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Socially Responsible Business

Beyond the CSR Department: Corporate Intrapreneurs Forge Another Path

It turns out that change initiatives are very often driven by intrapreneurs—individuals working in so-called “conventional” roles.

For those looking to bring environmental or social change to their company, the path has traditionally been to pursue dedicated roles such as director of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or sustainability manager. But after completing a recent review of professionals working in a wide range of positions, it turns out that change initiatives are very often driven by intrapreneurs—individuals working in so-called “conventional” roles—beyond the scope of dedicated CSR departments.

For those of us trying to embed responsibility and sustainability into the corporate sector, this is exciting news. It means that virtually any employee can make a significant organizational impact with the right approach.

However: “You have to have your eye on the ball and be willing to take chances,” says Ann Condon, General Electric’s director and counsel of environmental, health, and safety programs for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Ann’s own story is published in "Corporate Careers That Make a Difference," Net Impact’s guide produced in partnership with the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College. "Corporate Careers" reveals certain consistent tactics and skills that intrapreneurs like Ann regularly use. These consistencies suggest such change efforts are replicable; we’ve summarized two key approaches here:

A Focus on Cross-Functional Collaboration

The corporate structure itself often results in departmental silos, and even CSR departments can fall victim to this trap. Our interviews revealed that individuals who bring together functional groups are more likely to successfully implement long-term change.

For example, when Southern Comfort’s Administrative Vice President and Director of Global Marketing Mike Isaac was tasked with reducing the company’s packaging footprint, his team transitioned to using recyclable product gift boxes. “That was a nice first step,” he says, but the boxes were still made from virgin materials, and it became clear that a more significant impact would require a greater level of engagement. So Mike began reaching out to other departments.

“It took a lot of team effort with purchasing, quality assurance, production, design, marketing, and the supplier,” says Mike. It also took a bridge builder with the vision and ability to bring those teams together. As a result, Southern Comfort’s gift bottles are now packaged in 100 percent recycled paperboard featuring 65 percent post-consumer waste, dramatically reducing the packaging footprint.

Learning to Speak the Right Language(s)

Connecting functional departments that otherwise might not work together is just one approach intrapreneurs are taking. But it requires buy-in from multiple people—and those people need to understand and accept the business case for corporate citizenship initiatives. According to Net Impact’s research, if there is no one to make this case, even well-intentioned efforts can fizzle out quickly.

Pareen Shah, senior manager of strategy at Levi Strauss & Co, comes into contact with many different parts of the company as a matter of course. “One minute you’re talking to IT people about databases, then you’re talking about product design, and then you’re talking to finance about the cost of goods.” Introducing social or environmental issues into these conversations can confuse them at best, and derail them at worst.

To overcome this, Pareen often has to “connect the dots” on behalf of one department for another. When Levi’s CSR team wanted to get involved with the Better Cotton Initiative, for example, Pareen helped drive a financial analysis for the merchandising team, which was charged with making sure costs would come in on target. By doing this, he secured buy-in from a key department that was critical to the project’s success.

The Future of Corporate Citizenship

As companies continue to grapple with how best to integrate corporate citizenship into long-term strategy, they would be wise to identify the change agents already operating within the organization, empower them, and find ways to institutionalize such behavior.

One thing was clear from our research: An individual who is committed to organizational change—regardless of department or title—can drive it.

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