Employee Activism: Taking an Active Role to Change Your Organization

Employee Activism: Taking an Active Role to Change Your Organization

Not unlike many “new generation” MBAs graduating today, I left business school with a sense of idealism about making a real contribution toward society. Having founded our school chapter of Net Impact -- a national nonprofit aimed at developing the next generation of socially responsible business leaders -- I sought out a career that allowed combining such ideals with business and career goals. Whether you work at a big corporation, entrepreneurial start-up, or nonprofit organization, you can make a difference by becoming an “employee activist” to change your organization -- whether or not it is in your job description.

Facing marketplace realities, I found myself in a “mainstream” business position after graduation but refused to let go of my belief that we can create a better world through the power of business. Along with a like-minded co-worker, I founded the local professional chapter of Net Impact. Through our work at Intel, quite a few other employees have joined our group over the past two years. Many were like us -- professionals satisfied to be driving our business goals but wanting to make a more direct contribution to the company’s corporate responsibility and sustainability strategies. Inspired by Barbara Waugh of Hewlett-Packard -- who spoke at a recent Net Impact conference and wrote the book “The Soul in the Computer” -- we decided to jump right in and form an employee group with this mission.

It is often said that leadership is a matter of filling a void. It may appear that your organization does not have a sustainability focus because of a lack of interest or inconsistency with company strategy. However, you may find it is simply because no one has yet taken the initiative. We held a kick-off meeting with about 15 interested employees, which turned into a lively brainstorm about how we could learn about sustainability and contribute ideas to strengthen the company’s position. After a brief mention on our company web site, it quickly became apparent that there was no shortage of passionate, like-minded people who wanted to make a difference.

Not interested in reinventing the wheel, we invited colleagues from HP to visit Intel and share with us their experiences in starting the HP Sustainability Network several years ago. They flew to Oregon, our largest site, where we had a frank dialogue about their successes, failures, and learning along the way in developing this grassroots employee network. Their impact made a huge difference, inspiring us to believe that the effort is worth it. In just a few short weeks, our network has grown from a few to over 50 dedicated members. Some want to play a leadership role, some would like to network and develop their careers, and others are interested in learning more but perhaps not be as active due to work or family commitments.

What have we learned so far? Here are a few lessons that may be useful in forming a similar network at your organization:
  • Take the initiative. If you think there is an employee role in making your organization more sustainable or responsible, others probably do also.

  • Start simple. Don’t underestimate the value of a grassroots effort. Start with informal brown bag lunches and then you can evolve into speakers, events, or other projects as momentum builds.

  • Be patient. Depending on your organization, the group’s ideas might be accepted right away or it might be a long time coming. Keep the end goal in mind but be patient by taking gradual steps.

  • Establish objectives. The first thing we did was to establish a mission, objectives, and key strategies upfront. They may not be perfect, but this is a great way to get started and they can be easily modified in the future.

  • Adapt to your culture. Is your organization consensus-building or autocratic? Quick to adapt to change or slow? Adjust your group’s efforts to the culture to make it successful -- whether it is the language you use or how you make decisions.

  • Find a sponsor. Before long it is important that you find a well-placed sponsor (or a few of them) who can champion your efforts.

  • Recognize achievement. Since your members are likely contributing above and beyond their normal job scope, do not forget to recognize their contributions publicly along the way.
Above all, stay inspired and do not underestimate the difference that you and your colleagues can make in improving your organization’s impact on the world.

Mark Adams is manager of business operations and communications at Intel Corporation and recently co-founded the Intel Sustainability Network. He also leads the Net Impact Northwest Professional Chapter.

About Net Impact
Net Impact is a network of emerging business leaders committed to using the power of business to create a better world. It is also the most progressive and influential network of MBAs in existence today. Originally founded as Students for Responsible Business in 1993, Net Impact has developed from a great idea shared by a few business students into a mission-driven network of over 9,000 new leaders for better business. Through its central office and over 90 student and professional chapters worldwide, Net Impact offers a portfolio of programs to help members broaden their business education, refine their leadership skills, and pursue their professional goals, while building their network.