Why Don't Executives Understand CSR?

Published: Jan 13, 2011


I'm peeved.

At an event yesterday that featured many senior-level professionals (mostly women, both on the main panel and in attendance) from some of the country's "Best to Work for" employers; I ended up in forceful conversation with a fellow attendee.

Even before the official event began. But it sure set my mood for the rest of the evening.

[For a quick background, the well-attended event marked the release of a study on women advancement in the workplace that highlighted the importance of sponsorship in our daily career management (more on the findings in a later post).]

Here's how the conversation went (and for at least some of you, this will sound familiar):

Anonymous Exec: "So, what do you do at Vault?"
Me: "I focus on corporate social responsibility, diversity and women leadership."

Anonymous Exec: "So what's your interest in this event?"
Me: "Since the study being released focuses on women advancement in the workplace, it is an important tie-in for my concentration on CSR."

[Here's where this gets unfunny]

Anonymous Exec: "CSR? How can you say that? There is a very real business case for women advancement in the workforce. It is very strategic."
Me: "So is CSR."


Me (Ctd): "If companies are responsible and ethical enough to empower their women and minorities to succeed, that’s corporate responsibility. If these women are mentoring younger professionals and leading discussions on transparent management, that’s corporate responsibility. And these practices lend incredible value in building the startegic and competitive advantage of companies."

Of course, she went on to reemphasize that there is a very real strategic business case for women empowerment and not so much for CSR, etc. but you get the point.

Now, writing about CSR every day of my working life, I am surrounded by people who get it. But hearing such responses—often filled with complete outrage like this one—continues to remind me that the informed remain few and far between. And the sheer lack of understanding among corporate America's senior leadership then becomes the logical target for my frustration.

Perhaps, the real problem is a case of incomprehension. No one connected what she believes in so strongly—and works for—to a jargonized term like CSR. No one had a conversation with her that aligned her priorities with the bigger picture.

Like PwC's CSR Leader Shannon Schuyler admitted in a recent interview:

"I had to realize that I needed to accept that some people weren't going to come to the table or invest in this, from a personal or a business standpoint just based off of my perspective alone. I needed to create four or five or, in some cases, seven different business cases for why each one of these people should come to the table. As long as I could get these different stakeholders engaged based on individualized perspectives of the value-add, they all would come."

Contextualization is indeed key. And here's why: A few minutes further into our conversation, the attendee was happily iterating how her employer is a celebrated champion in diversity and women leadership.

But understanding that the employer she was so proudly endorsing was simply practicing effective corporate social responsibility was a new concept for her.

These conversations have to occur much more organically across organizations. Having a CSR Leader who understands it and a CEO who sort of gets it isn't going to be enough anymore in a world of ever-increasing management crosspollination.

So, here's another addition to my New Year Resolutions: I will have these "connection conversations" as many times as I can. And I will aim high by targeting every senior influencer I can talk to.

Care to join me in my resolution? Got a similar story to share or feedback to add? Leave a comment, email In Good Company or connect with me @Twitter!