S+B: How did you move from your background as an analyst of polling data into being a convener of in-depth conversations about corporate responsibility?
Yankelovich: Over the years, sitting on various for-profit and nonprofit boards, I saw the extent to which corporate social responsibility is acknowledged with skepticism and cynicism. I saw there were lots of corporate insiders, and lots of social scientists, but not too many people combining those two perspectives. So I began stepping into that role.
S+B: Would it be accurate to say that a corporate social responsibility approach, intentionally or not, will inevitably lead to more rules and laws, whereas a stewardship approach favors more informal, conversational measures?
Yankelovich: I wouldn’t put it quite that way. I think that our culture is biased toward laws and rules. Cultures work best when there’s a thick layer of moral norms — shared values and habits of behavior — undergirded by a relatively thin base of law. In the United States, we’re over-lawyered, overregulated, and under-normed. We’re attempting to deal with our business scandals through law. But the problem is a normative problem, and it needs to be addressed through normative means.
Beyond the Smell Test
S+B: Suppose you’re talking to a strategically minded executive who sees the value of a normative approach to stewardship — but who also works in an environment where people are showing up at six a.m. to steal each other’s clients. What do you suggest?
Yankelovich: In my experience, any normative change in a corporation starts with the CEO. It’s very difficult to change the culture if the CEO isn’t taking the leadership role.
If you are a trusted executive, presumably you have a relationship with the CEO and with key board members. So you might suggest to the CEO that there be a corporate retreat. Bring in outside voices — employees, customers, government regulators, and investors — to get a picture of what cost or price the company is paying for practices that you think are OK. And then rethink your stand on stewardship.
To do that, I think you have to engage these outsiders in genuine dialogue. Not spin, not with a preconceived end in view, but open up the conversation and raise some hard questions: Which of our practices are doing more harm than good? Which are causing us to scant important constituents, like customers and employees? Then, what kinds of good things can we do? How can we address some problems of the larger society in a profitable way? If we do so, what impact will that have on our growth and reputation?
Among baby boomers, in particular, there is a predisposition to want to feel good about oneself. The notion of legacy is being raised as people get older. The earlier American tradition of doing well by doing good is coming back, because it is very important to self-respect.
In just about every company, there are already one or two officials who can be counted on to take an ethical view. They’ll say, “Look, I don’t care whether it’s legal or not; it doesn’t pass the smell test.” But the purpose of these dialogues is to ratchet the company’s view up another level, in the direction of stewardship ethics.
S+B: What companies have explicitly tried to ratchet themselves up and profited accordingly?
Yankelovich: I know stewardship is very much on the mind of A.G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter & Gamble, because we’ve talked about it. They’re hardheaded people at Procter & Gamble, and they’re studying the potential competitive advantage of being seen as a company of integrity.
S+B: If the Harvard Business School class of 1949 held a view of leadership as —