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.

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