Embracing your inner idealist

I recently picked up a copy of Christine Bader’s book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist—When Girl Meets Oil. The book recounts Bader's time working with BP in Indonesia, China, and the UK early in her career over a period of about 10 years, then with United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business and human rights. The book is full of well-written stories that resonate with those we hear from so many of our members about the complexities of operating corporate citizenship programs within large global companies, about promoting long-term interests in a short term world, about navigating leadership transitions. For those who are struggling to hold onto their inner idealist, this book may provide a bit of sustenance. It reads in some ways like a long series of parables, which—for me—hold the inevitable “moral of the story,” but also an opportunity to reflect on the nature of things. (The hare cannot help his speed any more than the tortoise can help his plodding pace. Things are what they are. Corporate profit-seeking is a condition of the existence of corporations. Negative impacts from this are common. People will make good or bad decisions about how to mitigate those impacts.) We read parables to try to uncover the essential elements or truths that will lead us to make good decisions. Essentially, Bader’s book provides a reminder that corporations are not monolithic entities with their own life force. They are powered by humans and the humans that comprise them have the power to change their shape.

Bader points this out in her comparison of BP CEOs Browne and Hayward, both of whom led the company during her tenure. Browne is characterized as responsible and visionary, “…shareholder value is not about returns and growth rates alone; it is also about how long a company can keep growing. The ‘how long’ means a business must invest in the societies from which it derives its profits…” Hayward is characterized as hard-nosed and dismissive, “BP makes its money by someone somewhere every day putting on boots, coveralls, a hard hat and glasses and going out and turning valves. That is how we make our money, and we’ve sort of lost track of that.”

Both of those statements are actually two sides of the same coin. For all of us. That short passage is a reminder to me both of the purpose of and role of the corporations that make the things that we all consume of the cost of that production and consumption. Ultimately, whether we are inside the company or outside, we have the power to hold onto our ideals. Bader’s well-written account of her own professional work and personal evolution and maturation provide the opportunity to reflect on how we might do that. At the end of the book, Bader provides a “manifesto for the corporate idealist.” Included in that longer manifesto are the following statements:

  • What is good for society is good for my company.
  • Evangelizing to my colleagues is not helpful. Figuring out how my work supports theirs is.
  • Transformational change is needed. Incremental change is good too.
  • The challenges we face systemic and complex. But that doesn't mean I can't do anything about them.

To me, these four tenets provide the core of Bader’s book. The particular issues and contexts are important and worth reading about but the reminder that each of us has some power to do something—even if it is small—and to help our colleagues understand the value of our work TO THEM is the ideal. That is how we make progress together. You can learn more about this fine book and its author at christinebader.com.