim true mastery.

I can, however, share my experiences and opinions from spending several years as a CSR practitioner in the hopes that this blog helps to illuminate the truth (the good, the bad and the ugly) about my job and others like it.

Recently, I returned from Ithaca, NY where I attended the Net Impact annual conference. It was my eighth conference and continues to be one of the highlights of my year. What I cannot even begin to communicate is the energy and optimism that results from thousands of MBAs and professionals who come together with a more noble vision for the purpose of business and its role in society. At 2,400 participants, it was Net Impact's largest conference to date and it's clear that interest in CSR continues to gain momentum.

What's frustrating, however (and I've certainly experienced this firsthand), is that the idealism expressed by students and professionals who aren't CSR practitioners doesn't always match up with reality. Even at the most "progressive" companies, CSR isn't readily embraced and there are many, many uphill battles and difficult conversations to be had.

So I hope this blog can serve as a resource to those who are interested in learning more about CSR and how companies can play an active role in improving society and the environment. To the fullest extent possible, I'll offer my honest opinion and unguarded insight into my day-to-day world.