Do you really need a corporate responsibility officer?

Do you really need a corporate responsibility officer?

Chalk figures via zagan/Shutterstock

Do you really need a Corporate Responsibility Officer (CRO)? What if you don’t have one?

The Thought Leader Forum, a group of senior corporate social responsibility professionals organized by the LBG Research Institute, recently met to discuss the corporate citizenship profession and how it relates to corporate social responsibility, CSR leadership in a company and career paths to corporate citizenship and CSR. Here's a summary of the group's thoughts.

The title of corporate responsibility officer (CRO) started popping up in the past decade. The Corporate Responsibility Officers Association (CROA) does great work in defining and advancing the work of corporate social responsibility. In 2011, it published a guidebook of structuring and staffing corporate responsibility, in which the primary purpose of a Corporate Responsibility Officer was defined as being "an ambassador, visionary and strategist reporting at the highest levels in the business and serving as steward/champion across the entire CR landscape. [The CRO is] charged with driving commitment to CR within the company and across the company's external stakeholders."

The same report stated that only 42 percent of firms have a "single designated senior executive overseeing the corporate responsibility function," regardless of that person’s actual title. Only 42 percent? What are the rest doing?

What's the difference between corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship?

The difference between corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship isn't always clear to everyone. The two terms sometimes are used interchangeably, but in our minds, they are two different things.

The term CSR refers to the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. It is a broad look at a company's impact. Corporate citizenship (CC) refers to a company's interaction with the community and what it "gives back." Corporate philanthropy and employee engagement are the backbones of corporate citizenship.

Based on the experiences of Thought Leader Forum members, these companies frequently rely on the corporate citizenship leader to guide the company into greater overall social responsibility. And this makes sense. If you read the literature on the corporate citizenship professional's role, it sounds an awful lot like how the role of CRO is defined.

In the decades since the checkbook defined a company's citizenship, the CC professional has evolved from grantmaker to social conscience of the company. In many companies, the push toward greater corporate social responsibility has come from the corporate citizenship department. It is a natural extension of CC professionals' jobs, as they are the ones most in touch with the internal and external stakeholders who care about the company's net social impact. They are out in the community, they are working to engage employees in the community and they are the eyes and ears of the company in the community.

A natural evolution

From the beginnings of corporate philanthropy, the individuals charged with writing the checks have possessed a sensibility for community needs. Over the years, qualifications for a corporate citizenship job have gone far beyond the desire to help other people. With the addition of employee engagement programs and a focus on strategic philanthropy, the qualifications of a corporate citizenship professional have changed as the field has changed. A do-gooder can write checks but it takes more than a signature to run a corporate citizenship department today.

This higher level of competencies and qualities have been defined in a number of studies in recent years. The Council on Foundations' 2009 study "Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership" (PDF) and Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship's 2010 report "Corporate Citizenship Leadership Competency Model" are two thoughtful pieces on what makes a good corporate citizenship leader. Thought Leader Forum members, too, have spent time discussing the subject and have distilled their thoughts into the following list of what they consider essential for success in their roles as corporate citizenship leaders:

• Be an excellent communicator. Corporate citizenship professionals have to be able to talk to the Board of Directors, the executive team, their peers in other areas of the company, employees at all levels, regulators, elected officials, community and nonprofit leaders -- all stakeholders -- in appropriate language with a consistent message. That requires the ability to understand the concerns and viewpoints of the different stakeholders and tailor the corporate message accordingly.

• Be a charismatic, persuasive figure in the corporation. Besides communicating a message, corporate citizenship practitioners often are called upon to gain cooperation from stakeholders (that includes the CEO!) for important programs to be implemented. That takes more than excellent communication skills. Great leaders exude confidence without arrogance and are able to persuade reluctant stakeholders by educating them and listening to their concerns.

• Be able to deal with complex situations. Because so many stakeholders are in a corporation, the leader often will find him- or herself in situations that are difficult or politically charged. Great leaders are able to see different points of view, think on their feet, defuse the landmines and gain cooperation.

• Be comfortable in the for-profit and nonprofit environments. An understanding of nonprofits -- preferably experience in them -- is critical to be able to speak their language and effectively work with them.

• Understand the business and current issues in your industry and the world. In order to understand different internal stakeholders’ points of view, you have to really understand the business, what drives revenue, what the risks are, the issues in the industry and world trends and events that affect your industry. Otherwise, you cannot speak the language of the executives and communicate with them effectively. You cannot design a strategic citizenship program that serves your company without knowing what makes the business tick.

• Understand your communities, their issues and needs. Like with the business, if you do not know what is happening in your communities, you cannot be an effective, responsible citizen of those communities.

These qualities add up to a person able to fill the role of CRO as defined above, regardless of his or her title or position in the company. Based on the experiences of Thought Leader Forum members, many already fill that role. Corporate citizenship leaders are frequently the touchstone for all issues related to corporate responsibility -- the go-to person for advice on how to handle sensitive situations and for insights on how stakeholders might react to certain corporate news.

Within the Forum, the corporate citizenship professionals have been involved in crucial business issues, such as opening and closing facilities, labor relations, strategy execution and government relations. They are valued for their experience interacting with all nature of stakeholders -- particularly employees and the community. They have been, in these situations, an important voice for the company's overall social responsibility. And at companies with less developed social responsibility programs, the corporate citizenship leader is the driving force behind the movement toward greater CSR awareness and action. If that isn't the role of a CRO, then what is?

The de facto CRO

We don't suggest that the corporate citizenship leader should be promoted and given the title of corporate responsibility officer (although that is an intriguing idea). We are saying, however, that the corporate citizenship leader is the de facto CRO in the absence of an executive with that title.

In companies without clear leadership, the corporate citizenship professional needs to have a seat at the table whenever the topic touches on corporate social responsibility and the business strategy. It doesn't matter which part of the business is being discussed. The operational leaders should be responsible for the social impacts of their departments, while the corporate citizenship leader runs his or her department.

But the corporate citizenship leader should be available for advice -- that touchstone others need to do their part effectively.

Together, the department or functional leaders, including the corporate citizenship leader, create a formal or informal CSR committee, reporting to the CEO. A formal committee is a good idea -- with corporate citizenship chairing it. The corporate citizenship leader has experience with social impact metrics that make him or her a good choice to choose and communicate success and opportunity to the CEO. He or she is also likely most tied into the latest trends and issues in corporate social responsibility and best to inform and advise the committee on the topic. As the company’s CSR program matures, the different functional leaders then can rotate the chairmanship of the committee.

We believe that the CEO is ultimately responsible for any company’s social impact, its triple bottom line.

Realistically, CEOs are too busy running the company to manage social impact the way a CRO or a CSR committee would. And -- let’s just say it out loud -- some CEOs just don’t get it. But the corporate citizenship professional gets it, and can become an advocate for CSR in the entire company, not just his or her own department.

So, do we really need CROs -- an individual at the top of the CSR food chain? The 42 percent of companies that have one would say yes. But for the others, there are alternatives. A CSR committee can function quite well for smaller companies or those just getting their feet wet in CSR. And as we pointed out, there is already someone in the company with the knowledge, skills and attributes to advise on CSR strategy and execution -- the corporate citizenship leader.

Blackboard image by zagan via Shutterstock

This story is adapted from the LBG Research report, Advancing CSR without a Corporate Responsibility Officer.