HR Leadership Column

HR's Citizenship Competencies

Corporate social responsibility efforts continue to be entwined with an employer's brand, which requires HR leaders to ensure their organizations have the necessary talent onboard to execute both sustainability and business strategies.

Monday, May 17, 2010
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One of the values reported in BP's Sustainability Review 2009: "Responsible -- We are committed to the safety and development of our people and the communities and societies in which we operate. We aim for no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment."

As the oil spill continues to wreck havoc in the Gulf of Mexico, one can only imagine the business difficulties that lie ahead for BP, already a large player in an industry perpetually subject to criticisms from environmentalists.

Now, it has an almost insurmountable challenge: How will it demonstrate to the world that it is a socially responsible corporation; a good corporate citizen that will somehow undo the damage of the spill? And how will BP convince current and potential employees that BP represents an employer brand they should be proud to associate with?

Just as it may be years before we know the full extent of damage to the environment, it will take years for BP to fully understand the impact of the spill on its brand.

But the BP oil spill has implications for all companies because of the impact it will have on the public's willingness to trust corporations. Whether BP or some other company is ultimately found responsible for the spill is really irrelevant.

From much of the public's point of view, the environment has been harmed because of the actions of a large corporation. As a result, every corporation lost a little bit of the public's trust. The trust deficit between corporate America and the public just got a bit bigger.

Many companies have been working for years to both eliminate the trust deficit and build shareholder value. In 1994, John Elkington first used the term "triple bottom line" to describe the social, economic and environmental obligations that employers would need to meet to survive. People, Profit and Planet. Triple bottom line resonated with the business world, largely because it focused on the notion that doing good was profitable.

When two of the largest companies in the world publicly adopted strategies to address the sustainability challenge, interest in the issue picked up. GE CEO Jeff Immelt decided that sustainability was a business opportunity rather than a cost and launched GE's ecomagination initiative.

Today, the GE citizenship framework is to "make money, make it ethically and make a difference."

About the same time, Wal-mart began its sustainability initiative around three large goals: to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste and to sell products that sustain Wal-mart's resources and the environment.

Many more organizations -- not just the Fortune 500 -- took notice of the corporate social responsibility movement because they knew that, if GE and Wal-mart were involved, they had to be because they could do it and make money while addressing a perceived risk.

CSR, corporate citizenship, sustainability -- whatever you choose to call it -- wasn't just a social movement; it was about making sure a company will survive and thrive.

As organizations have grappled with designing their CSR strategy, there are obvious implications for HR executives. HR needs to ensure that it is in alignment with and facilitates the company's corporate citizenship and sustainability strategy.

There's no cookie-cutter answer to how this is done. Strategy decisions will have to be unique to each individual company, shaped by the company's size, industry, location, existing corporate culture and resources.

Earlier this year, Boston College's Center for Corporate Citizenship published the results of its research on the competencies required for those charged with an organization's corporate citizenship efforts. The competencies, developed with the assistance of the Hay Group and informed by the experiences of corporate citizenship leaders, provide an excellent starting point for HR executives to identify the right talent to help lead their sustainability efforts.


Eight key leadership competencies were identified:

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Personal Maturity: An ability to achieve satisfaction by empowering others rather than through personal recognition.

Optimistic Commitment: Draws on optimism and strong personal belief in the potential of corporate citizenship to overcome social and business challenges.

Peripheral Vision: Interest in the world and social and business issues that enables one to see new opportunities and risks.

Visionary Thinking: Thinks strategically and creatively, connecting the dots to find new ways to enhance corporate citizenship.

Systems Perspective: Uses an understanding of how elements of a system relate and interact to frame risks and opportunities.

Collaborative Networker: Uses empathy and interpersonal understanding to build mutually beneficial relationships and connect and engage diverse groups of people.

Change Driver: Combines vision with the persistence and drive to mobilize people around a higher purpose.

Strategic Influence: Leverages organizational awareness to influence others to commit to corporate citizenship.

Clearly, individuals charged with heading up an organization's corporate citizenship and sustainability efforts must be able to juggle competing interests, multiple agendas, work across the organization, and understand the business.

In many ways, the leadership competencies identified by Boston College mirror the competencies required of HR leaders.

Far-sighted HR executives will help their organizations prepare to leverage sustainability by ensuring that the people with the right competencies are on board to help lead the effort. They will assume responsibility for seeing that the enterprise has the necessary talent to help execute the strategy, with role clarity and clear measures for success that are linked to the bottom line and understood across the organization. 

In coming years, it's likely that BP's very survival will depend on such efforts.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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