CSR managers warned: don’t preach to the boardJune 2009
CSR practitioners have been warned against becoming too evangelical when talking to board members about corporate responsibility.
Arnaud Cohen Stuart, ING Group’s business ethics manager, told last month’s eighth annual Responsible Business Summit that, while tempting, trying to influence the board by proselytizing is likely to be counter-productive.
‘The CSR department is not an internal non-governmental organization,’ he told delegates at the London conference. ‘The board can talk to NGOs themselves, and they discuss things differently with those organizations than they do with their peers.
‘As corporate responsibility people we should try to understand what the NGO story is – and then translate that into a language that a company speaks. That is our role. We must translate societal concerns and CSR initiatives into bottom-line financial results.’
Cohen Stuart was supported by Juan Ramon Silva Ferrada, area general manager of marketing and corporate responsibility at the Spanish infrastructure company Acciona.
Ferrada advised corporate responsibility practitioners to choose their language carefully and avoid internal campaigning. ‘Boards respond very well to the language of strategy, so our duty as CSR people is to present things to them in these terms,’ he told delegates. ‘They like to hear about long-term commitments but with short-term price considerations.’
Ferrada said he also considered it important to avoid overly technical discussions with board members. ‘Board members may not be very skilled in technical details although they understand the degree of difficulty involved in tackling certain issues such as climate change,’ he said.
‘So don’t discuss detailed corporate responsibility points with the whole board. Work out the details with managers below the board and discuss the finer points, if necessary, with the chief executive or a board member responsible for the business line affected.’
A number of speakers also emphasized that practitioners should keep internal campaigning to a minimum at board level, but others believed that trying to engage board members on an emotional basis was still acceptable.
Jo Confino, head of sustainable development at Guardian News & Media group, said: ‘We can’t see it just as institutional change. It’s also about personal change. Board members are parents and grandparents who have ordinary concerns too, and this is often how they become engaged.’
Andrew Marshall-Roberts, Standard Life’s group head of corporate responsibility, told delegates that while board members typically take a clear-headed view of CSR, they often become ‘committed individuals to the cause’ and that this should be nurtured. ‘We have various members of the board as sponsors for different parts of the CSR agenda that often mirror their personal likes and dislikes,’ he said.
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