Who’s Holding You Accountable?

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Christine Bader wants to fill companies with corporate idealists.

By Matthew Budman

Who's Holding You Accountable?

Matthew Budman is editor-in-chief of TCB Review.

bader2“I don't believe that idealism and business acumen are mutually exclusive—in fact, I think quite the opposite.” Christine Bader has spent her career at the intersection of the corporate and nonprofit worlds, aiming to instill responsibility in corporate practice while adding value.

She worked at BP for nine years, leaving in the wake of the 2005 Texas City explosion, as the company's progressive priorities were starting to shift, and before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But throughout her tenure there, she writes, “my goal was to align the interests of the company and the community, not to compensate for or distract from wrongdoing.”

Her hope now is to illuminate a path for idealistically minded people who want to make a real-world impact by helping companies run more smoothly, more efficiently, and for the benefit of both local communities and broader society. Her new book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil (Bibliomotion) is “meant to be a diary from myself and others of what it's really like, and what it feels like, to do this work.”

Bader, a visiting scholar and lecturer at Columbia University and a human-rights adviser to BSR, spoke via Skype.

You describe yourself as “part of a global army of people fighting for better social and environmental practices inside multinational companies.” Why would a company hire a self-described corporate idealist?

I would actually ask: How can you not want an army of corporate idealists inside your company? How can you not have people who care deeply about the company's impacts on the world, and about its stakeholders? People who care what we are doing in the world, and about our role in society? Everybody should be a corporate idealist. I hope that senior executives are the most idealistic of all.

Being a corporate idealist sounds marvelous—you get the benefits of being part of a for-profit company without feeling as though you've sold out.

Well, keep in mind that a company doesn't need someone who just wants to be the in-house NGO. They need people with real skill sets. They need people who can translate the language and passion of idealism into things that the business can actually do and act on. Companies need idealism, but they also need people to get stuff done, who know how to turn the cranks and make the widgets and get the stuff out of the ground. A lot of people I talked to for the book discussed their role as translators—you're translating what external stakeholders demand into particular company functions and processes.

I asked one of my advocate friends whether she could ever work at a company, and she said, “I don't think that I could, because I couldn't stomach the feeling that I was complicit in a company's problems, even if I was trying to solve them.” Plenty of people don't want any part of the corporate world—they're happier working at, say, Amnesty International. And when people ask me, “I want to do good in the world—where should I go work?”, I have to tell them that it depends. Whether they end up in a company, in a nonprofit, or in government is deeply personal. We all have to find the setting in which we're going to thrive. And that might change over time.

I do tell people to give companies a try, and if it feels like they're selling out, then leave! It's fine to ask yourself that question once in a while: Have I sold out?

When most companies hire people to run CSR or corporate-citizenship efforts, are they expecting them to stop at organizing volunteer programs?

It depends on the company. People send me a lot of CSR job postings so I can share them with my networks, and I got one from a large financial-services firm that said “Manager, CSR,” and I thought, Great, they're going to hire somebody who's going to look more carefully at the risk level of their investments and make sure they don't undermine the global economy again . . . and it turned out that the job was to manage their employee volunteerism program. Which is nice, but it's not the stuff that I care about.

People ask me, “Should I take this CSR job? Will I be doing real work, or will I just be ordering matching T-shirts for people to go paint a wall?” And what you have to do is step back and ask, What are this company's ten or five or three greatest tensions with society, and is this job working on any of those? If it's a mining company, am I working on its carbon emissions, or on the impact the company has on nearby communities? If you're not, maybe it's not a real CSR job.

Of course, when it comes to company resources, there's always a balance. Do idealists find themselves pressed to make “the business case” for any initiative or change?

Sure, and I have mixed feelings about that. Every business needs to do cost-benefit analyses and weigh risks and opportunities. I get that. But sometimes pushing the business case can go too far down that road. If my company is thinking about investing in a conflict zone, I might make the case that we need to hire thirty community liaison officers and set aside this much money for partnerships with international NGOs; that might mitigate some of the risks—for instance, that we might be complicit in genocide. But if I present it as an ROI calculation, I might end up in a conversation in which I'm asked, “What if we hired only ten community liaison officers—would that mean there's only a 50 percent chance that we'd be complicit in genocide?” At some point, it's silly, and it's OK to point that out. The business case is not gospel—it's one way we make decisions. It's a tool, not a commandment.


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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.