Friday, April 30, 2010

Who Are Your Champions?

When I was in business school, I read The Soul in the Computer for one of my CSR classes. What I got out of the book was that individual employees could bring their values to work and make change from within a company - and that it was important to identify and empower these employees in order to create change. The message seemed pretty elementary to me at the time, but after working in CSR for the past several years, the importance of this concept has only increased in my estimation.

If you ask most CSR practitioners, they'll tell you that one of their priorities is to "integrate" CSR into all parts of the business. Some will go so far as to say that they're trying to work the CSR practitioner out of a job. At one company where I worked, a Legal VP described CSR as "an insidious virus" that could spread through the company and take hold of all employees (This was meant to be a good thing!).

But it takes time to identify these change-makers and champions: people in traditional business functions who want to help with the CSR agenda and can help make decisions that are relevant to their particular functions. It's great when these like-minded employees approach you as the CSR practitioner, but I find that I need to plan time to proactively reach out to people who I sense are "of the faith."

The other day, I set up a meeting with someone who manages a very resource-intensive product. Without having ever met her, I simply sent her a meeting over Outlook, showed up to her office and explained that I was curious about her work. As we chatted, I asked about some of the potential environmental impacts and attributes of the raw materials that go into her product category and she lit up!

It turns out, she's passionate about environmental sustainability and had been thinking about these very issues, but never had anyone to discuss the topic with. We talked about some no-cost and low-cost ways to increase the environmental attributes of this product and scheduled some follow-up meetings with vendors to learn more. If our little covert operation is successful, we may be able to reduce one of the company's pretty big impacts, imbue the product with environmental attributes and enhance our brand from a CSR perspective.

Every company has people like my colleague and I see it as my job to start asking questions in order to find them. In many cases, people are simply looking for the opportunity to think these ideas through and will welcome the chance to test CSR-related projects. If you can find them, these champions can act like a special ops team - and lord knows every CSR practitioner could use more help and resources!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Kids, Pay Attention in Class!

No one in my b-school class would have confused me with a "quant jock." From the moment I stepped foot on campus, it was clear that I was a "poet" through and through. My liberal arts undergrad and my consulting-lite experience cemented my fate as the guy who would write the memo or design the PowerPoint slides in each group project. Leave the hard-core financial models to someone else.

My classroom experiences offered additional data points to show that I wouldn't ever be a corporate numbers guy. I sort of understood the concepts in my stats class and managed somehow to pass, but I knew in the back of my mind that I would never have to rely on unlocking an r-value to earn my paycheck. Queuing theory was an interesting exercise, but Gantt charts made me cross-eyed. I did, however, enjoy my corporate finance classes. Strange, but every data chart has outliers, right?

Fast-forward several years and I find myself in a position where I'm digging deep to remember details from classes I never thought I'd revisit again. Like the teacher trying to dissuade a 12-year old of the notion that he will never need to use algebra in "real life," I'm encouraging all you aspiring CSR practitioners in MBA programs to pay attention to these lessons!

In the past weeks, I've been pulled into conversations about AQLs and NPVs. I've had to seek correlation and statistical significance. My research has delved into countries' GDPs and labor optimization.

As a CSR practitioner, I'm effective at my job only as long as I understand the business I'm in. I find that I'm constantly trying to understand my business better, to figure out my colleagues' pain points and to find interesting social and environmental opportunities.

It's too easy to dismiss CSR as a fringe exercise that has no real relevance to the business, and in some companies, that may be okay. But if you really want to make a strategic difference - both to society and to your company - you'll go out of your way to learn the business, be conversant in important issues and create connections that others may have missed.