How She Leads: Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, Ericsson

The GreenBiz Interview

How She Leads: Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, Ericsson

Elaine Weidman, Ericsson

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business.

You could describe Ericsson Group's vice president of sustainability and corporate responsibility, Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, as equal parts diplomat and scientist. 

Armed with dual master's degrees in resource and environmental management, and international relations from Boston University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, she's been at this a relatively long time at the huge mobile technology company: since 2006. The company has been at it even longer: last year marked the 20th anniversary of its annual corporate social responsibility report.

Like most technology companies, Ericsson is focused not just on how it can improve its own operations — and that of its supply chain — but also on how its products and services can be used to address issues such as poverty, development, climate change and human rights. It's part of the company's Technology for Good mantra, one that Weidman-Grunewald perpetuates through board positions with Millennium Promise and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative.

Ethics are prominent in the company's recently published 2013 sustainability and corporate responsibility report, which emphasizes Ericsson's focus on "responsible business" practices that are integrated deeply within core operational processes. It was the first company in its industry, for example, to conduct a human rights impact assessment using the new United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Weidman-Grunewald addresses why this philosophy will underpin the company's future progress on sustainable business practices.

Heather Clancy: I noticed that the role of "responsible business" was trumpeted very loudly in your 2013 sustainability and corporate responsibility report, and I wanted to start by asking you to define that concept for me.

Elaine Weidman-Grunewald: At Ericsson, we have two aspects to the area that I'm leading: one is sustainability and the other is corporate responsibility. The way we differentiate between the two: Sustainability is more like the triple bottom line, I'm sure you're familiar with that concept. How we contribute to positive socioeconomic development, how we work with environmental issues and so on. The responsible business part is a little bit different. It's really how we ensure that we are, you could say, a well-run company from, well, an ethical point of view and from a principle point of view. Companies are increasingly expected to play a role in solving many challenges today. This is high on the agenda of many of our stakeholders — customers, investors and so on — and we feel that if we're going to engage and be a leader in sustainability, the responsible business part is the foundation for any credibility in that area.

Clancy: So, you see this as instrumental for your broader sustainability programs?

Weidman-Grunewald: Yeah, absolutely, and it's also very much about respect. It's respect for our employees, it's respect for the communities where we're doing business, and it's about respect for the planet and people.

Clancy: Another thing that intrigued me was your anti-corruption training program. Why is that such a big focus? 

Weidman-Grunewald: Globally, [corruption] is a huge impediment to doing business in many parts of the world. When you have corrupt societies you also, in general, would have, for example, greater human rights abuses and many other problems that would be problematic in certain countries or certain societies. We have a zero tolerance to corruption of the company, and so we just put a huge focus on this. We don't want to be involved in the wrong kind of business. It doesn't mean that we're perfect or any company is perfect, but it means we're putting a focus on this, and all of our employees know that this is not the way we're going to do business. So, we have a code of business ethics, and every one of our 114,000 employees is required to acknowledge that they have read and understand this code and the requirements and the principles that we set forth in the code. … Why is it important globally? Because this is really dragging and holding societies down, holding people back, holding back development.

Image courtesy of Ericsson.Clancy: You were the first in your industry to conduct a full human rights impact assessment, specifically for Myanmar. How did you go about this?

Weidman-Grunewald: This is part of a two-year business learning program we're doing on the U.N. guiding principles and human rights in the business context, We're working with a non-profit organization based in Boston called Shift; Shift was originally involved working for Professor John Ruggie at Harvard Kennedy School [who was responsible for developing the U.N. guidelines]. …  

We did some human rights impact assessment work earlier, in 2009; we did one in Sudan and we've been using it like a framework to think about this. We’re in 180 countries, many of the markets can be a bit challenging, so we wanted to be in line with the U.N. guiding principles in our impact assessment work. … We exited Myanmar, as did many companies, around 1998 and we were out for many years due to the human rights and other complications with sanctions. Then in 2012, when the E.U. and U.S. sanctions were suspended, we started to look at Myanmar — a country with 60 million-person population and hugely, hugely underdeveloped from a telecom point of view. Less than 5 percent of the population in 2012 had access to mobile communications, so we made a decision to go back in. We have a board and everything called the sales compliance board to evaluate human rights types of risks, and we looked at Myanmar and even though the social and economic reforms looked very promising, we still saw a number of risks, human rights and corruption [issues] that were prevalent in that market.

So, we decided to do the human rights impact assessment, and we worked together with Shift to do that. We're just completing that now. It was a quite a huge learning experience. It took about a year, I've been down there a couple of times working with the staff on the ground. So I think the main learning with the U.N. guiding principles is really when companies traditionally would look at human rights impacts, [they] would traditionally look at the risks to themselves or to their brand about being present in the market. The new U.N. guiding principles are about the impact on people, the local stakeholders, the local communities. It's not so much like what is Ericsson's risk. Of course, we look at that as well, but we also look at potential negative human rights impact on people, basically.

Clancy: Aside from that shift in thinking, what was the main learning from this assessment?

Weidman-Grunewald: Another learning, I would say, surrounds stakeholder engagement. We invited many of our SRI investors, the socially responsible investors who have been interested in Myanmar or high-risk countries, we invited them all for a session at Ericsson, and we invited NGOs as well, that are working with human rights issues. So, we invited investors, NGOs and civil society and we held a briefing, a tele-briefing. Some were present in Sweden and others in the [United Kingdom] and elsewhere dialed in. We presented this human rights impact assessment for the stakeholders and got their feedback, which then, sort of, is incorporated into the final result. We still haven't done the local [briefing] in Myanmar, so we did a global one for global stakeholders and then we're doing one on the ground in Myanmar, that's happening [in spring 2014], but I think that was also a learning about how to really do a thorough stakeholder engagement. It's not just about publishing something on your Web site, it's about really reaching out and creating a conversation.

Clancy: What about internal stakeholders?

Weidman-Grunewald: When I set this up, it was really important to me that key functions in the company were part of it. So I didn't run it just as part of the corporate responsibility program. I really made sure over this two-year period that we had, for example, executives from our sourcing department, security, our government affairs, our different business units, sales and marketing, so we had cross-functional representation on the team. That was part of the business learning program.

The whole idea, the whole approach from my point of view, to running a sustainability function within a company is you have to integrate across the organization and into the relevant functions. I see my role as guiding that, but if sourcing doesn't run the responsible sourcing program or if the product lines don't run with the design from [the beginning], it won't really work. You can never get the scale or the impact having just a separate sustainability organization. That's not my goal. It's really about integration into the business.

Clancy: OK, so I realize you're in the middle of this one, but will this be an ongoing process? Will there be future assessments of this nature?

Weidman-Grunewald: We used Myanmar as a specific country, of course, but really to develop the assessment framework to use in other parts of the world. So the next one we will do will be Iran. That's our focus right now, is just getting that started for Iran. 

Image courtesy of Ericsson.

Clancy: Shifting gears, what do you consider your most important achievement so far at Ericsson?

Weidman-Grunewald: One huge accomplishment was to get the top-level executive team and the CEO to really see the value and the need to be active in this area and see the benefits of it. So, I think that's been quite a big focus. I also think — I've been in this role since 2006, I've been in Ericsson [for] 15 years, but in this specific role since 2006, and there's so much experience you gain over time — but if I look back, I remember in 2006 we started working with the Millennium Development Goals and there's such a strong connection between poverty and development and technology. So I think another pretty key achievement has been forming our Technology for Good programs, which we have today, which is unique because a lot of companies when they do CSR they have a philanthropy or charity department, they have lots of money to give away and they use that to have a social impact. We don't have that, I have never asked for a philanthropy budget.

I think for me what has been important is to use our technology and the confidence of our people to have an impact. So, when we engage in different projects around the world — and we have very many, I mean you can see, for example our Connect to Learn program, which is about girls education and ICT — we're contributing with resources but we're moreso putting in mobile broadband, providing connectivity, providing necessary devices for schools to connect to the Internet and then we're doing the ICT training with our own staff. I'm quite proud of that approach. With Connect to Learn, in just a couple of years we have more than 40,000 girls — mostly girls, not excluding boys — benefiting in 14 countries, and we have more and more interest growing. We can have such an important impact with our technology and our scale as a company. It's taken some time to build this up, but I feel like we have a very good approach to that.

Clancy: You mentioned getting top-level buy-in as one of your biggest achievements. What would you describe as the biggest obstacles in your job and how do you get around them?

Weidman-Grunewald:  Well I think one obstacle, which is the other side of the coin, is really how to have a big impact with a relatively small team. Even within Ericsson, in my team, on the group level we are nine and I don't want to be much bigger than that because I think the measurement of success is when the company, as I said before, when we are able to integrate into the core business functions, is when we get the biggest impact and scale. But still there's just so much to do. So I think a challenge, a constant challenge, is to have a big impact with a relatively small team. One thing we're working with now is employee engagement, really looking at 114,000 employees around the world [and] how can we engage more of them to participate in some of our initiatives and be aware of things, and help create an even bigger impact for the company.

Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor?

Weidman-Grunewald: I think that's always a tough question, but one person that I just absolutely admire and have had the opportunity to know and work with over the years is Mary Robinson. She's the former president of Ireland, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and currently one of the elders. I have known her since 2006, when she was the chairwoman of the Business Leaders Initiatives on Human Rights, which we were a part of for several years until that organization ceased to exist. I think she's just an incredible role model for women — she pushes the hard issues, she has absolute tenacity, but ultimate diplomacy. I don't know how to put it any other way.

Clancy: I notice you have dual degrees in environmental management and also in international relations. How to does the latter degree, in particular, help on the job?

Weidman-Grunewald: I think at the time when I went to Boston University (BU) graduate school, at the time, it was interesting, there were only two schools in the country at the time that had graduate programs relating to sustainability. I'll just comment first on my undergraduate experience: one of the things that has helped me most in life was the intercollegiate debating. I was on the debate team, that was kind of my sport in a way, and after undergrad I thought I would go to law school. Then for different reasons I didn't, and I went into this program at BU and did this double master's. I think the combination with debate, international relations, having an idea about global issues and global development issues — I was focusing a lot, at that time on Latin America and sustainable development issues in Latin America — and so I think all of this educational experience, all of it played a role. I worked so much with energy and climate issues and combined with development issues. I don't know if I could've had a better preparation for the job I have now because it is a lot about global policy issues but also having a basic understanding and issues like climate change or many other environmental issues.

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?

Weidman-Grunewald: So many people come to me and say, "I'm just burning for this area, I have a passion to save the world and the world needs saving," but I don't think it's enough to be burning for something. It's great to have a passion but especially for younger kids coming out of university and stuff, I say get a degree. It's so important to have an engineering degree or a master's of science or something. It doesn't have to be technical, but you have to have the basic skills. It's not enough to just burn for something.