Today, corporate responsibility is a growing profession with a career ladder extending into the executive suite of the world’s largest companies. This is a relatively recent change and the knowledge, skills, and abilities for this emerging field are still being defined. The CR role cuts across almost all business functions and is housed in a wide variety of corporate departments. Similarly, there is enormous variability in the job responsibilities, ranging from the art of communications, to the technically demanding field of environmental management.
Corporate responsibility is, in fact, a real job with real responsibilities, unique pressures, and serious demands. While rewarding on many levels, the job of a corporate treehugger can be frustrating, because you will always be something of a “stranger in a strange land”–meaning that many of your colleagues will not understand what you do or how your work adds value to the company. When you work in this field, you will have to perfect your 30-second “elevator speech” about what is corporate responsibility, and how your role enhances the company brand and its attractiveness to employees and investors. At times you may feel like a metronome–vacillating between the euphoria stemming from your laudable accomplishments and the dejection from the feeling that your role in the corporate power structure sits somewhere between superfluous overhead and oblivion. There have been many moments in my corporate treehugger career when I was on top of the world and many other times when the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s catchphrase summed it up well: “I get no respect.”
Even if you can stomach the bipolar nature of this role, you may be challenged by its breadth (which is very wide) and depth (which can be very shallow). This job requires that you are knowledgeable and–to some extent–responsible for a wide range of corporate behaviors and programs for which you have almost no control. And when you do achieve great accomplishments in this field, you should almost always deflect the credit to others within the company. If this were not bad enough, you should also consider that, until quite recently, corporate responsibility was widely considered a career dead end. Today, while this career is not considered the fast track to the executive suite, there is a positive trajectory.
Many companies now have a senior vice president or vice president of corporate responsibility, and that list is growing with the increased awareness of CR issues. In addition, companies are realizing that many of the skills needed to perform well in corporate responsibility are portable to other career paths.
There are an increasing number of people who are interested in working in corporate responsibility departments or contributing to this growing field from their chosen profession. The academic and literary fields have responded to this demand by pumping out an amazing number of courses and books aimed at preparing people for these careers. The problem is that almost all of these instructional aides are written and delivered by people with little experience actually doing these jobs.
Carefully researched business case studies and rhetorical arguments about why and how corporations could and should contribute to society are wonderful, but ultimately not all that helpful to getting and keeping a job in corporate responsibility.
As the mega multinational corporations gain importance in our collective zeitgeist, they are increasingly subject to our approval and acceptance of their operations. I believe that the market will ultimately punish the companies that seek only to take money out of our wallets without equal or greater contributions to our well-being. As high-profile examples of corporate screw-ups and public apologies mount–from Enron to BP–you don’t need a marketing Ph.D. to figure out that a good reputation is vital to a company’s long-term success. And increasingly, the public is tuned into corporate responsibility as a major factor of a company’s reputation.
As this reality seeped into the corporate consciousness, it has stoked a CR competition among big companies. Traditional economic theory would predict that companies would always seek to maximize return on investment; indeed, there is a strong argument that this is the fiduciary responsibility of corporate officers and directors. As globalization has taken hold and traditional barriers have shrunk, this theory would predict that companies would move their operations to take advantage of cheap labor and lax regulation. While there is little doubt that these forces are at play, the “race to the bottom” is being countered by competition over CR reputation. The increased awareness of corporate responsibility (as manifested by the proliferation of ratings, rankings, and socially screened investments), as well as the values and expectations of younger employees, are palpable signs of the competition in responsibility or “race to the top” that is a fact of life for today’s big companies.
My own career reflects this change. I started off working on regulations dealing with local environmental impacts. Later, I was enforcing social and environmental standards with Apple’s suppliers in countries around the world. Now, at AMD, I am working to end the human rights abuses in the dangerous minefields of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the profits from mining “conflict minerals” are funding some of the worst human rights abuses of our generation. In just a couple of decades, the scope of corporate responsibility has grown from local to global, from single impacts to multiple impacts, and from a single company to a whole supply chain. This field is still evolving, and with this evolution new career opportunities are being created.