Champions of corporate responsibility feel happier about their professional lives and have four different character types, argues Wayne Visser

In the face of global challenges such as financial market instability, persistent poverty and climate change, can individuals make a difference? To answer this question we must look at what motivates people to devote their time and energies to addressing social, environmental and ethical issues. In particular, it shows how corporate sustainability and responsibility can provide a powerful way to address what I have called the “existential gap” (Ethical Corporation, July 2004), or lack of a deeper sense of personal meaning and job satisfaction felt by many employees today.

A survey a few years ago by London PR firm Fish Can Sing hinted at the extent of the problem. It found that 66% of all 18 to 35 year-olds were unhappy at work. The proportion rose to 83% among those aged 30 to 35. One in 15 respondents had already quit the rat race and 45% were seriously contemplating a career change.

Those in this latter group were dubbed Tired – thirty-something independent radical educated drop-out. These otherwise successful and motivated professionals were found to be lacking something in their working lives. They wanted less work-related stress, shorter working hours, more job satisfaction and higher quality of life.

The existential crisis does not appear to be confined to the 30-something age group, or to the UK. According to the Worldwatch Institute, today the same number of Americans – about a third – report being “very happy” as did in 1957, even though they are as a group twice as wealthy as they were 50 years ago. And in Japan, there is even a word for death from overwork – karoshi.

The industrialised world in general fares much worse than expected on some measures of wellbeing. For example, in the New Economics Foundation’s 2006 Happy Planet Index, which measures the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens, Italy is 66th, Germany 81st and Japan 95th. The UK comes in at 108th, Canada 111th, France 129th and the US 150th.

Blame the west

So what is going on here? Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and a personal survivor of four Nazi concentration camps, suggests that the western pursuit of economic growth may be to blame. “Consider today’s society,” he says. “It gratifies and satisfies virtually every need – except for one, the need for meaning. This spreading meaning vacuum is especially evident in affluent industrial countries. People have the means for living, but not the meanings.”

Management thinker Charles Handy puts it another way: “We seem to be saying that life is about economics, that money is the measure of things. My hunch is that most of us don’t believe any of this, and that it won’t work, but we are trapped in our own rhetoric and have, as yet, nothing else to offer, not even a different way to talk about it.”

Handy may be right. Then again, surely one “different way to talk about it” is through the language of sustainability and responsibility? After all, these are matters that run deep. They are matters of values and beliefs, of higher aspirations and noble causes.

And yet, even here, we find the prevailing rhetoric of corporate responsibility is mostly about the business case. Talk of the moral case or the personal case for corporate responsibility is taboo – as if stripping human emotion and personal motivation from the debate on how companies should behave somehow makes it more credible, if not more effective.

My research suggests that this corporatised, depersonalised approach to corporate responsibility is failing to tap the massive source of energy for constructive change that exists in companies and the world. The reason is that the “CSR-zombie” view of the world – reflected in the mantra “I only do corporate responsibility because it’s good for business” – completely fails to appreciate why people choose to work in corporate responsibility, what satisfaction they derive from this work, and what motivates them to keep trying to make a positive difference, despite huge obstacles and frustrations.

But let’s start at the beginning. What do we know about the role of individuals as change agents? Intuitively, we resonate with adages such as Ghandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world” or Margaret Mead’s famous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.” But beyond these clichéd one-liners, what do we really know about change in the context of corporate responsibility?

The first rich vein of research to mine is the concept of champions within an organisation. This goes back to the emergence of human resources champions in the 1980s. In the 1990s, firms started to apply the idea to environmental management and corporate social performance as well.

So what is a corporate responsibility champion? Essentially, it is an individual who has the ability to translate a set of personal beliefs about creating a just and sustainable future into an attractive vision for their organisation or sector. Put another way, they are masters at identifying, packaging and selling social and environmental issues to those in their business that have power and influence to address them.

Corporate responsibility champions do not always have formal corporate responsibility roles. They are often described as being action-oriented, enthusiasts, inspirers, experts, volunteers, communicators, networkers, sponsors, implementers and catalysts. They demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, individuals have considerable discretion within organisations to pursue and promote agendas that they are passionate about.

Crucially, however, they need a combination of knowledge and skills to be successful. For example, they need to be able to gather sufficient credible information to make a rational case for change. They need the ability to tell an emotionally compelling story about a more sustainable future. And they need enough political savvy and interpersonal skills to persuade others, especially leaders, to listen and take action.

So we know that many corporate responsibility professionals are effective change agents, when they act as champions. For example, one safety, health and environmental manager explains his role in convincing his organisation (a large chemicals company) to phase out the use of various harmful substances, such as CFCs, PCBs and asbestos. He says: “To me it was a major achievement to convince the 30,000 colleagues of mine in the company to move out of this business before legislation hits us.”

But this still doesn’t tell us what motivates them to engage with the agenda in the first place. Talking to corporate responsibility professionals – corporate managers, consultants, academics and non-governmental organisation representatives working on corporate social, environmental and ethical issues – the desire to create change recurs as a consistent theme, but the way in which they make change happen, and the satisfaction they derive as a result, varies considerably.

For some, corporate responsibility is seen as a way to align work with personal values. For example, one says: “It’s the inner drive, it’s the way I am put together, my value system, my belief system … it’s my Christian belief, my ethical approach.” Another explains that it is important to have “inspirational leadership and people who align with your value sets”.

For many corporate responsibility professionals, their motivation derives from the fact that sustainability is such a dynamic, complex and challenging concept. “The satisfaction is huge,” says one corporate responsibility manager, “because there is no day that is the same when you get into your office. It’s always changing, it’s always different.” Another reflects that corporate responsibility “painted a much bigger picture” and is “just as holistic as you want it to be. It requires a far broader vision”.

Four change agents

These factors – values alignment and the sustainability concept – are fairly cross-cutting. However, it is possible to distinguish four fairly distinctive types of corporate responsibility professional, based on how they derive satisfaction from their work, as in the figure. In practice, every individual draws on all four types, but the centre of gravity rests with one, representing the mode of operating in which that individual feels most comfortable, fulfilled or satisfied.

The first type of corporate social responsibility change agent is the expert. Experts find their motivation though engaging with projects or systems, giving expert input, focusing on technical excellence, seeking uniqueness through specialisation and pride in problem-solving abilities.

To illustrate, one expert-type corporate responsibility professional explains: “There were a couple of projects that I did find very exciting … It was very exciting to get all the bits and pieces in place, then commission them and see them starting to work.”

Another expert says: “I usually get that sense of meaning in work when I’ve finished a product, say like an environmental report, and you see, ‘geez, I’ve really put in a lot and here it is’. Or you have had a series of community consultations and you now have the results.”

The second type of corporate responsibility change agent is the facilitator. Common themes among facilitators are the derivation of motivation from transferring knowledge and skills, focusing on people development, creating opportunities for staff, changing the attitudes or perceptions of individuals, and paying attention to team building.

One facilitator-type corporate responsibility professional says: “If you enjoy working with people, this is a sort of functional role in which you have direct interaction, you can see people being empowered, having increased knowledge, and you can see what that eventually leads to.”

Another facilitator explains: “The part of my work that I’ve enjoyed most is training, where I get the opportunity to work with a group of people – to interact with people at a very personal level. You can see how things start to get clear for them, in terms of understanding issues and how that applies to what they do.”

The third type of corporate responsibility change agent is the catalyst. For catalysts, motivation is associated with initiating change, giving strategic direction, influencing leadership, tracking organisational performance, and having a big picture perspective.

One catalyst-type corporate responsibility professional says: “The type of work that I’m doing is … giving direction in terms of where the company is going. So it can become almost a life purpose to try and steer the company in a direction that you believe personally is right as well.”

“I like getting things changed,” says another. “My time is spent trying to influence people. The real interesting thing is to try and get managing directors, plant managers, business leaders and sales guys to think differently and to change what they do.”

That is quite different from the fourth type of corporate social responsibility change agent, the activist. For activists, motivation comes from being aware of broader social and environmental issues, feeling part of the community, making a contribution to poverty eradication, fighting for a just cause, and leaving a legacy of improved conditions in society.

Familiar characters

One activist-type corporate responsibility professional says: “It’s also about the issue of being poor. It actually touches you. You see these people have been living in appalling conditions, the shacks, where the drinking water is so dirty, or there’s no running water at all. You see those kind of things, it hits you, and you think, ‘What can you do?’”

Another declares: “I think my purpose here is to help others in some way and leave a legacy for my kids to follow. I could leave a legacy behind where I actually set up a school, a kids’ school, or a campus for disadvantaged people, taking street kids out and doing something, building homes for single parents.”

The different types of corporate responsibility change agent find some resonance in the broader management literature. The catalyst-type clearly draws on a strategic role and applies it to sustainability, bringing in a lot of ideas from change management. Arguably, the facilitator finds echoes in “servant leadership” and sustainability management research. Activists are probably best described in the work on social and environmental entrepreneurship. And there are glimpses of the expert in much of the more technical scholarship on environmental and quality management.

It is important to note that the typology is dynamic. There is ample evidence to suggest that corporate responsibility professionals’ default types can change.

One corporate social responsibility professional I interviewed seemed to have shifted from being an activist to a facilitator, moving from political campaigning when a business ethics lecturer to business training and lecturing in a large consultancy; another from expert to catalyst, doing laboratory work on eco-toxicity testing, then strategic policy advice in a safety, health and environmental centre; and yet another from expert to facilitator – a technical environmental manager for a chemical company who became the head of a team of sustainability consultants.

For some (but not all) change agents, their formal roles and their type are aligned, as in the examples cited above. Hence, there is a suggestion that either people are naturally attracted to roles that fit with their change-agent types, or that their roles shape the meaning they derive as certain types, or perhaps both. One manager explains: “In your career or in your work, the manager must be able to swing from the one type to the other.”

Another important influence is organisational context. For instance, one corporate responsibility professional observes that the “organisation dynamics of corporates require conformism to the organisational culture, which to a large degree requires maintenance of the status quo … This makes it difficult for activists.”

Career stage or life cycle is another important context. “One of the things that you have to bear in mind is how much individual flexibility you get in working environments,” says one corporate responsibility manager. “I think at an earlier stage in someone’s career, no matter what their typology might be, they don’t necessarily yet have the luxury of finding themselves in the position that gives expression to their preference.”

Beyond simply improving our understanding of corporate responsibility change agents, there are several practical uses for the typology. The most obvious potential applications occur at an individual and team level, with benefits for corporate responsibility managers, managers of corporate responsibility teams and human resource managers.

For corporate responsibility managers, the typology acts as a prompt for individuals to reflect on their most natural type, or mix of types. This allows them to think about what sorts of roles they derive the most satisfaction from, and to consciously compare this to their formal role. If there is not a natural fit between their type and their formal role, it may help to explain work frustrations or lacking motivation.

For managers of a corporate responsibility team, the typology helps to cast light on the mix of team members, from the perspective of their different sources of motivation. This can influence the way in which individuals are managed and allocated tasks, as well as the general management style adopted. For example, for a team full of experts, incentives that recognise quality may be far more effective than for a catalyst-heavy team, where tracking of strategic goals may be more motivational.

The manager of a corporate responsibility team may decide that there is merit in having a balance of all four types represented, which will in turn affect recruitment decisions made alongside human resources.

Companies stand to gain a lot by going beyond the business case for corporate responsibility, by justifying sustainability efforts on the basis of values – what some call the moral case. Taking this position – in addition to, rather than instead of, the business case – will enable companies to tap into a powerful source of motivation, namely the satisfaction that corporate responsibility managers (and in all likelihood many other employees) derive from the alignment of values with work.

There is a saying in Africa that there are two hungers – the lesser hunger and the greater hunger. The lesser hunger is for the things that sustain life – goods and services and the money to pay for them. The greater hunger is for an answer to the question “Why?”, for some understanding of what life is for.

Corporate responsibility change agents have a fantastic opportunity to feed the greater hunger, by making a constructive difference and leaving a positive legacy. As Victor Frankl said: “Each person is questioned by life; and they can only answer to life by answering for their own life.”

Characteristics of corporate social responsibility change agents

. Expert Facilitator Catalyst Activist
Primary source of meaning Specialist input People empowerment Strategic input Societal contribution
Level of concern Individual Group or team Organisation Society
Source of work satisfaction Personal development, quality input Staff development, effective facilitation Organisational development, strategic change Community development, social change
Skills Technical, process Managerial, facilitation Visionary, political Collaborative, questioning
Knowledge Specialist Generalist Key players, future trends Community or macro needs
Legacy Successful work projects Staff or team’s achievements Organisation or industry transformation Sustainable environment and equitable society

Wayne Visser is the chief executive of CSR International, a senior associate at the University of Cambridge Programme for Industry and a visiting professor in corporate social responsibility at Mannheim University in Germany.

The research summarised in this article is presented in more detail in his new book, Making A Difference.

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