Historically, business sustainability and employee equity and inclusion have been the purview of executives, not managers. However, like so many other things, 2020 has changed that.
Over the last few years, the relationship between business and society has shifted: against the backdrop of Blackrock’s call for businesses to serve social as well as financial purposes, revisions to the corporate purpose roundtable, and social justice and anti-racism movements gaining momentum around the world, managers must now be able to speak intelligently about their company’s social good contributions while enabling their employees and teams to engage in social good causes. What’s the urgency? If managers can’t do this, their employees will soon find other teams and businesses that can.
It’s More Than Good Management
Customers and employees are increasingly demanding more sustainable products and business practices, and to remain competitive, corporations are investing more than ever in improving the sustainability, equity, and transparency of their supply chains. According to a report from JUST Capital, “almost nine in 10 Americans agree that this [COVID-19] is an opportunity for large companies to hit “reset” and focus on doing right by their stakeholders.” Investors are driving this shift as well: ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance)-mandated investing grew 16% last year, and could make up half of the investable assets by 2025.
While it is the C-Suite that is involved in directing capital and making decisions about an organization’s next steps, it’s ultimately managers who will execute these decisions. In addition, whether managers are ready or not, COVID has placed increasing economic and social pressure on employees who then bring them to their managers. The role of manager has changed from employer to entrepreneur, prioritizing the personal and professional development of their teams and recognizing future-facing opportunities by making the right decisions now.
Four Points of Tension for Managers
In theory, most managers believe in supporting social good, and likely contribute to social good in some way on their own. However, managers walk a difficult line within companies, tasked with both achieving business goals and supporting employees’ goals. There are four main points of tension where this dichotomy comes into play:
I. The company
Companies will be rolling out more social good initiatives, such as more training on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), flexible time-off policies, donation matching programs, and more. For example, one of our clients, Avanade, is offering its employees unlimited volunteer hours during COVID. Because Avanade is a professional services firm, this is a potentially costly investment and challenges the ability of managers to successfully deliver to paying clients. This creates tension for managers because ensuring profits and keeping employees happy can be potentially competing objectives.
This trend will only continue to grow: in an internal report we conducted in partnership with GSK last year, we found that, of the best companies to work for, 96% offer at least one giving and/or volunteering benefit or program like paid volunteer time off or donation matching. Further, 50% of these companies had at least 4 incentives for people to give (like dollars for doers, employee grants, incentive programs, etc.), and this is growing year over year. Beyond these “for good” initiatives, companies are also under increasing pressure to “do less harm,” and environmental and social governance (ESG) factors are now mandated reporting in some sectors. Managers must learn how to balance these two related, but potentially divergent, business goals.
II. The business unit
Business units within companies will often have different short-term pressures, and social good initiatives need to be adapted to align within the business unit. A sales team under pressure to meet quarter-end quotas will find it challenging to respond to a giving campaign or a demonstration for equality. Product teams marching towards a deadline will be frustrated if a new initiative impacts their ability to focus. Managers need to be aware that each business unit should respond to employee needs differently, and take steps to adapt corporate social good requirements for its specific rhythm of business. A sustainability leader at one of our corporate partners gave a good example of this tension: Sustainability teams and employees are asking for long-term changes, like green supply chains. Managers are supportive of this idea, yet they are measured on month-over-month pressure to reduce costs.
III. The team
Managers are typically best positioned to recognize tension in their own teams. Teammates who like the idea of working on a social impact project together might be upset if their individual cause is not chosen by the entire team. While some people like to turn off their professional brains and give with their hearts, others will want to work on more impactful skills-based projects. The same can be said about giving campaigns. Individuals on teams might be frustrated that an emergency response fund is created for one natural disaster affecting one part of the world, but an equal fund is not created for another disaster affecting another. Because of a manager’s working relationship with their team, they’ll have insight into managing and solving problems that more centralized staff at headquarters will not.
IV. The individual employees
Employees find purpose in many ways. Google employees walked out so that its technology would not aid in drone strikes. Amazon employees activated around sustainability. Many employees give generously, but not necessarily with or through their company. Some don’t believe in philanthropy and invest in other ways to create healthier communities. Managers must find ways to support employees eager to activate at work and protect those that seek purpose outside of work. In today’s political climate, giving and volunteering are becoming potentially contentious as many nonprofits are also at the center of political debates. In one technology company we advise in the U.S., leaders were eager to support the Democratic party, but not the Republicans. Doing so would have alienated part of its employee base. Employees, especially those especially passionate, can inadvertently discriminate against others when trying to end discrimination on other issues, and it’s usually up to the manager to resolve the fallout that can come from these challenges.
A Different Mindset for Managers
In our work supporting companies to build networks of internal social impact “Champions”, we’ve found that businesses and employees typically care more about inputs (i.e. the number of volunteer hours contributed) than outputs (i.e. the ultimate impact of those hours) when it comes to social good. This stands in stark contrast to how businesses normally function, where profit is the most important output. However, we do see this starting to change with some companies; for example one client, Tableau, uses compelling data and anecdotes to ensure efforts create a long term impact, rather than reporting on “vanity” input metrics like number of hours volunteered. Our MySkills initiative with Microsoft, for example, now traces the long-term impact of its engagements to see if cost savings and job creation can be attributed to its efforts.
As the de facto leader of team initiatives, managers are almost always under-informed when it comes to the best way to mobilize their teams to support social good. By focusing on empowering employees, rather than arbitrary input metrics, managers can balance business and personal needs more effectively.
Seven Steps to Manage Your Team’s Social Good Contributions
With the GROW model in mind, managers should take the following steps to prepare to support their company and its goals for more equity and sustainability, while creating the opportunities that employees are demanding.
#1. Ground efforts in corporate strategy
Managers should research and find documentation related to the company’s stated goals, commitments, and/or previous reporting on:
- Support of the Sustainable Development Goals
- Justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Volunteering policy
- Advocacy policies
- Employee activism policies
- Donation policies
- Ethics policies
If data and policies can’t be discovered, managers are uniquely positioned to request these documents from the company’s HR, PR, Legal, and leadership teams. Bonding these policies together, managers can build the case for their needs, and make sure they are developed and distributed to all those in management roles.
#2. Customize options for the business unit and proactively provide guidance
Managers, in developing their monthly, quarterly, and annual goals, should look at the unique rhythm of their business, and proactively identify and consider how corporate social impact goals can be supported by their efforts. This addresses two of the tensions above, ensuring that business goals are prioritized and achievable while giving team members the best chance to participate in social good activities.
#3. Check-in on the interest of the team
Managers should proactively host conversations within their teams and create their own agreements and principles related to social good. These should cover topics that are likely to come up in the future:
- What is our position on soliciting donations from team members?
- What is our position on promoting causes and asking for material supplies or voluntary time from each other? Our business unit? Our team?
- What are our rules for political advocacy?
- What are we doing to support diversity, equity, and inclusion on our team?
- What can our team and business unit innovate on to help our company reach sustainability targets and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?
Once your team has an approved agreement and/or set of principles, share it with your fellow managers and executives. Get feedback and create a template for other teams – social good is a shared success within companies and teams should be building on each other’s progress.
#4. Empower the individual
Amperity, one of LinkedIn’s Top Startups, has an employee policy of empowering people to achieve their personal, professional, and civic potential. This invites employees to stand up for social good and talk to people within the company about how to achieve it. Even if a company-wide statement is not made, managers should take time in a special one-on-one session to understand the desires of each individual they manage as they relate to social good initiatives, within the company and at a personal level. Astute managers will realize that empowering their team members to engage in social good initiatives provides an unparalleled learning and growth opportunity, as we previously wrote about in HBR. This also provides necessary feedback to enlighten the decision makers at the executive level as to what employees are seeking in a company’s social good initiatives.
We consistently find that managers can act as peer coaches here. A well proven tool that managers can use to do this is the GROW model:
- Understand the Goals of employees by asking questions
- Ensure a common understanding of the Reality of the opportunity and limitations by sharing company policies and listening to the needs of the employee
- Ask for input to generate Options and let the individuals self-select and self-organize on initiatives
- Use facilitation and analytical thinking to help teams decide on their own Way forward.
#5. Create more meaningful connections on your team
Proactively strengthen team connections so that team members are prepared to work together on addressing new issues, and working through challenges if emotions escalate. Imperative offers a powerful Peer Coaching platform to support this.
#6. Prepare for the unexpected
Even the most robust plans can be easily sidelined by unexpected events. One only needs to look back at early 2020 for a reminder of how quickly things can change. Managers can’t plan for all events, but should put in place policies that allow for flexibility in the face of the unknown. Knowing your team, and also the business unit and managers you report to, allows you to create an “In-case of crisis” plan that works best for the personalities and processes involved.
We recommend that managers, on at least a yearly-basis, host conversations and document preferences related to the following prompts:
- What will this team do if the company does something that the team does not feel aligns with their values?
- How will we respond to natural disasters?
- How will we respond to adverse political events?
- How can we support those that stand up for social causes?
- What should we do proactively to make our business better prepared to deal with these same challenges?
#7. Support activism and intrapreneurship
To not actively address issues facing society and the environment is a decision to support the crises and inequalities that presently exist. If a member of your team wants to make a change, the act if not supporting your employee is an act to support the status quo. While it is going to be challenging to find the time and maybe costly to you, as Anand Giridharadas shares in his best-selling book Winners Take All, to really make things better, those with power and means will need to lose something. Perhaps you will lose some political capital. However, time and time again we see that these are only short-term losses. In the long-term, the real leaders of tomorrow are willing to stand for something today, and empower their employees to do the same, too. We’ve published suggestions on generative ways to support employees as activists here, and we also have a free 5-step guide to intrapreneurship.
Managers are expected to shoulder much of a company’s work, and social good shouldn’t be seen as an added burden. Embraced correctly, social impact initiatives started at the team level have the potential to be a driving force at the company level. Understanding the tensions at play and invoking the above strategies will ensure you’re successfully advocating for all of your company’s initiatives, rather than playing catch-up. Want to help your team reach its social and civic potential? Join the MovingWorlds Institute to grow as a world-positive leader. Looking for a training or speaker for your team? Review our direct support programs for corporations.