What Makes a Good CSR Leader?

Thursday, September 26, 2013
by Tim McClimon, President, American Express Foundation
I’m often asked what makes a good Corporate Social Responsibility professional, and what training and work experience someone who is interested in getting into CSR should have.
There’s no good answer to those questions, but there are a couple of studies that might be worth taking a look at: The Council on Foundations’ “Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership” and Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship’s “Corporate Involvement Leadership Competency Model” are both available through these organizations’ websites. There is also a terrific set of short pieces under the heading “So, You Want a Job in Philanthropy?” on the Philanthropy New York website.
Recently, a group of CSR leaders gathered under the auspices of the LBG Research Institute to discuss the matter, and the resulting short report (titled Advancing CSR Without a Corporate Responsibility Officer) lists a number of attributes that the group feels are critical for success. (The paper tries to make some distinctions between “corporate citizenship” leaders and “corporate responsibility” leaders, but I think they are pretty much the same so I prefer “CSR leader.”)
Those attributes are:
  • Be an excellent communicator. CSR leaders have to be able to talk to the company’s board of directors, the executive team, their peers in other areas of the company, employees at all levels, regulators, legislators, community and nonprofit leaders — all stakeholders — in appropriate language with a consistent message.
  • Be a charismatic, persuasive figure in the corporation. Besides communicating a message, CSR leaders are often called upon to gain cooperation from stakeholders for important programs to be implemented.
  • Be able to deal with complex situations. Because there are so many stakeholders in a corporation, the CSR leaders will often find him- or herself in situations that may be difficult or politically charged. Good CSR leaders are able to see different points of view, think on their feet, defuse the landmines and gain cooperation.
  • Be comfortable in both the for-profit and not-for-profit environments. An understanding of not-for-profits — preferably direct experience in them — is critical to be able to speak their language and to work with them effectively.
  • Understand the business and current issues in your industry. In order to understand different stakeholders’ point of view, a CSR leader has to understand the business, what drives revenue, what the risks are and the issues in the industry.
  • Understand your communities, their issues and needs. Like the business, if a CSR leader doesn’t know what is happening in their communities, they can’t be an effective, responsible citizen of those communities.
The paper also contains some advice for young people who want to enter the field:
  • Don’t rely on classes and certificate programs to get your foot in the door. They are nice to have on your resume, but they aren’t everything that you need to work in CSR.
  • Show that you are committed to social responsibility in your own life. You don’t have to lead a movement, but in what way have you personally made a difference?
  • Don’t think that you can come in and start giving away money. You will start at the bottom, and like every other field, the bottom means some boring grunt work.
  • Network, network, network. Get out there and talk to the people doing the work today. If you make an impression, they’ll remember you when hiring or when a friend is hiring.
  • Get experience in the nonprofit world. It is critical to understand how nonprofits work. Paid work is great, but if you can’t get it, volunteer. Then talk to the people working there about what it is like.
  • Stay abreast of current thinking in the CSR field. There are quite a few good blogs and papers out there as well as organizations putting out thoughtful research.
  • Be persistent, but don’t be a pain. Once you’ve connected with some CSR professionals, it’s okay to stay in touch. Update them on your career.
So, what do you think? Do these lists make sense to you? We would love to hear your thoughts. Please share them by clicking here and sending me a message. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog with colleagues.
P.S. Did you know that when Human Resources professionals at foundations (including private, family, community and corporate foundations) were asked by Philanthropy New York to list the qualifications that are most important when hiring program staff, they most frequently mentioned “strong writing skills”?
This post originally appeared on the American Express CSR Now! blog on September 16, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.
Find More By

News type 
Related Organizations