Corporate Activism & Leadership Transformation — Part 1

Building Value and Impact with Passion-Driven Performance

With some of my awesome co-workers - fellow activists & transformational leaders

I am writing this piece for all the rational minds who’ve asked, since I started practicing and speaking about “corporate activism”, what I actually meant by that.

This piece was originally published on my friend Didier Marlier’s blog Enablers. Here, I break down the (long) text in a series of shorter posts, for your reading convenience.

I believe that corporate activism is broader than “companies taking a stance on social issues” and it has the potential to propel organizations, people and society at large into a more positive future, so it’s important to get it right. I’m also writing for everyone in the corporate world who has their feathers ruffled by the word “activist”. It is actually a much more positive and valuable phenomenon than you imagine. But its value can only be harnessed by those leaders capable of evolving quite substantially their leadership practice and behaviors. Here’s why.

Do you believe in something that is bigger than yourself, your family life, your social enjoyment, your career plans? Is this something shared by others, who believe in this too? Are you actually doing something about it — taking action? Spending some time to advance this? Then, you’re an activist. Your action doesn’t have to be big, visible or recognized. All activists are not publicly acclaimed heroes. But anyone may do something, even small, for a “cause” — something they believe in — and feel good about it and somehow shape the arc of history a little bit.

We often think of activism in relation to movements for social justice, peace, democracy or other public issues. Very rarely do we consider activism in the workplace — as a force for good and as a business value generator. Yet, corporate activism may be among the most powerful drivers for excellence and innovation today. It is one that enables organizations to really maximize the opportunity provided by their people and deliver strong business performance. It is a new leadership strategy that we have experimented several times, with great results, in a large global organization. Why does it work?

Because activism:

- Connects, while preserving the benefits of diversity

- Propels, as one of the few effective techniques against busyness

- Moves, by virtue of emotions attached to a co-created purpose

- Spreads, without the need for a heavy communication infrastructure

- Engages, in a deep and sustainable fashion

Here’s how it works.

1- Activism connects

Contributing to a cause shared by others is naturally a great way to connect. Since this cause brings individuals together, it is a focal point that helps them overcome at least a bit their differences. Yet, they are not required to withhold their diversity; activism is voluntary activity — and a mindset — and no one has the authority to require that volunteers put aside what makes them, them.

A fundamental dilemma for collaboration is: how to leverage what sets people apart — their different perspectives that make collective work rich and relevant — without making these differences hamper decision making or sense of unity? Removing all frictions can be done through groupthink and consensus culture but obviously that’s not what we aim for.

In search of “alignment”

It is all the more difficult in large organizations since perspectives are shaped by functional silos, hierarchical positioning, internal competition reinforced by “performance management” systems. Traditional answers of organizations have focused on alignment, including:

- Organizational alignment (redrawing internal borders — an all-time favorite for newly appointed leaders)

- Communication alignment (exhortations, corporate slogans, information cascading from top to bottom)

- Mindset alignment (hiring for “cultural fit”, promoting people “with the right mindset”)

Another way to break internal barriers and embed diversity into operations is to have strategy rethought or flagship projects driven by various employees (appointed “change agents”) hand-picked across different functions, or countries, or generations… much more rarely across different hierarchical levels.

As the never-ending complaint against silos shows, all this fails at delivering the truly collaborative, cross-silo mindset that corporate leaders dream about for their teams. They would love the marketing folks to work better with the sales teams, R&D to interface better with production and vice-versa, and it seems to always remain an aspiration. Cross-hierarchy collaboration barely happens, as organizations address issues layer after layer. They may try to become flatter (again, a redrawing-internal-frontiers kind of response), but organizations stay blind to the negative effects induced by hierarchical distance, domination relationships and layered problem solving.

Funny enough, it takes non-work, often grassroots initiatives (women’s networks, car-sharing programs, running communities…) or enterprise resource groups to really break the silos. My first experience of true cross-function, cross-hierarchy work after 10 years in a large organization was when I joined forces with other colleagues to create a movement for diversity in the workplace. The collective intelligence at work there was admirable. Yet diversity is still often seen as a “societal” matter rather than as a corporate performance issue — despite the business case — and the achievements of this movement on collaboration have hardly been considered as worth learning from by the organization.

However, we have been able to apply the exact same dynamics to two critical business issues, first leveraging activism to support the launch of a new product (see the case here) then to improve manufacturing quality (read about the case here and in the book co-authored with Isabel de Clerq et al. Social Technologies in Business). Success in both cases shows how powerful activism is at connecting people, leveling out power distances while building on the diversity of worldviews.

It is particularly efficient as we leverage social media to enable connection at scale. Social media (in our experience, Facebook and Twitter with the external ecosystem; Yammer internally) is an indispensable enabler for intelligent collective action. The more accessible, free, uncensored — the better for viral expansion. I have a huge respect for the activists of the past who managed to mobilize people without the tools we have now. Today, no social media, no activism.

[To be continued in Part 2 — coming soon!]