leadership with impact: how to spell success for your organization in the alphabet soup of social responsibility

leadership with impact: how to spell success for your organization in the alphabet soup of social responsibility

The Emblem Network convening experts who know about building great organizations including LV Randolph, foreground.

You could drown in the alphabet soup of acronyms that we use today to track and signal that we are doing the right thing. ESG. CSR. DEI. The alphabet soup is helping us make the issues more visible and better organized, while also bringing key concepts to the surface. Before you roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders or pass this on to somebody else on the team, know that you can actually spell success with these letters. And it is hard. But it’s easier than you think. Here’s a quick window into how it can be done:

  • Start with a statement of why. Why does doing the right thing matter for your business, college or organization? Are there particular stakeholders holding you to new or emerging standards? Government regulators? Employees? Students? Customers? Investors? Communities where you operate? To understand them, you need to have a professional and polished way of asking good questions — while making sure you don’t raise expectations in the process while you are just getting organized. Is this something your team knows how to do on its own or would some credible help from outside make a difference?
  • Next, take the information you are gathering and build a complete map of your stakeholders. What is important to them about you and what you do? And don’t forget — your stakeholder map is “Garbage in, garbage out” meaning that if you don’t collect the information carefully and with the right nuance and specifics, the resulting map won’t show you the way to anywhere in particular. Not helpful unless you do it right.
  • Third you need to baseline your operation against the key issues or topics that emerge from the first two steps. Is it about energy and environment or climate impact? Gender equity? Racial justice? Land use? Whatever the topic, where are you today? Department by department, unit by unit, region by region, etc.
  • Once you have your baselines clear – you need to set benchmarks. Quite simply; where do you think you should be and by when? Based on your own internally derived ambitions as a company, or by taking into account the expectations of stakeholders; or even keying off of what you know about your competition; set benchmarks with timelines.
  • One thing baselines and benchmarks don’t do themselves? Take action. You need action plans in each of the relevant areas of your business. A good action plan lays out what you are going to do to get from your baseline to your benchmark, and identifies the resources you will need to get it done. A bad action plan is literally anything else.

One more thing – when you track your action plans against timelines, progress reports etc. in the same way you track and report on other business variables, your stakeholders take you seriously. When you don’t — they don’t. It is that simple.

There will always be buzzwords and acronyms and there will always be hyperbole about the role they play in your organization. There will also always be cynical executive leaders who disregard the sincere significance of changing expectations over time and you do not want to be one of them. Whether it is corporate social responsibility (CSR) or a focus on measuring your impact in terms of Economic, Social and Governance (ESG) activities, the question is really the same: are you meeting (or exceeding) the expectations of your stakeholders or are you not? And if you are not, do you have a persuasive explanation of what is blocking you and a plan for getting the job done?

As a leader, you might be excited about this world of “alternative” metrics or frustrated that this seems like new rules in an old game. Either way, you need specialized help with coaching, planning and even convening the stakeholders to get into the right relationships with them around data and possibility. Whatever you do – avoid the pitfall of a self-diagnosis. It is like when your doctor asks you to “say what hurts” rather than “what do you think is wrong with you?” If you are in conversation with the right expert partners, you get the benefit of learning from the mistakes everyone else has been making on this topic for years. And you get a chance to put the letters in the right order in this alphabet soup. Anything less will cost you time and money you cannot afford to waste.

Andrew Tarsy is Principal and Founder of Emblem Strategic and the Emblem Network. He is also Principal and Co-Founder of Conscious Customers LLC. He is also a Trustee at Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology and a Strategic Advisor for the Foundation For Business Equity.

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