Corporate Activism & Leadership Transformation — Part 3

Building Value and Impact with Passion-Driven Performance

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.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this post, we’ve started to explain why it works and should be considered by more leaders. Let’s see here two more reasons and wrap up our understanding of this leadership transformation.

4- Activism spreads

Activism is contagious. It is the viral effect that makes it mysterious or scary — because no one controls that. From a “No” — no, I won’t give up my seat in the bus to a white person — to the end of legal racial discrimination against millions of people. From a slap in the face of a fruit vendor to a wave of revolutions that shake the course of the world.

Apart from politics, a variety of topics can become viral: a video clip, a charity challenge, a commercial… What gets viral is pretty unpredictable. But the spread is not guaranteed either: if there was a recipe for a viral campaign, everyone would know. Only after a success do we identify the elements that favored a viral spread. And re-using the very same elements, in the very same sequence, rarely produces the same results.

Let me give an example of a personal flop here. At some point I got frustrated with the company policy for car expenses (we had to book cars from an expensive taxi company through a cumbersome process; simpler and cheaper solutions as Lyft or Uber were prohibited). Inspired by what had happened at IBM — a post on the internal social network that became viral and triggered a change in policy — I did the same: posted a call for change on our network. Absolutely nothing happened. I’m not even sure the post got any likes. The policy changed about a year after, but I had nothing to do with it!

On the other hand, when the viral effect works, it does magic. From a single email to 3 people, a movement for diversity ended up gathering 2,500 people across company offices in 50 countries, empowering many colleagues and myself, triggering an unprecedented chain reaction. Break Dengue, a movement aimed at connecting activists against the dengue disease, got 250,000 followers on Facebook in less than a year, back in 2013, turning into the #1 “share of voice” on dengue on social media. In just 6 months in 2015, the internal movement of quality activists that I support currently, engaged actively more than 5,000 people throughout our manufacturing facilities worldwide — without any communication support. Each of these movements has produced tangible outcomes that wouldn’t have happened without activists.

Power to word-of-mouth, peer-to-peer

A movement can spread without a heavy, costly communication infrastructure because of the passion that activists are able to share in their conversations with other people. Social media is important as it provides speed and a critical mass to the conversation; it also connects more randomly than in-person encounters do, thus fueling the movement with diversity. However, physical (“Away From Keyboard”) interactions are irreplaceable to ensure the spread, because they convey:

· Passion (vs reasoning) that carries a strong engagement power

· Freedom (vs requirement) that fosters autonomy and creativity

· Conversations (vs one-way communication) that enable to build co-ownership

· Person-to-person connection (vs role-based) that erases status barriers

· Peer-to-peer interaction (vs top-down) that is perceived as more trustworthy

In the quality activism case, to trigger massive energy around our Big Opportunity (our purpose), no corporate, top-down communication was necessary. It was even deliberately put aside from our strategy. A communication campaign would have actually undermined the authenticity and the credibility of the activist movement, thus limiting its viral expansion. When activists realized they needed some communication support, they went to their local Communication colleagues and built together whatever was needed. This way, they achieved something that they co-owned, that they were proud of, while building trust relationships with Communications through this partnership. A totally different result than if a communication campaign had been “cascaded” onto them.

5- Activism engages

It drives attention to something and “binds” people to take action. It is by essence role modelling. When some just talk, or think, activists act. There’s not clearer way to demonstrate that 1) the commitment is real, and that 2) it is possible to take action. This role modelling is much more appealing to others and collectively more constructive than any corporate exhortation.

Also, it makes commitment more sustainable than as with the typical company initiative. A cause that is dear to your heart isn’t abandoned in a blink, as you switch to a new project or a new job; you strive for impact and want to see results, whatever you do for work. This is not work, this is passion.

Engage people, but for what? An objection I’ve heard several times is: “the industry you work in has a great purpose” [my company makes vaccines] “…we are not as lucky” — products or services are more technical, more B2B, less live-saving, whatever. I believe this is not an unsurmountable obstacle. Any organization has customers or stakeholders to serve, and relies on people to do so. Any company can decide to put the human dimension at the center of what it does, and contribute to something bigger than itself. The difficulty in finding purpose may even be an opportunity; this way, you’ll need a real, deep conversation with your colleagues. Maybe several — great for building ownership. Companies with an “easy” purpose may skip this step.

The actual results of this new approach are not mere engagement. An engaged crowd of activists has some very real impact on their environment. To name a few, in relation to the personal examples I’ve mentioned earlier:

- The gender diversity activist community has connected and empowered women and men in the company (including myself, and I wouldn’t be writing today without this movement); has made the diversity topic visible; has triggered some (if not enough) progress in the women to men ratio among decision-making bodies of the enterprise; has stirred the creation of a meta-network that exchanges best practices across 17 companies and engages hundreds of people each year for a discussion around gender diversity topics

- The dengue disease activist community has built a partnership for collective impact on dengue prevention; has been named an e-Health case study by the World Health Organization, potentially inspiring others to improve public health; has mobilized the community for disease awareness and education; has connected experts and scientific experts working on the disease; has crowdsourced and funded new initiatives against the disease; has launched a dengue crowd surveillance system that improves the detection of the disease

- The quality improvement activist community has turned around the quality performance of a multinational manufacturing company in less than two years, making it possible to provide more vaccines to people who need them; has decreased human errors and the number of accidents by double digits; has significantly reduced the company write-offs, helping to reduce the shortage of vaccines; has made thousands of people proud of their work and of the countless awards and praises received from external stakeholders.

Conclusion: A Leadership Transformation

The breadth of topics and the magnitude of results tell it clearly: whatever the field of action, activism is a great way to drive employee and customer engagement up, as it is to build business performance. Corporate activism creates the conditions for rich and sustainable collective effort, based on passion and a diversity of input. It is time for organizations to foster activism, and to become activists themselves.

How? This needs to start at a leadership level. Moving towards an activist-minded organization can’t be delegated to a project team or to a consultant. Leaders need to embrace this mindset and to adjust their behaviors accordingly. Make sense with others about what you’re fighting for. Release control. Create space for dialogue with no preconceived idea about what will come out of it. Trust that people do better from their free will than from their submission. Use the social network. Speak about what makes you human. Unfocus from your status and privileges, reduce the power distance. Influence positional leaders and corporate gatekeepers (who traditionally operate in a control fashion, and rely heavily on intermediaries) to evolve. Bring people together around a co-created purpose. Engage your whole self, not just your professional persona. Become an activist leader. This is a good step for collective performance and corporate sanity.

To read further about activism:

o Albert Einstein Institution — Advancing freedom with nonviolent action. Works of Gene Sharp and Jamila Raqib

o Works of Marshall Ganz

o Works of Julie Battilana

o Works of Helen Bevan

o TED talks and articles about activism

o Podcast and interview about the Sanofi Pasteur experience of activism in the workplace

This piece was originally published on my friend Didier Marlier’s blog Enablers. More posts on my blog Comments, questions? Let me know what you think!