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Christine Bader’s Tales of a Corporate Idealist

“It’s important to really become part of a place if you want to change it from within.”

S+B: How do you make a compelling business case for spending on things that defy quantification, like human rights, in a profit-driven environment?
I’ve found that the way to make the case is not to have a fixed idea about how you’re going to make the case going in. It’s important to find out what motivates people and identify what will resonate with them. I went to China to convince BP’s partners and contractors on a major ethylene joint venture to comply with international standards for the living conditions and working hours of a large migrant construction workforce, and to ensure that we were heeding the needs of the local community. I started talking about protecting and promoting human rights, and that fell flat. Then I argued that the standards that BP uses around the world had to be met, which just sounded arrogant and didn’t fly, either. Finally, I shut up and listened to the people around me. I heard their concerns about making the project a model for world-class practices. When I presented what we wanted in those terms, their response was, “Oh, OK. Why didn’t you say so?”

S+B: Isn’t making the business case for corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability in economic terms the quickest way to executive hearts and minds?
I know that the economics are important and that a lot can be gained by applying the rigor of financial tools and analysis to social and community issues and human rights. But if you go too far down that road, I think you can lose sight of what you’re talking about. Say I’m proposing that my company spend several million dollars to mitigate the risk that we could become complicit in a genocide. I don’t want somebody to come back to me and say, “OK, so if we invest half of that, can we tolerate the risk of being 50 percent complicit in genocide?”

S+B: You offer up John Ruggie as an exemplar for corporate idealists. What can they learn from him?
I was awed by John’s ability to create a feeling of ownership in outcomes, a necessity whether you’re working with insiders or outsiders. We would do these full-day consultations with lots of different stakeholder groups in the room—indigenous community representatives and folks from mining companies and human rights and environmental campaigners—and the debates were very polarized and contentious. People would be yelling and storming out of the room. John wouldn’t say much over the course of the day. Then, at the end, he would summarize what he had heard, and he would play back a little something from everybody in the room. People would walk out feeling like they’d been heard and willing to move ahead.

S+B: History suggests that there is an ebb and flow in the appetite for idealism within companies over time. As a corporate idealist, how do you deal with that?
Well, there is and there isn’t an ebb and flow. It depends on how well embedded social responsibility and sustainability are in the company’s approach to risk management and business continuity. The BP projects that I worked on in Indonesia and China were very much about getting facilities built properly and operating in ways that would be sustainable over the long term. Even though I left BP as the leadership changed, my sense is that those activities didn’t disappear—because it was clear that they were necessary to the business.

This is putting it mildly, but there can be a disconnect between the rhetoric at the top of the company and the operational realities. If the work of the corporate idealist is properly embedded, leadership transitions shouldn’t matter as much.

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