Creating an army of professionals who can work in CSR and sustainability. A veteran CSR executive lays out the roadmap.
By Aman Singh
What does one do to get a job in the field of corporate social responsibility? And moreover, how do you excel at something so nebulous and undefined?
I've spent the last eight years trying to decode these issues and report about what companies are doing to not only embrace the essential message underlining CSR but also integrate a sense of responsibility within their culture. I interviewed practitioners, researched numerous CSR reports, and conducted multiple surveys on the issue to identify what exactly translates into a "CSR career" or "CSR job".
While feedback, comments and social media indicated that my reporting was helping raise awareness and compelling professionals to think about their choices, I realized that what we needed was a reference guide, a encyclopedia of sorts, a How-To of practical tips from executives who are embedded in large corporations and have experience influencing change, leading behavior change and staying patient when the profits vs. CSR debate rears its head.
Turns out, Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger's Guide to Working in Corporations is the handbook I was looking for.
Written by Tim Mohin, Director of Corporate Responsibility at AMD, the book offers critical pieces of advice and practical tips for current and aspiring professionals who believe they can make a difference through their careers.
And that is the segment that Mohin wants to target. He told me a couple of years ago that he wanted to write a book aimed at people who "want to change the world through business." Then, jobs were few and we were struggling as an economy. Occupy Wall Street was yet to take shape. And corporations were focused on surviving a deep recession not worrying about their social responsibility quotient.
But as we know today, this recession has not only furthered the divide between consumers, employees and corporations on a whole host of social, environmental and economic issues, but also pointed the finger to each and every one of us. Where does the blame lie? How did we get here?
In this vacuum of trust in the marketplace, Mohin's book is a much-needed antidote for professionals and students who want to restore our economy, while protecting the environment and benefitting society, but lack the practical advice.
Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger's Guide to Working in Corporations
We sat down for a heart to heart about the book, his tips, his journey at AMD and much more.
"The book is meant for people who want to use their careers to change the world. I want to enable the next generation to create the change they want to see happen," he began. For Mohin, a vocal co-supporter of student-led organization Net Impact whose conferences attract thousands of jobseekers, students and professionals each year, the field isn't as "rosy as it looks." [Note: Net Impact members get a discount!]
"Increasingly I felt that people who wanted to have a meaningful career didn’t understand what the field involves. There are certain sets of skills that need to be acquired," he added.
The CSR field is growing. And companies are starting to respond to what was primarily a movement driven by activists, students and academia, by creating CSR departments and integrating corporate citizenship into business strategy.
Each of these points of integration, implementation and planning however, requires specific skill sets. And as more job opportunities emerge, Mohin believes it is up to the incumbents to educate and mentor an "army of professionals who can work in CSR and sustainability."
Should Companies Create CSR Departments?
He likened the evolution of CSR to the quality movement in the 1980s when every company responded by starting a quality department. "Today, large companies realize that they must have someone in charge of CSR. It's not a new department per se but builds upon the community, public affairs or environmental teams and adds on other parts of corporate citizenship," he said.
Now, the question of having CSR departments has always triggered opposing reactions among professionals, executives and jobseekers. Should CSR be a separate department? Or an integrated element of everyone's job description? Or a C-suite led initiative?
For Mohin there is no debate, contrary to what several of his peers in corporate America have told me.
"I do think we need a department: it should be senior, small and strategic. Fundamentally, what that department is doing is setting direction, vision and key performance indicators [KPIs]. But the real work is being done by traditional line management functions."
"For example, most companies need to have a CR council and together we work through top level goals to meet our vision, execution and measurement. When you look at CSR, its too broad for any one manager to manage. By nature, it’s a cross cutting service group that works with others to get the job done," he emphasized.
"But if there is no one in charge, it gets lost and nothing gets done."
Preparing for a Career in CSR
But many of the skills, programs and business processes are transferable outside the CSR function, as I discover every time I interviewed a CSR executive and analyze their career's trajectory. Mohin concurs. "Remember that most CSR functions simply report the news," he told me, adding, "The news, though, is created in line management and mainstream corporate roles like procurement, HR, legal, and supply chain."
Mohin's advice hits home. For years, I have advised students and professionals that to forge a career in CSR, they must first develop a sector expertise, a specific skill set and then decide which element of CSR they can fit into. Using "I want to work in CSR" is never a good starting point.
For the author, it comes down to "Skills, Processes and Programs."
"In chapter one, I identify how CSR has evolved at companies and how organizational structure affects the practice. Use this to figure out where you fit. Then turn to chapter two, where I list out the skills necessary for a successful career in CSR," he said.
Once you've identified where you fit, chapter three and four offer a crash course in CSR strategy and how to respond to emerging issues. The rest of the book focuses on the many different programs under the umbrella of CSR. "So pick the one that applies to your skills and passion and then understand how to excel in that particular field," he explained.
Apple, Gap & Nike: Supply Chain Crucial Area for CSR Jobseekers
For example, supply chain is an area that Mohin has devoted part of his career to while at Apple. But his emphasis – two long chapters – on the area of supply chain has more to it than passion or experience. "For me, this area is the No. 1 growth area in corporate responsibility. When you see the trend starting back a few years ago with Nike and Gap's supply chain woes, and now Apple in the electronics industry, the critical importance of supplier responsibility becomes clear," he said.
"Now its becoming embedded in companies more so than ever before because of outsourcing. Companies have found outsourcing to be cheaper and strategically more efficient for them. But accompanying that, we need a supplier responsibility program, therefore the growing demand for professionals who can understand all the nuances of both supply chain and social responsibility," he said.
Another important reason that there are jobs in this area: Supplier responsibility is a big, complicated task. "One that requires quite a large team of skilled professionals. At Apple, it started with just me and I quickly hired a small ream but if you compare to Gap, I believe they have about 70 people in labor standards. Disney has even more," he said, adding, "Now, imagine the scope and scale of managing all social responsibility for suppliers of all the Fortune 500 companies."
Running a Data-Driven Program: Leading Through Influence
In order to drive a CSR program, however, whether it is supplier responsibility or environmental impact, every project requires a robust method set in place for the collection and analysis of relevant data that can feed strategy and project the achievability of goals.
And that's where Mohin places his bets for success.
A common thread at every company he has worked for, including Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and Apple, is managing data-driven programs. The ability to set quantifiable goals and measure progress has been a crucial aspect of his career in corporate responsibility. "[Data] has been a hallmark of my career," he said.
So much so that Mohin has devoted an entire chapter on the need for establishing meaningful goals and knowing what to measure. In the book – chapter four – he uses the examples of Intel, Coca-Cola and Starbucks to exemplify his emphasis. In our conversation, he referred to lessons from his tenure at Intel.
"When I was the environmental manager at Intel, the first thing I did was establish Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) so that we could start measuring our global environmental performance and forecasting the future. As soon as we figured it out, senior management wanted to know. And because we were focused on the data, we were quickly able to identify the process changes and reductions that decreased our emissions even while production was increasing," he recalled.
"[You] need to be able to understand what's important for your business and your stakeholders and how you can quantify progress in these areas to be successful. These metrics together become a dashboard seen by senior management regularly so they track the success measures and identify areas to improve. Running your program this way ensures that you will get the engagement and buy-in needed for a successful corporate responsibility strategy," he said. "Once you start to measure what’s important to your business and your stakeholders, you start to see alignment."
Finally, I asked him to list the top skills he believes anyone aspiring to excel in CSR and sustainability must have. [Buy the Book]
In Mohin's words, you must be:
1. A Lifelong Learner
"In corporate responsibility, you have to be flexible and curious. You're often working in areas that are not your strong suit but if you're open to new experiences and unafraid to be the dumbest kid in the class, this field is for you. Not everyone has that kind of a personality. You have to be comfortable in your skin. And, it helps to have a thick skin."
2. Able to Lead & Influence Without Being the Decision Maker
"You must be able to lead and influence when you're not making all the decisions leading up to the end goal. You must be able to understand the system well – such as identifying and building relationships with those who have the budget and the authority to get things done – and be able to work with them and influence across a broad spectrum of people and groups to work toward a common goal."
3. Able to Communicate Well
"It is one thing to know your business and another to describe it to someone else who may not know your business as well. It's like talking to your mother about CSR. To be able to do this job, you have to be a good communicator. It’s a critical skill in many fields but absolutely essential in CSR. CSR leaders are like the ‘de-coder ring’ in many companies because they have to understand the inner workings of many business groups and explain it to others."
4. Social Media Savvy
"The world of communications has changed in fundamental ways and the future will be very different too. We need to stay on top of were communication is headed – and right now, that’s social media."
"What I learned from social media is that I get more out of it than I put in. I learn something new every day through social media. Communication is happening in real time with real content and being social media savvy is an essential element to be effective in many fields."
5. Able to Understand the Importance of Stakeholder Relations
"Remember that the field of CSR is new, it's evolving. But also remember that social media and hyper transparency are becoming the new normal, which makes stakeholder engagement not just a priority, but essential."
"The world is watching and CSR is about our behavior as a company. If you're not asking people ‘how you are doing?’ and ‘how you can get better?’ then you're flying blind."
Starting next week, Tim Mohin will debut a new series on Talkback, where he will answer questions received from CSRwire readers and the students of the Applied Corporate Responsibility Class at Harvard University, one of the first cohorts to read his book.
Join the conversation by leaving a comment and connecting with us on Twitter and Facebook. Connect with Tim Mohin @Corp_treehugger.