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Passion & Compassion from Across the Pond: CSR Leaders Convene in London

By Tom Watson on March 25, 2008No Comment

By the assessment of the assembled, corporate responsibility is well on its way to doing that; far from resting on their laurels, however, the government, private, and third sector leaders in attendance focused on the challenges that lay ahead if the achievements of the past several years in corporate responsibility are to be sustained and indeed, surpassed.  While numerous topics were discussed and solutions posed over the two-day event, several themes stood out: 

Government support is absolutely critical to the success of corporate responsibility.

Keynote speaker Georg Kell, Executive Director of the Global Compact, offered up his perception of corporate responsibility: “Pragmatic solutions for an imperfect world.”  In a perfect world, perhaps there wouldn’t be a need for companies to step in to try to solve world issues where, in some cases, governments have failed.  However, to assume that the solutions to global problems lie in business alone is incorrect.  Most speakers were in overwhelming agreement that businesses need government support to succeed in their corporate responsibility efforts.

Even those in government offices admitted the need for corporate support.  “Growth is central to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and business is central to growth,” said William Kingsmill of the Department for International Development (the UK government’s foreign aid body).  “Growth is the exit strategy from aid.”

Kingsmill went on to say that growth cannot happen without effort by governments to provide a welcoming climate for doing business. 

The days of “corporate chest beating” are over.

The quote above came from speaker Mike Longhurst, Senior Vice President at McCANN Worldgroup.  Longhurst spoke about the shift from companies spending advertising money touting their own social responsibility achievements to using their brands to bring awareness to key issues.  There was no chest beating to speak of at this event, and corporate representatives who spoke were glad to address their successes and failures, and repeated a humble mantra: there’s still much to be done.

Christine Farnish, Director of Public Policy and Sustainability at Barclay’s pulled up a slide full of photos of young children.  Then she told the room, “I’m not going to give you a presentation full of happy, smiling faces.”   While the presentation did share many of Barclay’s remarkable achievements, she had a key message: “We’re not there yet.  But we know we’re on this journey and we do want to get there.”  Farnish readily admitted to the fact that Barclay’s had seen some rough times, not merely alluding to but flat out addressing the bank’s withdrawal from South Africa under pressure from anti-apartheid campaigners in 1986, and responding to questions about the bank’s current involvement in Zimbabwe. 

This quality of openness and transparency- warts-and-all corporate responsibility  – was shared by many at the conference. 

Corporate leaders have a heightened responsibility.

The argument that a push for corporate responsibility must come from the top-down is nothing new.  It is more or less accepted fact that no program can succeed without significant support from senior leadership.  However, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, the Global Head of Citizenship and Diversity at KPMG, added another layer to that argument.  He spoke of the need for good corporate responsibility “to come out of the awareness of business individuals who know what it means to feel the pain.”  Without corporate leaders having a deep-seated connection to a cause, corporate responsibility solutions cannot achieve their full potential to solve strategic world issues such as poverty and climate change.

Quoting from Anita Roddick, Charles Schwab, and others, Lord Hastings gave an impassioned argument for the importance of corporate leaders to not just support a cause because it makes strategic sense for a company, but to support it from a feeling that stems from “touching the places of the poor.”  He recounted a story of a senior leader at KPMG in Hong Kong who was deeply moved by spending a day as a refugee, in a program that strips corporate bigwigs of their money, electronic accessories, food, and contacts and forces them to live as refugees do.  While companies will invest strategically to solve major issues, Lord Hastings argued, it is only passion and compassion from senior corporate leaders that will truly make a difference.

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