8 proven ways to convert the boss to become a CSR champion

10 May 2016

Persuading the boss

Since companies started getting serious about corporate social responsibility and sustainability, people internally have been doing their best to get the big bosses on board.

These things don’t happen by accident, after all. Generally, a company’s journey begins when one or more progressive, sustainability-minded execs work on building the awareness and commitment of the senior leadership.

There is no one way to do this, and what will work is completely dependent on the context: the values, likes and dislikes of the boss in question; the business size and sector, and how pressing are its top issues.

And there are some who will take pleasure in their resistance to any attempts at persuasion. “What is the least of this I have to do?” is a question I’ve been asked in the past by one CEO.

A single step is fine, so long as the direction of travel is clear

But a number of approaches have worked in different companies, and one or more of them might work for you if you’re in this situation. Some are inevitably dependent to the kind of role you have within the company. 

1. Get your boss to see something with his or her own eyes that will have an emotional impact on them

Business in the Community in the UK runs a programme called “Seeing is Believing”. A senior business leader takes others to a community programme of some sort, a homeless shelter, a school in an underprivileged area, a prison, whatever. And they discuss what are the issues and what needs to be done. It can be very powerful for those that do it and, if it is well followed-up, can be the beginning of a journey for the business leader concerned that will take them to a wider appreciation of the issues for the company.

If it’s not well followed-up, it will probably be a one-off hit. They will make a charitable donation and move on, with nothing much having changed. So it has to be done properly.

There are certain companies that are committed to the journey and use this mechanism as a way to ensure that all future leaders will buy into the values. KPMG, for instance, insisted that all up-and-coming senior partners should go on such visits, and then afterwards take responsibility for one aspect of the CSR agenda for the company. They defined this as being a part of what leadership meant, and that made it much more desirable for all those ambitious would-be leaders.

2. Expose them to a respected peer who is already committed to the agenda

One of the big sales points that got top business leaders onto those Seeing is Believing visits was that they were led by some of the most admired leaders in the country. Some CEOs would sign up just so they could get to network with those people.

In the UK, we have the advantage that many of the most respected figures are totally committed to the sustainability agenda, or at least some part of it. And they are, by definition, expert salespeople.

It does depend on having an organisation in your country that provides opportunities for such things to happen. So find out whether such a beast exists, and whether it could provide an opportunity for you.

If your boss got an invitation he or she felt they couldn’t refuse, you could then make yourself useful by offering to do the background research for them in advance of the meeting. I’ve known one person who ended up as becoming the CSR manager for their company by having made themselves helpful in this way. 

3. Understand what are the things that your boss cares about and take that as your starting point.

Like any sales process, you need to start by understanding the other person, what problems they’re trying to solve, and what they most care about.

I knew one boss of a medium sized company who started on the issue of waste going to landfill. Why? Because there was a proposal to build a landfill site near to his village, and he made the connection that if you were against that, then your business probably shouldn’t be sending so much waste to landfill in the first place. The company adopted a ‘zero waste to landfill’ policy, and one thing led to another. Before long, it had become an environmental champion in its industry.

Don’t assume you have to start with the big picture. A single step is fine, so long as the direction of travel is clear.

4. Start with easy wins, and gradually build from there

It doesn’t have to be all about the big boss. At least one large corporation I know had the CSR manager there, over the course of several years, persuading and influencing the heads of different departments to do the one thing in their area that would have the most impact, that was supported by a good business case, and that would be visible and supported by customers. 

Come the day when a new boss arrived, he looked across the company to see what was what. It stood out that the company was doing all these different things on social responsibility. “We either need to feature this, or stop doing it,” he said. They decided to feature it. The boss was Stuart Rose, the company Marks & Spencer. What followed was the company’s “Look Behind the Label” campaign, which laid the foundations for the more ambitious “Plan A”.

5. Get the company into a comparison with a competitor

On one level, this shouldn’t be how it works. But believe me, it is very powerful, and sometimes you just have to take the route that works. 

There are a number of benchmarks and indices around. If there is one in your country and your company qualifies to be included (some cover only the largest companies) then see if you can get agreement to take part.

There’s a good argument for doing this. You get useful feedback on how you’re doing compared to your peers, and particularly your competitors.

I have witnessed first hand how being on a ‘league table’ can really galvanise the attention and focus of the Board at even the biggest companies. All these senior execs are highly competitive. It’s how they got where they are today. Once they see that their hated competitor is at the top, while they languish near the bottom, they will become highly motivated to take action.

One note of caution. This can be a double-edged sword. Before you get into this sort of exercise, check the methodology of the index concerned and ask yourself the question: if we committed to perform against the criteria used for this index, would it make us a better, more sustainable company? Because I’ve seen companies doing things to score well on an index that were actually less optimal than things they could have been doing that weren’t ranked. It all comes down to the quality of the methodology. Some are better than others, and none are perfect.

The aim is to use the competitive effect to get them committed to the journey. You need to then use what you learn in the course of the journey to wean them off thinking that it’s all about the ranking.

6. Get a commitment to reporting

One thing that most of the competitors may be doing, is producing a CSR or sustainability report. Many of these reports are poor, and don’t provide value in terms of communicating with key stakeholders of the company.

But the one thing they do is to provide the momentum that pushes the company into reporting on its performance. And once you start reporting numbers, every company will want to see those numbers improve year on year.

It’s not my favourite starting point, to be honest, since a lot of companies can end up committed to a road of incrementalism when they should be thinking more imaginatively. However, I have seen a number of very savvy CSR managers use the report as a tail that can very effectively wag the dog. They used it, in other words, as a vehicle to drive performance.

If you do end up going this route, at least try to do something interesting with the process. Use it as a hook to tell stories. It may be a vehicle, but make it a good one.

7. Build a business case around a specific proposal

If you do end up interesting them enough to consider taking on a project, they’ll probably ask you to put together a business case for it.

The question is: did they ask for a business case because they want numbers to give them permission to do it, or because they want to give themselves permission to turn it down? Usually, people decide what they want to do first, and the numbers are required to back up this intuitive decision.

Which means you can’t rely solely on the numbers to do the persuading if they’re actually highly sceptical. In that case, it’s an emotional connection that’s missing.

However, if the exercise is genuinely one that has a chance of success, the key is to make the numbers specific to what is proposed to be done, and to be thorough in working the exercise through.

Do not rely on broader “companies that do CSR outperform the index by 2 percent in their stock price” type arguments. Generally, these are generated more by wishful thinking than they are by statistical good practice, and your boss is probably savvy enough to look at the methodology for that research and discount it – and you – very quickly if it’s not credible.

Sweat the numbers. Put the work in. After all, this is a sustainable future we’re trying to build here. It’s worth the effort, right?

8. If none of the above is possible, just keep it alive by occasionally helpfully forwarding relevant articles

It can be as simple as drawing things to their attention from time to time (don’t be too zealous, they’ll think you’re a nuisance and filter you out). I know one person who became CSR manager for their company because they forwarded one of my articles to the boss with a note saying something like “we should do something about this”. He agreed, and told her to get on with it. 

(Disclaimer: If you forward one of my articles and instead of promoting you, they fire you, I accept no responsibility blah blah blah.)

Did you already manage to persuade your boss to become active on the CSR agenda? What was the thing that worked? Share in the comments below if you can, or email me at mallen@mallenbaker.net if it’s the sort of story that can’t be shared with the world without the names being changed. I do get this question from people a lot, so all information about what works is potentially very useful to someone else that needs it.