Can the CSR job really be harder than the job of CEO?

Last night, the annual Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship conference kicked off with a talk from David Wilhelm, a political strategist who recently worked on both Bill Clinton’s and Barak Obama’s campaigns. In his remarks, he talked about how the skills required to run a successful political campaign are often the same required to successfully create and implement a successful CSR program.

And although somewhat tongue in cheek, he told the crowd of CSR practitioners why he thought our jobs were often harder than that of the CEO. Now, pretty sure Paul Otellini would disagree with that one in a heartbeat. But David’s point was is that the CEO has a clear understanding of the business value of his or her actions and communications. In CSR, this is often still not as easy to make the connection and as practioners and communicators we must be more disciplined in our approach and make sure that others – both inside and outside of the company – understand the business value of CSR to the company and the connection to our business strategy.Three of his “top ten” observatjons rang particularly true for me.

(1) Have a crisp and clear message. In his comparisons of successful political campaign communications – “Yes we can,” “It’s the economy, stupid,” and “Compassionate conservatism” – he stressed that it’s important to focus on communicating the essence of your CSR approach (the 8-second message) and not be afraid to be repetitive. Know what sticks. Make sure people can remember your message. Now, we CSR practitioners love our details (100 page CSR reports are good evidence of that), but we need to be careful about getting bogged down in trying to communicate all of the details to every audience.

(2) Make sure that your CSR programs drive your competitive advantage. His argument was that CSR should be defined with absolute clarity and it must be integrated into your business strategy. We should embrace CSR’s connection to profits – because that puts it at the center of corporate strategy. I think this is especially important during these economic times when every action and program are being scrutinized across the organization.

(3) Does the person at the “operator level” get it? One of the most important things in the political realm is to make sure that the “average American” gets and understands your message. His advice for CSR practitioners – if people at every level of your company (includig front line employees) can’t articulate what your CSR strategy or message is, then your job is not yet done. This is exactly the challenge that we are working on right now at Intel – how to make sure each and every employee understands how CSR is relevant to their day to day jobs.

So, I’ll pose the question to both you and my other colleagues here attending the conference – what three things do you think are essential for good corporate citizenship?

6 Responses to Can the CSR job really be harder than the job of CEO?

  1. Tim Wilson says:

    Listening to David Wilhelm’s lessons from the campaign trail last night I also found a wealth of insight on what is essential to good corporate citizenship. To pull out three of his ideas I’d point to:
    1. Know your targets: Like Wilhelm’s Democratic candidates, you need to know what’s your Utah vs. your Massachusetts vs. your Ohio. Candidates don’t waste time in places where they know they’ll lose or where they know they will win. They go to the battleground states, like Ohio.
    For corporate citizenship professionals this means focusing your efforts where it makes the biggest contribution.
    2. Always be the aggressor: In the rough and tumble of politics this means setting the agenda each day so your message is the story of the day. Don’t be the day’s victim, stay on the offensive. In CSR you must define your mission and not let your efforts be defined by others. Executing CSR from a defensive position is a losing proposition.
    3. Be consistent and persistent: This is an essential I see that differs between the world of politics and the world of corporate citizenship. In politics there is an end game on Election Day. You win or you lose and if you win you must move on to what is next: governing. In fact, the failure to move on from campaigning to governing often is responsible for the failure to deliver on a campaign’s promise.
    With CSR the “campaign” is about identifying, integrating, communicating and delivering on the promise of corporate citizenship. There is no true end game. It is an endless process of pursuing ongoing success consistently and persistently.
    You can also find observations on David Wilhelm’s session at the Boston College Center’s blog at http://blogs.bcccc.net/2009/03/conference-exclusive-lessons-from-obama/

  2. Mie-Yun Lee says:

    I’m not sure if it’s harder or not to be a CEO, but you are doing a great job with corporate citizenship. I just read about how Intel is sponsoring the News Hour with Jim Lehrer show, which I think is one of the most thoughtful news shows we have on air. It’s great that you’re actually demonstrating great citizenship via financial backing and not just words. Thank you.

  3. Suzanne says:

    Thanks, Mie-Yun for your comment. Yes, we’re very excited about our ability to help support the News Hour (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/) – we hope to help generate some good discussion on the importance of innovation in the economy today and other key issues impacting business and society. Thanks again for taking the time to post.
    regards,
    Suzanne

  4. I agree 100% CSR can be more trying than a CEO position but it depends on the organization. As the President of a roofing company in the charlotte nc area that deals with commercial and residential customers and insurance companies all day I know hard work both in the field and in the office.