An Ex-BP Employee On How To Change The System From Within

It may seem like "corporate idealist" is an oxymoron, but making the world a better place and doing business aren't always mutually exclusive.

It's easy to see the world in black and white: there are the people that work to make the world a better place and there are people who work to make a profit.

But in her new book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist, former BP employee Christine Bader suggests that there are ways to combine both interests into one job.

She defines corporate idealists as “people who want to have a positive impact on the world and see business as a great way to do that,” she says. “They see the ingenuity, innovation, scope, and potential reach of business and think, ‘I could put that to good use.’” One person deciding to generate less trash can have a small impact. A giant corporation engineering waste out of its supply chain makes a greater impact.

Of course, in Bader’s decade at BP, she saw firsthand that the world is complicated. Trying to better things from “deep within the belly of the beast, learning what levers to push,” as she puts it, requires a different mindset than protesting from the outside. But if you agree with Bader that “we need people trying to make the world better from all different perches,” then here are some ways to make that happen.

1. Talk about the business case.

“It’s the right thing to do” is true but mushy. “Look at the $100 million in revenue this other company lost when protests shut down their facility” is more focusing. Bader recounts an awkward conversation during a joint project with Sinopec, the Chinese oil and gas company, when her team’s Chinese counterparts shared a spreadsheet with an entry projecting eight fatalities during the project. Based on expected man hours and China’s construction safety record that was actually realistic.

On the other hand, BP’s group didn’t want to start with that as the goal, and wanted to convey that “The target is not eight, the target is zero,” Bader says. What worked for raising standards was that “we shut up for a while and listened,” she says, and learned that the Chinese team truly wanted this recognized as a world-class project. So they figured out the standards of other world-class model projects and framed it that way. The project was finished with no worker fatalities.

2. Be practical and tactical.

“You have to accept that this work is incremental,” says Bader. Case in point: In China, Bader argued for, and got, smoke detectors put in worker dormitories. Of course, workers in China, and in Indonesia where she also worked, did not have the same standard of living as American workers. But smoke detectors is a big step in the right direction. “I could choose to be an activist and bang on the door, but who’s going to be the person inside the company translating those impractical expectations into progress the company can actually make?” she asks.

3. Build your tribe.

In any organization, the best networked people have the greatest ability to make a difference. Join or form interest groups related to the topics you care about. And look outside, too. “Be really active about connecting with people outside of your company and in other NGOs and other organizations,” says Bader. “That’s when you’re also valuable, when you can bring in external perspective and expectations, and translate that into things the company can and should act on.”

4. Create your own job description.

Corporate social responsibility is a relatively new field, and while some organizations have it all mapped out, many don’t. If you want to look at issues of sustainability or risk management, tell people that. Many top experts in CSR “didn’t start out in roles directly working on social and environmental issues,” says Bader. “They started asking questions and finding like-minded people and eventually the opportunity arose.”

In any field, “Nobody can create your ideal job for you because no one else knows what it is. All the opportunities I’ve had over my career came because I’ve been vocal and thinking out loud about what interests me and where I think I can add value. It wasn’t like I applied for a job that existed.”

5. Know when to move on.

Bader wasn’t thrilled with the direction BP seemed to be going under Tony Hayward, which turned out to be prescient when the Deepwater Horizon accident resulted in a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Many idealists do want to do some time in academia or nonprofits. The good news is that when you go, having some business experience can help with your credibility as you know “what’s possible and what’s practical,” says Bader. “I did not manage to transform the whole of BP. But I know my work made a difference to a few hundred if not thousands of people and their families.” That’s more than many people can say.

[Image: Flickr user Emilio]

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