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Certainly not the blog post I planned on writing after spending two weeks in New Delhi, India but I am compelled.
Today, McDonald’s hosted a Twitter chat with VP of CSR Bob Langert. The motivations are many for a company that is besieged for its product line and constantly under fire.
In fact, last year at a diversity benchmarking event at Hamburger University, I had the opportunity to hear the McDonald’s executive team discuss a whole host of business practices and strategies, including diversity (led by Global Chief Diversity Officer Pat Harris), employee learning and corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Here’s a snapshot of what I wrote then:
There is an argument that some companies–such as those that deal in weapons and tobacco–just can’t do corporate responsibility in a meaningful way. As a result, they are often excluded from CSR rankings and benchmarking exercises.
But what about a company like McDonald’s constantly under fire for its products? How does the world’s largest fast-food chain practice corporate social responsibility that is both contextual and real?
Led by Senior Manager for Corporate Social Responsibility Kathleen Bannan, who began her presentation by saying “CSR is everybody’s business,” the day-long event proved both thought-provoking (how does a company who doesn’t enjoy corporate America’s most favorable retention rates or the public’s uniform love tackle responsibility and that ever-amorphous doing the right thing?) and insightful (McDonald’s is among very few companies to institute an employee resource group for its white male workforce).
What happened today, however, was an effort at cautious transparency and an attempt at crowd sourcing corporate social responsibility.
The questions were introspective:
And the answers, alternatively useful, creative and critical.
But then I saw this:
Now McDonald’s is not the first company to host a Twitter chat by any means. I have personally attended several as well as hosted a few — including one coming up next week with UPS’ Chief Sustainability Officer Scott Wicker — with varying levels of participation from a usually diverse set of activists, journalists, executives and consumers.
Never before, however, have I been handed a “Twitter Chat Policy.”
An indication of things to come or…?
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Last year marked the inaugural year for my participation in both conferences. I came back encouraged, informed and enthused about the work ahead of us. [See: Can MBA Students be Taught Humility? and The Sustainability Jobs Debate] This year – perhaps because I have been deeply immersed in the CSR space – I feel a bit bereft, despite invigorating conversations and inspiring keynotes.
Don’t get me wrong.
While the Net Impact panels once again illustrated an incredibly knowledgeable student body set to graduate in coming years, BSR attendees and speakers showcased high aspirations and a deep understanding of the complexity of issues that face us today.
Throughout the seven days, I was continually questioned: Did you learn something new? What trends have you identified from all that you have heard? And each time I thought, what’s missing? Why am I not coming up with any articulate answers? Is my brain fried or is it something else?
As a receiver of information, I was among familiarity, maturity. While last year the conferences motivated and inspired, this year the conversations focused on strategies, case studies, examples, successes and failures.
As Dave Stangis, VP of CSR for Campbell Soup articulated at a panel on Blue Sky Thinking during NI11, “CSR is no longer about identifying the business case. Today, we have evolved from questioning why to answering how.”
The Net Impact panels focused on nuts and bolts, dos and don’ts, a far cry from years past. The BSR roundtables featured honest evaluations, admittance of failure, collaborative statements of success and practical tips for newcomers.
Here then, are the top five trends I observed at two of the year’s most well-attended conferences on corporate social responsibility, innovation and sustainability:
1. We LOVE Shared Value:
Michael Porter’s “creating shared value” has appealed to the corporate sector like no other concept in recent years. Not corporate social responsibility or corporate sustainability, citizenship or conscious capitalism. There seems something so potent about shared value that CSR and sustainability executives cannot stop talking about it! A year ago, they would tell me “CSR is embedded in our DNA.” Now that statement has evolved to “Our culture has always been about creating shared value.”
Point is, CSV offers us nothing more radically new than the concept of CSR. It dictates the same concept of stakeholder engagement, mutual benefits, holistic bottom lines. But it has resonated by removing the morality that responsibility instantly dictates. For CSR and sustainability executives who have to make the business case to their C-suite, creating shared value provides them with their business case.
2. Familiarity breeds contempt
I found several attendees tell me how repetitive some of the sessions were, that they didn’t learn too much that was new or revolutionary. Perhaps it was because the same folks were attending the conferences every year? Earlier this year I wrote on Forbes’ CSR blog that instead of attending the conferences every year, we should send a colleague the following year so that we can actually widen the net of information and inspiration.
This continues to hold true: Chances are, every year there will be some common denominator at these conferences. With issues like energy conservation, water scarcity, poverty, community relations and employee engagement remaining the overarching topics, why not let one of the non-converted/uneducated learn next year?
Lesser chance of you suffering from conference fatigue.
3. Where are the CSOs?
In September, Ellen Weinreb, a prominent CSR and sustainability recruiter, released a report titled CSO Back Story*. Essentially, the report tracks every executive with the title of chief sustainability officer among the U.S.’s publicly traded companies. Her research points to 29 such individuals. While it omits the many hundreds of officers holding a wide breadth of titles ranging from CSR director to VP for sustainability and social responsibility, the report pinpointed several best practices and the continuing lack of standardization on how companies define, prioritize and implement corporate responsibility.
But I digress. [See what Corporate Secretary had to say about the report or download the complete report here.]*
Point is: Only two of the 29 CSOs Weinreb identified were in attendance at BSR: Coca-Cola’s Beatrice Perez and UPS’ Scott Wicker. Both were named CSO sometime this year. Where were the others? Wasn’t the conference meant for CSR and sustainability executives to come together for three days of knowledge sharing and benchmarking? What happened this year?
4. The Emotional Quotient
Both conferences featured wonderfully articulate keynote speakers, including KaBoom’s Darryl Hammond, Keen Mobility’ Vail Horton, Nike’s Hannah Jones, Al Gore, Strauss Group’s Ofra Strauss, Anheuser Busch’ Carlos Brito and Best Buy’s Brian Dunn.
Hammond discussed how his childhood taught him the importance of play in a kid’s life. Strauss emphasized how her consumers and conflict-ridden Israel continues to teach her the right way of conducting business, of stakeholder engagement, of business being the real power in solving social problems.
Dunn on the other hand, focused on humility, responsible leadership and the importance of connecting with employees and consumers.
While last year’s speakers evinced more pragmatism, a businessman’s stoicism, this year the air held tension, an unspoken worry that things were going wrong too quickly, that we all needed to wake up. Quickly. The speakers were talking of soft – un-businesslike some would say – attributes: Social responsibility, connecting, respect, and the human condition, even destitution.
What had happened?
Let’s see: A recession that instead of leveling off, seems to be spreading across generations and countries for starters; a growing understanding that each of our actions – and inactions – impact many others in the world; a disastrous lack of trust for business; and a generational divide that seems to be holding the current decision makers accountable for their decades of excess.
Is business leadership finally waking up to their societal stakeholders?
5. Occupy Wall Street: Ignore or Engage?
Almost every keynote brought up this mass of undefined protestors that have continued to expand beyond American borders. Net Impact’s Executive Director Liz Maw opened the 2011 conference by asking attendees to “Occupy Wall Street but from within.”
Al Gore said, “Business must respond,” and that “it wasn’t a question any more.”
Ofra Strauss showed a three-minute video of the protestors equating them to civil unrest and a grassroots movement of discontent that business has to recognize and address.
At my BSR panel on hyper-transparency I brought up this commonality in one of my responses and posed a question for the audience: Will business ever think of these protestors as stakeholders? To my surprise, Jeff Mendelsohn from New Leaf Paper said that he and fellow attendees had, in fact, invited the Occupiers during a recent conference and that “The dialogue proved very productive for business and the protestors.”
Will anyone else follow?
*Full disclaimer: I worked with Weinreb on the report.
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“The greatest way to change the world is _________.”
In the next half an hour that followed, the former — and the first ever — CSR director of BBC offered observations that felt alternatively poignant, realistic and perhaps unattainable.
On America’s prison system:
We must recognize that social dysfunction is a critical part of our reality and is perilously expensive.
I say this with the utmost respect in my heart for the victims of 9/11: It has cost us one trillion dollars and over 6,700 deaths to avenge one event. Within hours, what was supposed to be the war on illiteracy – remember the picture from that day of President Bush reading to a classroom of kids? – became the war on terror.
Today, we are facing the repercussions of that decision. Now, we must switch on our acutest sense: Our intuition and listening power.
[We have to figure out] how do we respond? Because we have to. These protests must drive transformation, which can only come through sacrifice, only by accepting responsibility.
On the answer to changing corporate culture and mindsets:
The answer is cynicism. This is an understanding that I am responsible for the conflicts around me, that I absorb the duty, steel my back and face society to do the unexpected.
We cannot build a reputation on what we are ‘going to do.’ Our moral fiber, clarity of values, past record and leadership contribute to our ultimate reputation.
On the role of people in business growth:
A change in reporting is occurring that will correctly calculate the real assets of a business. Integrated reporting offers this framework for the future. We’re in a time when the idea of responsible capitalism is becoming a part of business strategy. We must continue with it.
And his answer to the earlier question?
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Interesting segment of Piers Morgan Tonight on CNN with Michael Moore in the hot seat and a live town hall to discuss Occupy Wall Street. Some of the highlights that made me think:
Who is to blame for today’s mess?
MM: One hundred percent corporate America. I don’t blame the government because corporate America funds and rules the government. The politicians act as their funders ask them to so blaming D.C. isn’t going to help anyone. The root cause is corporate America.
Are the “Occupiers” against capitalism or capitalist greed?
MM: Depends on who you ask. For students, this is about the debt they have when they graduate. For the parents, it’s the mortgage they owe on a house that is worth less than half of what they owe in debt. For many others, it is unemployment, lack of affordable health care, the manipulative bank industry and so much more.
Apple has more employees in China today than domestically and in many ways the company has become emblematic with capitalism. Isn’t China at least part of the problem?
MM: Part of the problem yes but do you know how much debt a student has when he/she graduates from Peking University? Zero dollars. American students? An average of $35,000.
It all started when General Motors decided that making $4 billion in profits wasn’t enough. That they had to stretch it to $5 billion and to do so, they would have to migrate tens of thousands of jobs to China.
And guess what, if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were two entrepreneurs trying to start Apple today, they would have received no help from their local or national banks. That’s the America we are living in today.
Also on my radar, the excellent coverage on CSRwire’s Talkback lately re: Occupy Wall Street:
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Earlier this week I was at the annual PRSA conference in humid and beautiful Orlando, Florida. Before you think that I have switched tracks from journalism to PR, stop right there! I was on site to speak on an interestingly personal topic: Sustainability: Walking the Walk.
Sustainability: Walking the Walk with CSRWire & Ethical Markets
Joining me on the panel were CEO of CSRwire Joe Sibilia and Executive Director of Ethical Markets Rosalinda Sanquiche. Sibilia started off the panel by talking about Occupy Wall Street. Not because he wanted a room full of dissent but because for Sibilia, as he emphasized on a recent Fox Business show, OWS goes to the heart of corporate social responsibility: A responsible capitalist system that takes into account a business’ social, economic and environmental stakeholders.
From a room of roughly 45 attendees, almost everyone raised their hands. However, when he followed up by asking how many understood what the protestors are demanding, the hands fell to a single digits. So, before I go any further, here’s a two-part question for you:
Here’s the thing: Because so many continued to disagree with the holier-than-thou voice of CSR, claiming it is another cost business doesn’t need, a burden, not a business priority, so on and so forth, Michael Porter gave us an easier concept to embrace: Creating Shared Value.
You Don’t Get CSR? How About “Shared Value”?
Many more understood the economical efficacy offered by shared value than the tardy, accusatory and undefined acronym of CSR. But CSR as well as creating shared value are concepts spearheaded by economists, business leaders, researchers and activists.
Now we are all being forced to recognize and acknowledge a movement created by the average Joe (no pun intended!) demanding business to be more responsible, equal and just.
They want to be able to work, to have a home, a family. They want the right to live comfortably.
In other words, corporate social responsibility.
Yes, it’s one and the same thing, except now it’s not the activists or the bloggers taking up the case but an undefined mass of people who come from different backgrounds, experiences and age but are commonly united on one front: Fairness.
Regardless of whether you physically join the Occupy Wall Street protestors, it is far more important that you understand their message and recognize that this is your one chance to make things right.
Yes, You the Average Employee Can Make a Difference
So, go ahead: Nudge your boss to offer job sharing opportunities to candidates.
As a job candidate, question the recruiter on the company’s mission, values, priorities. As a student, ask your faculty to discuss business cases in context of economic recessions, environmental degradation and social upheaval.
Ask the tough questions, the right questions. As Michigan’s Ross School of Business Professor Aneel Karnani recently said, “You get the kind of government you vote for.” We as professionals and students get the kind of corporation we choose to work for.
This is your chance to influence business as an employee, a manager, and as a prospective candidate. For the longest time we have been told to vote with our dollars. Now it is time to vote with our expertise and professional skills.
Question is, are you up for it?
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There is a lot of love for social media among many in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability community. [Take this short survey and have your say: Useful, necessary engagement tool or hate it and a complete hassle?]
Lucy Marcus, founder of Marcus Venture Consulting, for example, posted a blog today on Harvard Business Review, that talks about a particular Groupon deal that annoyed her enough to tweet about it and how that rose several eyebrows and an eventual resolution.
David Connor recently wrote about his love for Twitter, calling it a fascination and being constantly impressed by the simplicity of engagement and the tangible sense of community the platform provides. In his post, he alluded to a recent confession of mine, simply titled: In Defense of Twitter: 5 Reasons Why I am a Mad Tweeter, which was a response to an alternatively headlined Wall Street Journal article.
For those interested, here is a recount of my top five:
1) Community: Twitter has provided me with a very diverse community of individuals who are eager to engage, argue and collaborate.
2) Soundboard: Without the 20 odd tweets I send out every day, I wouldn’t get any work done. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know—but it’s true. You’ve got to go where your audience is. They have a voice and they like to use it—and as a blogger, hearing what’s working and what’s not is inarguably essential.
3) Collaborations: And of course, without Twitter, I wouldn’t have made HR Examiner‘s Top 25 HR Digital Influencers for 2011 or named among the Top 100 Thought Leaders by Trust Across America. Nor would I have been able to successfully put together the recent panel on responsible business with Carol Sanford, Jeffrey Hollender, Sarah Murray and Bank of America, or been able to interview thought leaders like Campbell Soup’s Dave Stangis, PwC’s Shannon Schuyler, EMC’s Kathrin Winkler and many others while at Vault—and collaborated with enterprising students like Ashley Jablow, Catherine Chong, entrepreneurs like Myles Lutheran and the EDF Climate Corp fellows, or published the much-referred to series on job hunting in CSR.
4) News: Believe it or not, Twitter has become a significant source of my daily news. With the help of coordinated lists, I can scan the morning news in one stream all at one source.
5) Innovation: How many times have you read an 800-word article in one the mainstream newspapers and thought “Wow, that’s interesting, I wonder how I could learn more” or “I’d love to get involved” but haven’t known what to do next? Well, because it’s so easy to connect with others on Twitter without having to jot down strenuous emails or phone calls, now you can!
But Connor also brought up transparency and corporate accountability.
And here is where most companies struggle with the plethora of choices available today under the domain of social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, and the new kids on the block BranchOut and Google+, to name just a few.
So, how helpful are these channels? BRANDfog, a social media and CSR consulting firm launched a survey last week that begins to dig deeper into some of these questions.
Should CEOs be engaging on Twitter for example? Does that help gain trust with customers, loyalty with employees, or raise the bar on transparency?
Has social media become a benchmarking tool for prospective candidates in their recruitment decisions?
And does a presence on social media help companies illustrate their brand values, mission and corporate citizenship?
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Because we expect ambitious and aggressive goals from leaders, and at Timberland, this expectation is part of everyone’s job.
Before the boot maker announced its new set of revised sustainability goals earlier this week, I caught up with Timberland’s new Vice President for CSR Mark Newton on his new role, the goals, as well as their latest efforts at stakeholder engagement: Timberland’s new Communications Portal.
Sustainability: From Apple and Dell to Timberland
Newton, who has spent his entire career working on sustainability at electronics giants like Motorola, Apple, and most recently Dell, understands that the road ahead will be rocky as Timberland completes its merger with VF. VF owns several outdoor brands like The NorthFace, Wrangler, Jansport and Nautica.
We started with the new 2015 goals. What’s new about them?
“Focus,” said Newton. “Moving forward it is very important that we create focus for our companies, including a commitment to innovate from cradle to cradle.”
Timberland’s 2015 Sustainability Goals
Set in four broad categories of Climate, Product, Factories and Service; the goals are ambitious and aggressive, if not new or radically life-changing. I asked Newton the purpose of each category.
Climate: “This is a topical focus for us if not so much a functional one. But we’re not saying we’re going to be singularly focused on climate change but that this affects our customers and decisions and therefore, we must equip them with decisions and the right products.”
Product: “At some point we all want to start creating innovations that have a zero footprint. The idea is to move toward a vision of a closed loop product lifecycle. You can see where we are and where we want to go. It is directionally correct.”
Factories: “We have an obligation that is not just transactional to our suppliers, employees and other stakeholders. The whole idea of sustainability is to stay in business. In perpetuity, we cannot do that without treating our employees well and scaling our business properly.”
Service: “Timberland was founded on the idea of commerce and justice, of giving back and creating value. We offer our employees 40 hours to volunteer every year. Today we are asking what the impact of that workforce is. Where are we going with this, how do we prioritize our efforts and do it well?”
What underlines all of these goals and their success, however, is engaging and changing consumer behavior.
Changing Consumer Behavior: Timberland-style or VF-style?
Earlier this year, at the Annual GreenBiz conference, Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz said that sometimes companies have to lead consumers by taking a stand on what is right. “You cannot always wait for consumer demand to dictate your decisions,” he said.
Now with Timberland becoming a part of the VF family, are dynamics shifting? Will the merger bring a renewed and united effort in the apparel industry to shift consumer behavior or lead to inertia and inaction?
I put the question to Newton, who while new in his role, is a veteran in the consumer products industry. “We are having several conversations around this. We are Timberland and we will always be that. This is the reason people are interested in EarthKeepers and we will continue to move the needle,” he said.
What about Swartz’s inspiring declaration? Newton offered Timberland’s EarthKeepers product line as an example:
“The ultimate goal of every company that is working on sustainability is to be able to drive top line growth because of its sustainability efforts. It’s very rare to see top line growth associated with these things, many companies are running leaner and end up staying within compliance. At Timberland, our EarthKeepers product line is actually doing that with double-digit growth in the first quarter.”
Authentic Communications: Engage the Consumer, not Just Inform
With skepticism already high in the market, there is a fine line between selling more units and ensuring responsible consumerism. EarthKeepers seems to be clearly bucking the trend and providing a new, profitable way of doing business sustainably.
Was this growth the result of consumer education, eco labels, or increased communication?
“Authenticity. We’re finding success because it is authentic. We are intentionally focused on products that are environmentally friendly and socially conscious. And we are committed to continually communicating that. We’re not waiting for everything to become perfect, we’re putting it out there and calibrating it as it evolves,” he said.
Examples? Newton offered the eco-index, which Timberland was instrumental in creating and pushing out. “We are promoting the index so we can create real change and movement. That’s exciting and offers us a chance to drive real, calculable change,” he added.
What VF brings to the table then is scale. “VF has been a partner for years on making the process much more efficient. Now the merger will allow us to collectively drive things that Timberland alone simply cannot do. This bigger opportunity is huge for us,” he emphasized, adding, “It’s also not just forward-looking things and what we can do upstream. VF has a very efficient process in place because of their brands. We have had limited impact there but now we can have much more.”
Timberland’s New Communications Portal: CSR in Real Time
With Timberland already being aggressively visible and vocal in the consumer marketplace, why did Newton and team feel the need to launch a new CSR communications portal?
“We’re segmenting the conversations on our website around products and around topics so everyone has a better sense of clarity. Even though our authenticity ensures that sustainability conversations become natural in all parts of our business and you don’t have to go to the CSR portal to have a CSR conversation, we felt that different stakeholders have different perspectives. You can still go to the products portal and have the same conversation as you would on the CSR portal, because the intentional design, how we conduct business with suppliers and community issues are woven into the product and the product description.”
Why then is the new portal necessary if sustainability is so intricately embedded into the work culture at Timberland?
“We are having conversations with a very vast and diverse spectrum of people, from wholesalers and retailers to direct consumers. They all come with very different demands and perspectives and we want to offer them the opportunity to engage in the language they understand best,” he explained.
Fully integrated with social media tools, the portal is designed for consumers looking for details on green products, interesting stories and much more. Not only can you go to the redesigned portal and discuss Timberland products, you can also discuss the team’s CSR efforts, join ongoing conversations through their Bootmakers blog, and chime in on more topical discussions around the Green index and climate change.
Admittedly, many companies continue to struggle with this balance between preserving the granular stuff and promoting more general conversations around products.
For Timberland, the answer was to lead in both.
“People can go granular as they want or stay as generalist as they’d like. What’s different about the portal is that we are not starting conversations by discussing one of our pillars or metrics but focusing on stories that matter and then getting to the things that are underneath those stories; this marks a fundamental shift for our website,” Newton added.
Being a communications geek, I can definitely attest to Newton’s excitement about this new portal. The ability to throw open your business practices and product lifecycle to your stakeholders takes gumption and a resolute belief in transparency.
The Timberland team knows that this throws the door open to endless questions and scrutiny but Swart’z recruits are used to that and know that open engagement is the only way to maintain authenticity and empower their stakeholders toward sustainability and a zero impact footprint.
This is mission critical for Timberland.
As Newton put it, “Regardless of what happens post-merger, we are all in this together. Our values are integrated into all of us and everyone who works here. Jeff Swartz might be the leader but you can expect to hear the same things from all of us.”
This is Timberland’s — and VF’s — opportunity to drive the apparel industry toward a more sustainable future. The 2015 goals are the means to an end, a future that VF and Timberland can now together impact much more powerfully.
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Last week I was at Best Buy headquarters in Minneapolis to moderate a live webinar with its CSR and sustainability executives. Joining me: Mary Capozzi, senior director of CSR, Leo Raudys, senior director of environmental sustainability and services compliance, and Hamlin Metzger, senior manager of corporate responsibility.
The agenda: To discuss Best Buy’s annual Sustainability Report and offer a live audience on Livestream and Twitter the opportunity to ask questions in real-time.
My job: To question, dig and examine, while moderating questions between the panel and the audience. About 20 minutes into the webinar, which is archived below — well worth a listen whether you are a sustainability nut, a tree hugger, a nonprofit exec, a job seeker or simply an electronics user — questions started streaming in.
From conflict minerals to employee education, every question was fair game. While @Gchesman asked whether being a well-known company affects the level and degree of time and money spent on CSR and sustainability, @Davidcoethica wanted to know how Best Buy can better balance its role as a promoter of consumption of products against a sustainability ethos, and Robin Cangie wondered how Best Buy can help us all become more responsible consumers?
The conversation, thanks in part to an active and engaged audience, and wonderfully diverse questions, was invigorating, informative and challenging.
Barring the repeated mentions of their recycling efforts — sorry Leo, its a pet peeve — which to be fair is a huge and important undertaking for the global electronics retailer, the panelists were clear, comprehensive in their responses and unapologetically honest about their challenges: That there is a ton of work ahead and that they hadn’t figured it all out yet.
But as David Connor wrote earlier this week, when you’re a global player like Best Buy, expectations are higher as well. Did Best Buy live up to the expectations of CSR activists? Perhaps not.
Flip the coin though for a second.
Did they go on the defensive when I asked them why their retention rates were remarkable (74%) but the diversity of their recruits (12% African-American, 14% Hispanic; 180,000 employees) was quite underwhelming? No.
Did they dodge repeated questions about educating their supply chain, influencing consumer decisions, or the recently drafted UN Guiding Principals on Human Rights? No.
Bottom-line: Capozzi and team did not have all the answers but they didn’t pretend to either.
And that’s where, as an independent journalist, they get points from me for an attempt, however small, at open transparency, willingness to be accountable, and daring to do something new.
Remember the 11 Challenges for Corporate Sustainability? Well, a significant number of those relate to fear. For the Best Buy team, this webinar was a successful exercise in effectively addressing their own fears.
And that is where they just won one for their team of blue shirts.