David L. Cooperrider, Ph.D.
Professor / Chairman, Dept Organizational Behavior
Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University • David.Cooperrider@case.edu
I wish I could share his full name. Dan is the Executive VP of Human Resources for one of the largest multinationals in the world. He is a quiet and respected leader, a member of the Office of the CEO, and the architect of a top secret “empowerment” strategy.
That’s why I can’t share the name, as this competitive strategy has all the makings of first mover advantage. Dan’s goal: to turn on and elevate the imagination and passion of an entire workforce leading, ultimately, to whole new magnitude of business innovation.
I know this case well because I am an advisor to Dan. He first shared with me the complexity of the conglomerate, and how the dizzying diversity of businesses made it almost impossible to communicate the company’s identity or to rally the 57,000 employees around any unified, corporate-wide vision. But Dan had an idea. And I immediately high-fived him saying “Dan, there is no power greater than what you are talking about, for turbo-charging the talent, uniting the strengths, turning on the imagination of everyone.”
So what is Dan’s extraordinary idea?
It’s calling the entire corporation to “be a world solution-provider to the 10 largest global problems facing humankind.” OK, let’s use more familiar language. It’s called “corporate citizenship.”
In the world of ideas, as Thomas Friedman wrote, to name something is to own it: “if you can name an issue, you can own the issue.”
Like Friedman’s analysis of the word “green” the one thing that always struck me about the term corporate citizenship was the degree to which, for so many years, it was defined the opposite of the real business. Especially opponents, people who wanted to disparage it, would roll their eyes if you brought it up at a senior executive strategy think-tank, defining it as “charity”, “expensive regulatory compliance”, as “liberal”, “a side-line distraction”, “vaguely relevant.”
Well its time to rename “corporate citizenship.” We need to rename it global strategic, opportunity producing, innovation magic, and HR turbocharged.
It’s what is happening—if you really pay attention—to the leading stars in virtually every industry. Just as the internet boom sent people scrambling to invest in the next Google, the same thing now is happening to companies that are emerging as pioneers in clean tech, micro-enterprise (eradicating poverty through profitability), and sustainability. Who is going to be first to market with the next new “Prius” or who will be the next new “Whole Foods”? Likewise, why is there so much investor excitement with NanoSolar — with its workforce on fire — and its promise of building a world that is clean and profoundly renewable in its energy options?
So Dan—from a senior HR perspective—could sense it. He could sense this re-naming I’m talking about. So what did he do? He organized the largest global summit this Fortune 500 Company has ever held, using a process called Appreciative Inquiry.
The focus was on “the ten largest global problems facing humankind.” And then the five hundred employees—from machine operators to the head of corporate finance and information technology, as well as customers and representatives from throughout the supply chain — all went to work with a big, inspiring question: “How might we turn these social and global environmental issues into inventive business opportunities to ignite innovation in new products and operations, open new unexpected markets, ignite customer passion and loyalty, turn on and energize an entire workforce, accelerate learning, build better supply chains, reduce risks, radically bring down energy costs, and produce tangible and intangible value such as brand loyalty and higher market cap?”
Friends in HR and OD, just as BP’s beyond petroleum ads admit ‘it’s just a start”, Dan’s story of leadership is just at its creative, beginning stages. But it is part of a much larger mosaic.
I was recently in Switzerland entering a second phase of the most exciting project I have ever worked on. A few years earlier, in 2004, a representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan called me at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He wanted our team to facilitate the largest meeting in history between the UN and almost one thousand CEOs, from companies such as Hewlett Packard, Nokia, Microsoft and many others. It was an exploration into the next phases of global corporate citizenship, where Kofi Annan reached out his hand to the business leaders and said: “Let us choose to unite the strengths of markets with the power of universal ideals, let us choose to reconcile the forces of private entrepreneurship with needs of the disadvantaged and the well-being of future generations.”
The summit was powerful. And three years later, this summer, the second summit took place. During the period of time in between summits an explosion of energy occurred: there are now four thousand companies that are now part of the UN Global Compact’s new corporate citizenship movement.
Yes it’s a symbol of a huge macro-trend.
But what’s the bottom line for HR? I have three conclusions, all sharpened by the UN Global Compact’s Leaders Summit in Switzerland held on June 14th-16th 2007.
First, almost all the delegates at the session were business CEO’s and they are bringing corporate citizenship into their companies with a dual mind-set: “Doing good and doing well” is the business innovation mindset of the 21st century, said the Chief Financial Officer of Fairmount Minerals, Jennifer Deckard.
Lesson number one:
HR needs to be going where our top executives are heading — toward a business savvy conception of sustainable value creation.
People everywhere want companies to be part of the solution, and they are proud of their own CEO’s when they stand up and speak up. One of the most electric moments of the summit was when the Chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, Neville Isdell, raised the question:
“As we meet here today, global business faces one of the most important questions of our time. Are we a barrier to sustainability? Or are we the greatest hope?”
He then went on to describe how sustainable value-creation is sending a wave of innovation throughout the Coca Cola Company in arenas such as protecting biodiversity, clean water, climate change, and economic empowerment in poverty stricken arenas.
But what struck the crowd was the passion and conviction of his words. “The time for abstract debate and hopeful assumption is gone. Business must become agents of transformation. We have the resources. We have the talents. And let’s be clear here, we have the self-interest.”
Lesson number three… for the future of HR:
Again quoting Neville Isdell; “its time to step up, speak up, and scale up” this new solution-focused approach to business.
The business case for all this is becoming crystal clear. Two groundbreaking studies, one by Goldman Sachs and the other by the McKinsey Company, were simultaneously released. McKinsey’s study of CEO’s showed that 92% of global corporate CEO’s see corporate citizenship in environmental, social and governance areas as significantly more important to business strategy than was the case five years ago. And the Goldman Sachs financial analysis discovered, in stunning detail, exactly why. Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s leading investment banks, showed that among six sectors covered – energy, mining, steel, food, beverages, and media – companies that are considered leaders in implementing environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies in order to create sustained competitive advantage have outperformed the general stock market by 25 per cent (this was over a one year period). In addition, 72 per cent of these companies outperformed their peers over the same period.
In other words, and I say this to all my HR colleagues, we are in a game-changing moment. Let’s call it the eclipse of “the great trade-off illusion” …or the belief that firms must sacrifice revenue or outstanding financial performance if they choose to do well. It simply is not true. It’s a myth. In fact the opposite is true.
That’s precisely why Dan’s HR proposal to unite his whole company around “the ten largest global problems facing humankind” is so brilliant.
This is the re-named “corporate citizenship” in action. Stay tuned. In forthcoming features I am going to share exactly how this is all being done, not just at Dan’s place but at places such as Fairmount Minerals (this year’s corporate citizen of the year at the US Chamber of Commerce) as well as the largest corporation in the world and others. It’s a tremendously exciting time to be alive in the field of Human Resources.
Key websites: http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/