The GreenBiz Interview

A 21st-century business 'cookbook' offers a success strategy

Dave Stangis (left) and Katherine Valvoda Smith.

My view on most business books is that they would make better Harvard Business Review articles. I used to feel guilty setting aside those books after the first couple chapters until my literary agent explained that publishers had run the numbers and determined that nothing less than 200 pages would justify the average cover price. You’ll be hardpressed to find a business book with fewer pages.

One exception is "The Executive’s Guide to 21st Century Corporate Citizenship" by Dave Stangis, vice president, corporate responsibility, and chief sustainability officer of Campbell Soup Company, and Katherine Valvoda Smith, executive director of the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship. 

It’s a companion piece to their extremely insightful "21st Century Corporate Citizenship: A Practical Guide to Delivering Value to Society and Your Business," also published this year. I recently talked with the authors about why they decided to write these books and how we should think about the future of corporate citizenship. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

John Davies: I did a search and there are tens of thousands of books about sustainability, corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship. What made you decide that the world needed not just one but two more books on the topic?

Dave Stangis: I have a lot of those books on my bookshelf and a lot of them are great at making the case. But what we didn’t think was out there was a how-to guide, almost like a cookbook. If you follow the recipes we set out, you end up with not just a strategy, but something you could execute on and drive change. We also thought there needed to be a volume to help a CEO or board member ask the same kind of questions across the same types of subjects and define what their teams need to do. So the two books offer a top-down how-to and a bottoms-up how-to.

Katherine Valvoda Smith: Every year we have hundreds of people come through our education programs at the center, and thousands come through regional events and online programs. Many of them are struggling with the same questions: how do we get started with the materiality analysis or stakeholder engagement? Where do we start with strategy? We wanted to help people who are in the field trying to do this great work get a jump start.

Davies: One of the things I like most about these books is their strong focus on business and more specifically the business of sustainability. We’re getting ready to conduct our biennial survey of sustainability professionals and I’m curious if you think "sustainability" is a profession and how you would characterize it.

Smith: I think where I land on this is no, there is not a corporate citizenship profession. There is a practice of corporate citizenship. Actually, I'm going to firmly fall on the side of no. Good corporate citizenship is about how the firm exercises all of its rights, responsibilities, obligations and privileges across its operations and in society. And no one department actually can ensure that the company is operating in the most ethical, responsible, sustainable way.

Corporate citizenship is not what happens only in the corporate citizenship department. The really effective corporate citizenship professional is extremely good at influencing and, most importantly, understanding the business. What business are you in? What's the purpose of the business you are in? What's the strategy of the company in terms of how you're going to succeed in your competitive arena? And then, given all of those constraints, how can I support my colleagues in the jobs that they have to do, to create the most ethical, sustainable, socially responsible business?

If it's one person, or even 10 people in a giant company, trying to get it all done, inevitably they're not going to be able to be successful, because there's only so much that any one person, or any small department, can do. The most effective teams are those that really work with their business operations to create the greatest good and the most sustainable prosperity.

Davies: I want to just press on that, just a little bit because you started by saying no, but then described a dedicated team. How do you characterize people in the corporate citizenship department?

Smith: The most successful corporate citizenship people are those who are very well-prepared business strategists who are careful and thoughtful and deeply engaged in continual learning about our evolving business landscape. Are there professionals who work in corporate citizenship? Absolutely, there are. But is there a corporate citizenship profession? I think the requirements of the field are so broad that you couldn't actually define one type of professional.

Stangis: Whether there should be a profession is a legitimate question. I think that the way the world has come together is that these professionals exist because there's a vacuum in companies in terms of generating value. And that's why the book is so business focused. Sustainability and strategic corporate citizenship are ways to help a company close the gap in terms of value creation. 

Whether there should be a stand-alone profession probably doesn't make a lot of sense long term. Today, sustainability leaders operate almost like strategic consultants. And the more integrated they are, the better. Hundreds of big, well-known companies have two or three people in this central group who are trying to influence the entire enterprise and hold titles like "manager of corporate citizenship." Those are the people we're trying to help with our book.

Smith: We've looked at this question, and there is debate even within our own organization as to where we land on the question. We have a survey called "the profile of the professionals" and that's very intentionally plural because when we look at the data, we see that these professionals are actually placed in their base of expertise depending on the industry, and the company can be in a whole variety of different areas.

They run the gamut from finance to investor relations to HR to communications to their own corporate citizenship departments. Based on that, we didn't feel like we could justify saying that there is a profession. We see a lot of professionals who bring different capabilities and expertise to the table. We also see more corporate citizenship departments forming. Five years ago when we ran this survey, only about a third of all companies had vice presidents of sustainability or corporate citizenship or these stand-alone departments reporting into the C-suite.

Today, almost two-thirds do. There is certainly a professionalization of this field, and there is more executive purview, and more executive attention on these issues over the last five years especially. 

Davies: What do you think the field looks like in the next five or ten years?

Stangis: For better or worse, I feel like the terms that we use to describe the field may still be around, but what I see already happening, and what I think will accelerate, is a much deeper involvement in the corporate strategy versus a few people working on some initiatives or some programs.

Companies are evolving to where they're really tapping into what we call sustainability, and corporate citizenship is informing the business strategy. The actual bottom line, the top line. How to drive revenue growth, how to save money, how to bring new products to market. I'm seeing it at Campbell. I'm seeing it in the food sector, and I think you're going to see that accelerate. And that's what the center tries to teach; that's what we're trying to teach in the book.

I'm pretty certain you're going to see much more integration, where people are embedded in the organization, but that these people are much more tied to the actual strategy. Unfortunately, I think we're probably one generation early, but I see CEOs that are adopting and leading with these principles, and board members being picked because they have these kinds of skills and this kind of broad view of the world.

Davies: You did something great to give back to the profession by donating the proceeds of your book. What were your thoughts on that?

Smith: The center benefits 100 percent from all sales of the book. Dave really did this in service to the field and has donated all of his proceeds to the center. By merit of my role, everything that I write belongs to the center. One hundred percent goes back into the field, to keep the learning going.