Corporate Citizenship Requires Demonstrations of Courage and Conscience

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Corporate Citizenship Requires Demonstrations of Courage and Conscience

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Corporate Citizenship Requires Demonstrations of Courage and Conscience via @BCCCC #csr
Monday, April 30, 2012 - 1:15pm

By Katherine V. Smith, Executive Director, Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship at the Carroll School of Management

Our 2012 conference was a terrific opportunity to hear many points of view on the practice of corporate citizenship. Terrific committed leaders of corporate citizenship practice from around the world representing some of the most well-respected companies of our time shared their insights. A couple of thoughts presented by our main stage speakers have stuck with me. 

In describing the Arizona Public Service commitment to creating long-term value for its communities, APS Chairman Don Brandt talked about the complexity of making infrastructure decisions and investments today that will affect the grandchildren of current APS customers while meeting the consumer demand to “keep power flowing, right now.”  

Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith pointed out that every large institution needs a conscience, saying, “The conscience won't have the answer to every question, but the conscience is a voice that needs to be heard. The conscience needs to be a voice that is sensitive to the fact that other voices will need to be heard as well.” He went on to encourage corporate citizenship professionals to act as a voice of corporate conscience: “…if you think something, share it. If you see a problem, escalate it … that, in no small measure, is what corporate citizenship is about.  It's about being the conscience for companies in a rapidly changing and very complex time. It's work that matters. It's work that is not easy, but hard. It's the work that will make corporate citizenship real, and I believe that should be our goal.” 

I agree that we would all benefit from better developed expressions of conscience in our businesses and in ourselves. It is difficult to express a conscientious position in today’s society.  It requires courage to do so — courage to know that you may be sacrificing social capital in your organization — or more. This is especially so in organizations that might not share Microsoft’s commitment to the open examination of mistakes as learning opportunities.

So what can we do to enable the difficult honest conversations in our organizations that can lead to meaningful efforts that, as Smith differentiated, “solve problems rather than manage them”?  In his keynote presentation, Hershey Chairman Jim Nevels reminded us that one “should never ask anyone else to do something we wouldn’t do ourselves.” Substantive corporate citizenship progress will continue to elude us if we cling to the self-protection of cynicism and fail to believe that sincere attempts to engage difficult issues require that we demand courage not only from our leaders, but also from ourselves. How many of us have sat mute as a leader presented a conclusion or plan of action or made an assertion that had not perhaps had the benefit of all of the facts and that we knew to be wrong or misguided? 

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” We are at the testing point with the issues we confront in our environment and in our societies, and inaction puts all of us at risk. What is extraordinary about the messages that each of these men carried into the conference is that neither of them has the words “corporate citizenship” or the acronym “CSR” in their job titles. Yet I walked away feeling that each of them believe it to be part of their job responsibility — based both on their presentations and on off-line conversations. They care enough about the work of corporate citizenship to make public comment on the issues. The material business issues that each described on stage are not trivial to solve. They are complex and fraught with history and conflicting values and interests. That did not prevent them from talking about where their companies are in confronting the challenges today, while acknowledging that there is work yet to be done. Those stories took both courage and conscience.

We would be in a better place if more executives followed their lead, and each of us can lead also from the seats that we occupy.  Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” We can all do better at both and these gentlemen reminded me of that.