Corporate Activism & Leadership Transformation

Building Value and Impact with Passion-Driven Performance

"TOGETHER FOR TOMORROW" - our activist network on the val de reuil site (FRANCE) - a painting by my colleague andre torres

"TOGETHER FOR TOMORROW" - our activist network on the val de reuil site (FRANCE) - a painting by my colleague andre torres

I am writing this piece for all the rational minds who’ve asked, since I started practicing and speaking about “corporate activism”, what I actually meant by that. I believe it is broader than “companies taking a stance on social issues” and it has the potential to propel organizations, people and society at large into a more positive future, so it’s important to get it right.

I’m also writing for everyone in the corporate world who has their feathers ruffled by the word “activist”. It is actually a much more positive and valuable phenomenon than you imagine. But its value can only be harnessed by those leaders capable of evolving quite substantially their leadership practice and behaviors. Here’s why.

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Do you believe in something that is bigger than yourself, your family life, your social enjoyment, your career plans? Is this something shared by others, who believe in this too? Are you actually doing something about it – taking action? Spending some time to advance this? Then, you’re an activist. Your action doesn’t have to be big, visible or recognized. All activists are not publicly acclaimed heroes. But anyone may do something, even small, for a “cause” – something they believe in – and feel good about it and somehow shape the arc of history a little bit.

We often think of activism in relation to movements for social justice, peace, democracy or other public issues. Very rarely do we consider activism in the workplace – as a force for good and as a business value generator. Yet, corporate activism may be among the most powerful drivers for excellence and innovation today. By changing the nature of interactions, it is one that enables organizations to really maximize the opportunity provided by their people or their external ecosystem and deliver strong business performance. It is a new leadership strategy that we have experimented several times, with great results, in a large global organization. Why does it work?

Because activism:

  • Connects, while preserving the benefits of diversity
  • Propels, as one of the few effective techniques against busyness
  • Moves, by virtue of emotions attached to a co-created purpose
  • Spreads, without the need for a heavy communication infrastructure
  • Engages, in a deep and sustainable fashion

Here’s how it works.

1-         Activism connects

Contributing to a cause shared by others is naturally a great way to connect. Since this cause brings individuals together, it is a focal point that helps them overcome at least a bit their differences. Yet, they are not required to withhold their diversity; activism is voluntary activity – and a mindset – and no one has the authority to require that volunteers put aside what makes them, them.

A fundamental dilemma for collaboration is: how to leverage what sets people apart – their different perspectives that make collective work rich and relevant – without making these differences hamper decision making or sense of unity? Removing all frictions can be done through groupthink and consensus culture but obviously that’s not what we aim for.

In search of “alignment”

It is all the more difficult in large organizations since perspectives are shaped by functional silos, hierarchical positioning, internal competition reinforced by “performance management” systems. Traditional answers of organizations have focused on alignment, including:

  • Organizational alignment (redrawing internal borders – an all-time favorite for newly appointed leaders)
  • Communication alignment (exhortations, corporate slogans, information cascading from top to bottom)
  • Mindset alignment (hiring for “cultural fit”, promoting people “with the right mindset”)

Another way to break internal barriers and embed diversity into operations is to have strategy rethought or flagship projects driven by various employees (appointed “change agents”) hand-picked across different functions, or countries, or generations… much more rarely across different hierarchical levels.

As the never-ending complaint against silos shows, all this fails at delivering the truly collaborative, cross-silo mindset that corporate leaders dream about for their teams. They would love the marketing folks to work better with the sales teams, R&D to interface better with production and vice-versa, and it seems to always remain an aspiration. Cross-hierarchy collaboration barely happens, as organizations address issues layer after layer. They may try to become flatter (again, a redrawing-internal-frontiers kind of response), but organizations stay blind to the negative effects induced by hierarchical distance, domination relationships and layered problem solving.

Funny enough, it takes non-work, often grassroots initiatives (women’s networks, car-sharing programs, running communities…) or enterprise resource groups to really break the silos. My first experience of true cross-function, cross-hierarchy work after 10 years in a large organization was when I joined forces with other colleagues to create a movement for diversity in the workplace. The collective intelligence at work there was admirable. Yet diversity is still often seen as a “societal” matter rather than as a corporate performance issue – despite the  business case – and the achievements of this movement on collaboration have hardly been considered as worth learning from by the organization.

However, we have been able to apply the exact same dynamics to two critical business issues, first leveraging activism to support the launch of a new product (see the case here) then to improve manufacturing quality (read about the case here and in the book co-authored with Isabel de Clerq et al. Social Technologies in Business). Success in both cases shows how powerful activism is at connecting people, leveling out power distances while building on the diversity of worldviews.

It is particularly efficient as we leverage social media to enable connection at scale. Social media (in our experience, Facebook and Twitter with the external ecosystem; Yammer internally) is an indispensable enabler for intelligent collective action. The more accessible, free, uncensored – the better for viral expansion. I have a huge respect for the activists of the past who managed to mobilize people without the tools we have now. Today, no social media, no activism.

 

2-         Activism propels

As the word shows, it is about action. Activists don’t just talk about an issue, analyze, collect data, craft frameworks and presentations… “Paralysis by analysis”, a disease affecting many organizations, is not a concern for them.

Activists are not indifferent, defeated, merely angry or waiting for solutions to come from elsewhere. They believe they can act upon circumstances (they have a “sense of agency”), and they take action. They may be somehow over-optimistic when evaluating their expected impact – at least that’s my case – but this confidence is precisely what helps them switch to action. Don’t mistake agency with naivety: activists don’t wear rosy glasses. They view with a critical eye the situation they try to influence, while many others just cope with it, ignore the issue or keep themselves busy.

“I’m too busy!”

Busyness, or work overload, is the enemy of activism. It is also a serious disease that affects people’s morale and our organizations’ performance. I personally know way too many burnt-out people. Busyness is often caused by the way organizations work: in a non-trusting environment, we ask too much to too few people (the managers), overloading them with unnecessary controlling and reporting tasks; in conservative workplaces, social tools have not yet replaced emails, which keep exerting their tyranny on people’s agenda.

Addicted to “projects” and “strategic initiatives”, organizations keep adding activity on people. You were used to be busy 100% of your time at work with your regular job, now you’re supposed to do it in hidden time while delivering on “Accelerating X”, “Transforming Y” or “Ambition Z”.

Busyness can also be self-inflicted, arising from a lack of focus, a difficulty in making choices and the zeal to please everybody you report to in a matrixed organization.

Because they want to make a difference, and they believe they can, activists strive for impact. That’s what they focus their energy on. That’s what lifts them from the sticky floor of busyness. They find ways to optimize and accelerate their regular work, thus saving time for their cause. They make choices.

Managers fear activism as a distraction, while it actually makes people more efficient. It grows their leadership skills, wherever they are in the organization – and we badly need that. Not tapping into this energy is a regrettable waste; creating the opportunity to harness this energy, at the service of a corporate performance objective, makes total business sense. In large, old, regulated organizations it is not an easy shift, as it requires a deep transformation of leadership behaviors. This is what I help organizations do.

 

3-         Activism moves

Activism moves, because a cause has an emotional component attached to it. You don’t fight for a Key Performance Indicator; you don’t mobilize your peers for a new plan or an improved process. So, what do organizations need? A purpose?

Anyone who hasn’t lived in a cave for the last few decades knows that “purpose” is important. In 1988 John Kotter introduced the concept of a Big Opportunity. In 2008 Simon Sinek advised to “start with Why”. In 2004 Salim Ismail, Mike Malone and Yuri van Geest found that all Exponential Organizations have an MTP: a “Massive Transformation Purpose”.  In 2016 Dan Pontefract described what the “Purpose Effect” does and it is said that Millenials work for purpose over paycheck. [Note: to balance this all-male line up of writers, check the remarkable list of 60 business books all written by women, curated by Rachel Happe].

The need for purpose has probably generated tons of business for communications consultants. However, a compelling purpose alone won’t get you get activists.

What’s the missing piece? Ownership.

To be truly embraced as a cause, to generate action and sustainable “exponential” engagement, a purpose must come from the people themselves. You can’t impose a cause on people, even a great one, even with loads of communication material. With a purpose crafted by a select few, you can at most raise the interest of a broader set. But not trigger real activism. In case the actual behaviors encouraged in your organization differ from your purpose (or “mission”, “value statement”… see Wells Fargo and others) this can even backfire – and trigger adversarial activists.

Organizations that understand the value of activism take the time it needs and create opportunities to make people think together, dialogue, co-create a shared purpose. I’ve mentioned this question several times, as it is to me the real spark to any corporate activist movement: “What is it we want to fight for, now together?”

From there, a successful course of action should include the following:

  • The shared purpose that emerges from this conversation should be brought to life through tangible actions, meaning that the organization and its leadership team set time and resources to support activities in line with it.
  • Any activity that supports this purpose and that does not require resources should not need any authorization prior to completion.
  • A continuous, open conversation around the purpose and its concrete manifestations should be encouraged with the active participation of leaders (on social media, in various events). Emotion words should be part of their vocabulary.
  • The purpose should be challenged and re-discussed on a regular basis, to make sure it remains relevant and the newcomers co-own it just as the old timers.

 

4-         Activism spreads

Corporate Activism 2.jpg

Activism is contagious. It is the viral effect that makes it mysterious or scary – because no one controls that. From a “No” – no, I won’t give up my seat in the bus to a white person – to the end of legal racial discrimination against millions of people. From a slap in the face of a fruit vendor to a wave of revolutions that shake the course of the world.

Apart from politics, a variety of topics can become viral: a video clip, a charity challenge, a commercial… What gets viral is pretty unpredictable. But the spread is not guaranteed either: if there was a recipe for a viral campaign, everyone would know. Only after a success do we identify the elements that favored a viral spread. And re-using the very same elements, in the very same sequence, rarely produces the same results.

Let me give an example of a personal flop here. Atsome point I got frustrated with the company policy for car expenses (we had to book cars from an expensive taxi company through a cumbersome process; simpler and cheaper solutions as Lyft or Uber were prohibited). Inspired by what had happened at IBM – a post on the internal social network that became viral and triggered a change in policy – I did the same: posted a call for change on our network. Absolutely nothing happened. I’m not even sure the post got any likes. The policy changed about a year after, but I had nothing to do with it!

On the other hand, when the viral effect works, it does magic. From a single email to 3 people, a movement for diversity ended up gathering 2,500 people across company offices in 50 countries, empowering many colleagues and myself, triggering an unprecedented chain reaction. Break Dengue, a movement aimed at connecting activists against the dengue disease, got 250,000 followers on Facebook in less than a year, back in 2013, turning into the #1 “share of voice” on dengue on social media. In just 6 months in 2015, the internal movement of quality activists that I support currently, engaged actively more than 5,000 people throughout our manufacturing facilities worldwide – without any communication support. Each of these movements has produced tangible outcomes that wouldn’t have happened without activists.

Power to word-of-mouth, peer-to-peer

A movement can spread without a heavy, costly communication infrastructure because of the passion that activists are able to share in their conversations with other people. Social media is important as it provides speed and a critical mass to the conversation; it also connects more randomly than in-person encounters do, thus fueling the movement with diversity. However, physical (“AFK”) interactions are irreplaceable to ensure the spread, because they convey:

  • Passion (vs reasoning) that carries a strong engagement power
  • Freedom (vs requirement) that fosters autonomy and creativity
  • Conversations (vs one-way communication) that enable to build co-ownership
  • Person-to-person connection (vs role-based) that erases status barriers
  • Peer-to-peer interaction (vs top-down) that is perceived as more trustworthy  

In the quality activism case, to trigger massive energy around our Big Opportunity (our purpose), no corporate, top-down communication was necessary. It was even deliberately put aside from our strategy. A communication campaign would have actually undermined the authenticity and the credibility of the activist movement, thus limiting its viral expansion. When activists realized they needed some communication support, they went to their local Communication colleagues and built together whatever was needed. This way, they achieved something that they co-owned, that they were proud of, while building trust relationships with Communications through this partnership. A totally different result than if a communication campaign had been “cascaded” onto them.

 

5-         Activism engages

It drives attention to something and “binds” people to take action. It is by essence role modelling. When some just talk, or think, activists act. There’s not clearer way to demonstrate that 1) the commitment is real, and that 2) it is possible to take action. This role modelling is much more appealing to others and collectively more constructive than any corporate exhortation.

Also, it makes commitment more sustainable than as with the typical company initiative. A cause that is dear to your heart isn’t abandoned in a blink, as you switch to a new project or a new job; you strive for impact and want to see results, whatever you do for work. This is not work, this is passion.

Engage people, but for what? An objection I’ve heard several times is: “the industry you work in has a great purpose” [my company makes vaccines] “…we are not as lucky” – products or services are more technical, more B2B, less live-saving, whatever. I believe this is not an unsurmountable obstacle. Any organization has customers or stakeholders to serve, and relies on people to do so. Any company can decide to put the human dimension at the center of what it does, and contribute to something bigger than itself. The difficulty in finding purpose may even be an opportunity; this way, you’ll need a real, deep conversation with your colleagues. Maybe several – great for building ownership. Companies with an “easy” purpose may skip this step.

The actual results of this new approach are not mere engagement. An engaged crowd of activists has some very real impact on their environment. To name a few, in relation to the personal examples I’ve mentioned earlier:

  • The gender diversity activist community has connected and empowered women and men in the company (including myself, and I wouldn’t be writing today without this movement); has made the diversity topic visible; has triggered some (if not enough) progress in the women to men ratio among decision-making bodies of the enterprise; has stirred the creation of a meta-network that exchanges best practices across 17 companies and engages hundreds of people each year for a discussion around gender diversity topics
  • The dengue disease activist community has built a partnership for collective impact on dengue prevention; has been named an e-Health case study by the World Health Organization, potentially inspiring others to improve public health; has mobilized the community for disease awareness and education; has connected experts and scientific experts working on the disease; has crowdsourced and funded new initiatives against the disease; has launched a dengue crowd surveillance system that improves the detection of the disease
  • The quality improvement activist community has turned around the quality performance of a multinational manufacturing company in less than two years, making it possible to provide more vaccines to people who need them; has decreased human errors and the number of accidents by double digits; has significantly reduced the company write-offs, helping to reduce the shortage of vaccines; has made thousands of people proud of their work and of the countless awards and praises received from external stakeholders.

I will try to summarize below how Corporate Activism works and how it solves challenges, with respect to classical modes of engagement:

Corporate Activism summary table.jpg
 

Conclusion: A Leadership Transformation

The breadth of topics and the magnitude of results tell it clearly: whatever the field of action, activism is a great way to drive employee and customer engagement up, as it is to build business performance. Corporate activism creates the conditions for rich and sustainable collective effort, based on passion and a diversity of input. It is time for organizations to foster activism, and to become activists themselves.

How? This needs to start at a leadership level. Moving towards an activist-minded organization can’t be delegated to a project team or to a consultant. Leaders need to embrace this mindset and to adjust their behaviors accordingly. Make sense with others about what you’re fighting for. Release control. Create space for dialogue with no preconceived idea about what will come out of it. Trust that people do better from their free will than from their submission. Use the social network. Speak about what makes you human. Unfocus from your status and privileges, reduce the power distance. Influence positional leaders and corporate gatekeepers (who traditionally operate in a control fashion, and rely heavily on intermediaries) to evolve. Bring people together around a co-created purpose. Engage your whole self, not just your professional persona. Become an activist leader. This is a good step for collective performance and corporate sanity.

 

To read further about activism:

This blog was originally published on my friend Didier Marlier's blog (Enablers), then on Medium. Comments, questions? Let me know!

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Celine Schillinger

An Engagement and Social Collaboration leader. An experienced executive with a passion for engagement and community building in international environments. A disruptive thinker with a strong track record in implementing positive change. A charter member of Change Agents Worldwide. French Woman of the Year 2013, TEDx speaker.