Businesses need to take the lead on corporate social responsibility

Jane Counsel, front and centre

What do we mean by corporate social responsibility? Right now we’re in the middle of a profoundly important exploration of this question. In Australia we have a series of Royal Commissions, one completed (Institutional Child Sexual Abuse), one underway (Banks and Financial Institution) and one just announced (Aged Care).

They have happened because they’re seen as the only way to hold some key organisations to account for their failures to discharge their responsibilities – not just to the people they deal with directly, but to society as a whole.

The organisations that are being held to account are in both the business and non-profit sectors. By extension, the governments that licence, regulate and support them through our tax system are also under scrutiny.

It’s not enough to win, you have to play fairly, or you won’t be allowed on the field.

Maggie got it wrong

In 1980, UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher boldly declared that “There is no such thing as society.” Perhaps what we’re living through today is the result of people and organisations behaving as if Maggie was right. I think it’s clear to anyone trying to run a business, contribute to the community, even captain a sports team or get elected to government today, that she probably wasn’t!

Organisations have always known that they need to be financially sustainable. There is an emerging understanding that they must also be environmentally, politically and socially sustainable. In practice, this means that no matter how successful a business, non-profit or government might be in the short term, the community will pass judgement on how they have behaved in achieving that success. And if that judgement is negative, their continued existence is at risk.

I think corporate social responsibility is what this accountability looks like, and it’s no longer something organisations can chose to recognise or assume. It’s not enough to win, you have to play fairly or you won’t be allowed on the field.

Millions of Australians do it

I grew up assuming that if there was something that needed to be done, and it was something you could do, then you did it. My parents demonstrated this – Mum had been a Scout group leader before she married, and Dad spent the second half of his career heavily involved in his professional organisation alongside his job. Volunteering was reinforced at school and I think my first formal volunteer activity was as a Uni student when there was a call for someone to tutor Year 11 students at the local public school in economics. That was what I was studying so I did that – those poor kids – I’m pretty sure looking back that I didn’t do it very well!

I’ve also been drawn all my life to joining direction setting and decision making activities – that started at school too with the Student Council.

These days there are three ways I’m involved in promoting corporate social responsibility on both a paid and voluntary basis – I sit on boards and committees, helping organisations to do a better job, I deliver programs on governance for the AICD, helping other directors to help their organisations and most recently, and very excitingly, I help to develop leaders through coaching and leadership programs.

Two lessons from the Royal Commissions

I think there are two key lessons we can take from the failures exposed by the Royal Commissions stories. The first is that the tone of an organisation is set from the top, with the people we readily identify as leaders. The second is that we need to empower and listen to the people throughout the organisation who are in a position to say “I don’t think that’s right.” We don’t always recognise these people as leaders, but we should.

Leaders are responsible for setting the tone – and for listening to the voices of people throughout the organisation.

Organisations need to explore and decide what their particular social responsibilities look like today and in the future. Their leaders then need the ability to influence their organisation’s culture and direction so that they can meet those responsibilities.

These are not simple challenges, and many leaders will need to learn new skills and develop their own capabilities as well as those of their people.

Growing leadership capability

For more than 15 years, Executive Central has had the privilege of working with thousands of executives and emerging leaders in both individual and group-based coaching programs. In that time, we have witnessed tremendous growth and success for these people and their immediate teams and colleagues.

We have worked in many organisations that have previously invested heavily in development programs throughout their organisations. These often involve hundreds of people and require extensive resources and budgets. Unfortunately, some 75 years of research indicates these programs most often fail to transfer into practical application in the workplace or deliver acceptable ROI to the organisation. So it has been great for us to see our coaching programs delivering real traction on leadership development.

Leading for Purpose

I’m very excited to be launching a Leading for Purpose program, including a series of workshops and individual coaching sessions, that we are offering in partnership with the Centre for Volunteering in the first half of next year.

The program is designed around the particular needs of the sector and delivered in its context. It combines a series of one day leadership workshops with individual coaching sessions for participants to help them to apply and embed their new capabilities. Coaching is offered remotely, making the program accessible to leaders in all locations.

Contact Denise at the form below.

Leading for Purpose

Our Leading for Purpose program is designed for volunteer, charity and not-for-profit organisations. This is a nonprofit sector leadership coaching model delivered by executive coaches who have experience leading in the nonprofit, corporate and public sectors. Read more.

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