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Christine Bader’s Tales of a Corporate Idealist

The former BP policy development manager and U.N. business and human rights advisor on the nuances of promoting social responsibility and sustainability within companies.

Big Oil seems like an odd place for a social responsibility and environmental sustainability advocate to pursue her career, but after Christine Bader heard then CEO of BP John Browne speak at Yale, that was exactly where she went. Browne’s strong message about the social responsibility of corporations—a highly unusual statement from the leader of a major energy company in 1998—intrigued the first-year MBA student. It prompted Bader to intern with BP’s chief policy advisor and then to join the company full time in 2000. Over the next eight years, she was assigned to the development of a natural gas field and plant in West Papua, the planning of a massive ethylene production complex outside Shanghai, and finally BP’s London headquarters—“an MBA working on social issues in a company of engineers,” as she puts it.

In 2006, BP enabled Bader to work part-time, on a pro bono basis, with Harvard professor John Ruggie, who had been appointed by Kofi Annan as the United Nations secretary-general’s special representative on business and human rights. Two years later, not long after Browne resigned and Tony Hayward took over as BP’s CEO, Bader left the company and joined Ruggie full time, helping create the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In 2011, after the adoption of the Guiding Principles, “Team Ruggie” split up and Bader began writing The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil (Bibliomotion, 2014). The book is a thoughtful memoir of her experiences and a nuanced guidebook with many lessons for aspiring corporate idealists. Bader, who is currently a part-time human rights advisor to BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) and a visiting scholar at Columbia University, recently talked with strategy+business about how dedicated people can guide their companies to protect human rights and the environment.

S+B: Is “corporate idealist” a job description?
No, the job titles of the people I interviewed for the book varied wildly. One person is the head of a supplier workplace accountability program; another is a general counsel. When I worked in China for BP, I was on the construction team.

I think of a corporate idealist as a person with a particular mind-set. Corporate idealists believe that business can have a positive impact on the world—but recognize that business can also present real risks to people and the environment. They are committed to making sure that their companies aren’t hurting people and, hopefully, are helping them.

S+B: You’ve worked both inside and outside corporations. Which is a more effective place for idealists to invest their energy?
Young people ask me this question a lot, and I tell them that each of us needs to figure out the niche in which we will thrive. I also tell them that their answers may change over time. My work at the U.N. was really interesting to me for a while, but eventually I realized that it was not the milieu in which I personally could have the biggest impact. My colleagues there were so good at understanding politics and semantics, but I wanted to know what we were going to tell businesspeople to do differently when they got to their offices on Monday morning.

S+B: If you work inside, how do you avoid co-optation?
That’s a risk that the corporate idealist knowingly assumes. One way that I’ve seen people mitigate the risk is to build communities with those people doing the same kind of work in other companies—they can provide a reality check. But I also think that it’s important to really become part of a place if you want to change it from within.

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