Q: What is corporate social responsibility?
In simple terms, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an umbrella term for how an organization (business, government, education, non-profit) views its responsibility to both the environment and the communities in which it operates. Another term often used is “sustainability.”
I particularly like the following definition of sustainable development from the UN Brundtland Commission, 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
I think this statement gets at the inherent tension, in particular, of public companies that must report quarterly yet plan for a much longer time-horizon. CSR goes by many names, but ultimately, it is about a widening of the purpose of an organization to take into account environmental and social impacts.
Q: How did you become involved in the CSR movement?
The term “movement” is interesting here. Is it a movement? I think, rather, it’s a natural evolution and maturation of our understanding of the significant impact an organization has on the world, which historically was quantified and reported in financial terms.
My involvement came about because my company realized that many stakeholders (investors and clients, primarily) wanted to know more about a wider set of impacts:
- How were we addressing climate change?
- What were we doing to drive down energy and water consumption costs?
- Did we have an understanding of our supply chain risks associated with human rights abuses or environmental damage?
- What were we doing beyond paying taxes to support the communities in which we did business?
These inquiries were relatively new. Over time, we realized that our stakeholders were demanding a more comprehensive and transparent set of answers. I happened to have had a long history with the company in other areas, such as leadership development, sales training, and account strategic planning, consulting, and the company wanted someone to look into these inquiries who knew the business. I think that’s a key quality of any professional moving into the CSR/CR space—you must know the business!
Q: What role does leadership of the company play in the CSR initiative?
Executive leadership and leadership by example, in particular, are key to the success of any CSR program. That almost goes without saying.
But I also think you have to ask what is the definition of “leadership.” I like Stephen Covey’s explanation: “Leadership is a choice, not a position.” By that definition, I think the leadership of every associate and employee in the company is critical to any CSR/sustainability effort taking hold for the long term.
If everyone sees sustainability as fundamentally part of their job, and everyone understands that they have a choice to lead or not to lead, and they make the choice to lead, then great things can happen!
Q: How would you define a socially responsible leader?
A socially responsible leader is someone who understands that his or her actions and decisions affect a wide variety of stakeholders in their organization. These leaders take a wider view of:
- the organization’s purpose
- how they contribute to the environmental and social challenges businesses face today.
In addition, a socially responsible business leader, leading a for-profit public company, is someone who understands that shareholder value is driven by managing the business for the benefit of all stakeholders, including the communities in which it does business, as well as the investors, associates, clients, and supplier partners.