Wanted: More CEO’s on Board

The CR conspirators’ guide to getting your chief executive engaged.

  By Daryl Brewster

You will see leading CEOs at the Commit! Forum being recognized for their commitment to corporate societal engagement. Just think about how powerful that is; CEOs of the world’s largest companies taking time out of their day to talk about actions of their companies’ community affairs programs. But is that how these CEOs see it? Do they see corporate societal engagement as a separate function, apart from their core business strategy?

We’ve found that a certain subset of corporate CEOs, namely CECP CEOs, understands that it goes so much deeper (nine of the top 10 of CR Magazine’s 2013 100 Best Corporate Citizens List are CECP companies). They understand that societal investment is employee engagement, risk mitigation, market expansion, brand strengthening, and much more. It is imperative to a healthy company.

These CEOs are front and center talking about their companies’ societal commitments. They are working this into their talking points, discussing it with their board, and mentioning it on investor calls. They know it sets them apart and is a way to build trust in their leadership. But the field of corporate societal engagement is leaving so much on the table with only a subset of CEOs playing this role within and outside of their companies.

But how do we make this the norm for CEOs to count corporate societal engagement as one of their chief concerns? CEOs have unique leverage and influence among other CEOs. CECP’s third Top Action of an Engaged CEO is “Rally Other CEOs to do More.” If you work for an engaged CEO, have him or her seek out and enlist unengaged CEOs.

Use shared interests within an industry to guide CEO collaboration. Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO of Xerox, brought CEOs together around STEM with “Change the Equation.” Tom Wilson, chairman, president, and CEO of Allstate, brought Chicago-area CEOs together to address gun violence in the city. Duncan Niederauer, CEO and director of NYSE Euronext, leads the industry in committing to hire veterans.

Use the competitive spirit as a motivating factor. If your CEO sees that another CEO is doing more on societal engagement—on the cover of a magazine, in a video interview on CECP TV, speaking at CECP’s Board of Boards CEO Conference—he or she will want to know how to get involved. Preempt his or her questions by providing the opportunities for your CEO to talk publically about your community programs.

  • Have your CEO attend the World Economic Forum, Clinton Global Initiative, or CECP Board of Boards CEO Conference to talk to his or her peers about why it is important to balance community and business concerns.
  • Get your CEO to work this into interviews with business reporters to frame this as a core business strategy.

Understand your role in encouraging CEO action. If you feel your CEO lags in these efforts, in addition to other CEOs rallying his or her support, it’s also up to you to help make the case– and there are many resources available to support you in that. Elevate corporate societal engagement to your CEO by making the connection to other core business functions:

  • HR: through employee engagement
  • Risk mitigation: including efforts such as sustainability in the supply chain
  • Market expansion: by leading work in a new market with community partnerships to understand community needs
  • Brand management: by expressing the core values of the company

Show your unengaged CEO the numbers. What impact are you having on the community, and, on the company? I know when I was the CEO at Kripsy Kreme and looking at all areas to find resources to fund our turnaround, the leader of our societal engagement initiative (we called it “Fun Raising”) laid out the impact our efforts had on the community, our associates, and our business—in numbers. It worked. We went from looking where we could trim the budget to increasing our investment. And it played a key role in our successful turnaround. One of CECP’s most requested areas of support to our companies is to compare levels of investment against other companies in the industry; we hear time after time that benchmarking data helped them make the case for new, sustained, or increased community commitment.

Once your CEO is on board, give him or her the tools to start rallying other CEOs to get involved. Working hand in hand with your communications team, put him or her front and center on these issues. It’s a natural leadership and legacy role for CEOs to take. Few CEOs are trained for the role of community engagement leader, but most are more than up to the task. It’s the qualities of CEOs that put them in their current jobs that also happen to make them ideal stewards for the communities—and CEOs—around them.

Darryl Brewster is CEO of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.
Posted October 2, 2013 in Business Ethics