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(Moving) The Elephant in the Room

For the third year in a row I’ve just had the privilege of spending two days in the Czech Republic to talk to and learn from companies implementing shared value. The sophistication of the conversation has shifted every year – which is heartening and inspiring. This time we talked a lot about how to move the elephant to a new room. Curious what moving elephants has to do with shared value? Interested in becoming an elephant mover yourself? Read on!

It turned out that the shared value events in Prague last week were not the only exciting headline grabbers in town. The Prague Zoo has been building a new home for its elephants and this was the week when the elephants got to move in. But it turns out that moving elephants is a tricky business, one which requires expertise and care. So the Prague Zoo flew in the world-renowned elephant mover Roy Smith to help.

When Peter Sokol of CSR Consult, the co-organizer of the shared value event, introduced me, he said that moving corporate mind-sets from the old paradigm of engaging society – one of trade-offs and sharing the value created, to the new paradigm - one of companies creating economic value by solving societal issues, is as challenging as moving an elephant from its old house to its new house. He introduced me as the expert that would help the attendees with this challenge.

I was humbled to be compared to a world renowned elephant mover, but immediately pointed out that in fact the CSR managers in the room, who are trying to shift the attitudes and actions of the companies they represent, are the real elephant movers. And I have to tell you, there are some courageous pioneers in the Czech Republic taking on this task, all the while getting trampled now and then by people in the business that don’t get it.

When discussing why it is so hard to move the elephant, audience members listed the usual suspects: even if the CEO gets it, middle management is too focused on the short-term; media would rather feature philanthropic projects that come with a nice photo opportunity than to report on companies’ efforts to solve real societal issues through their day-to-day operations; government gravitates to regulating rather than to creating the framework conditions that incentivize companies to innovate; investors are focused on quarterly progress and not on drivers of long-term competitiveness; and all of these obstacles reinforce each other. This list of obstacles can make you want to give up!

Strikingly, the conversation kept coming back to the first obstacle: middle management. And since shared value should be driven by internal forces it is arguably the most important one. Some of the strategies employed by the people in the room include: 

  • Data. Data. Data. Business unit managers respond to data. If you bring compelling data – data that shows the magnitude of the societal issue and the link to business competitiveness, you will find more open ears. Big, open elephant ears. Bringing data to the conversation requires CSR Managers to really “do their homework”, which is a big upfront investment. But it pays off in the end because once you can describe the problem and the opportunity in hard numbers, convincing management and measuring value creation become much easier.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Especially senior management has a duty to remind all employees of the company’s purpose and role in society. As often as possible. Remind them that they are there to solve the societal issues that the company has shaped itself around. In the case of our hosts last week, Bayer, it is about Science for a Better Life.
  • Shift the Conversation. Approaching business unit heads to engage in a conversation around societal issues can trigger the idea that the CSR Manager wants to pitch a “give back to society” project. Those elephant ears will quickly shut off. But when asking the questions: “what keeps you up at night?” “what is standing in the way of growth?” “what is adding unnecessary costs?” “which new markets would you like to capture in ten years?” you will get more traction and generate a targeted list of issues that could make sense for the company to address. This becomes the list to do more homework on so that you can generate compelling data on the issue and its current or future impact on the business.

If it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks, imagine how much harder it is to teach an elephant how to redefine its purpose in society. Hats off to anyone out there trying to do this. Those of you who’ve read my blogs in the past know that I like to think of the old paradigm in terms of safety nets and the new one in terms of trampolines.

I guess getting an elephant to climb onto a trampoline is not easy, but man – that elephant will be able to jump high!

Valerie Bockstette

Former Managing Director, FSG