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!

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