Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Human Factor

After two weeks a final reflective moments on the Summit are in place. You might have got it by now that, yes, I am by and large optimistic about the Global Compact and in particular the Summit. On reflection, much of it comes from the one to one interactions I had during the event.

I already mentioned Peter Solmssen, Executive VP and General Counsel at Siemens. My first question in meeting those guys always was why on earth they cut out two days of their busy schedule to hang out at this conference. For him it was about giving the corporate world a 'face'. Having an 'intelligent conversation' between parts of society which normally don't talk to each other – business, government, civil society, academia – for him was one of the benefits of this meeting. And I could so see it – not only in the very open, relaxed and engaging way we chatted about these issues, but also in the way he took part in the conference.

While Peter represents a big multinational, most of the UNCG members – and in fact most of businesses globally – are SMEs. One of the impressions I took away that the cliché we sometimes have of business people can be totally wrong. We often see them as profit hungry machines. But many of them are in fact passionate about creating something, passionate about their contribution to society, their communities and their employees. On that note, the CEO of one of the Argentinean members of the Compact impressed me a lot. Gustavo Grobocopatel is the co-founder of a large Agrobusiness in Argentina and most of all, he stroke me more as an intellectual, and as he admitted somewhat tongue-in-cheek, an accidental entrepreneur. His rationale for supporting the Compact and being at the Summit was that he thinks the world 'needs new governance'. A system of governance where business is ready to live up to its responsibilities.

Of course, not all attendees were of this calibre. As Lord Hastings, the 'Master of Ceremonies' ironically intimated in his introduction to Thursday afternoon's half-empty auditorium of roundtables, some participants had succumbed to the temptations of 'supporting the local economy' – i.e. going shopping in New York. Fair enough, these guys would just turn up once, make sure they had signed in, and otherwise take the Summit as what I saw it in my earlier blog: a ceremonial exercise which boosts their PR. In this category I would put someone like Ali Koç, third generation of the Koç family and in charge of some of their vast business empire in Turkey, which boasts a remarkable record in philanthropy. That's why I was keen on talking to him. When I approached him, the terror of speaking to a 'journalist/blogger' was galvanizing his eyes. After haplessly communicating to his PR-girl, he mumbled something of 'having a flight to catch' and walked off, making some rude comments about journalists these days. He told me to send him my questions by email. Of course he never replied.

So leaning back, the Global Compact in my book counts as what I have referred to as 'mimetic processes' in the proliferation of CSR: it becomes a legitimate 'business' by virtue of many players in the organizational field engaging in a specific management practice. By providing a platform of visible exchange and commitment the UNGC has made it just 'cool', to put it bluntly, for companies to practice CSR.

The 'cool' factor, finally, also explains another remarkable feature of the UNGC: the Summit would not be possible without a veritable little army of volunteers, interns and alumnis of the GC, who invested much of their time for free to make the Summit happen. I hung out with them at the after party in a bar on 58th at the end of the Summit. Certainly in this generation of future business leaders, government officials or NGO activists the legitimacy of responsible business practices need no further discussion. Even to the extent, as one of them told me tongue-in-cheek after a few pints, that the UN Global Compact would struggle itself to live up to one or two of its principles on labour, in particular the 'fair wages' bit. But looking at the happy crowd dancing away to the remarkable one man band that evening, I can solemnly swear to bear witness to the fact that it definitely was not into the 'forced labour' category...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Corporate Pride

After talking about the G20 weekend in Toronto last week, we are happy to say that the last weekend was slightly different. And uplifting. Not only was THE Queen in town (the English, that is) but many more raunchy, outrageous and beautiful queens (and kings etc. for that matter).

It was the weekend of the Pride in Toronto and as always, it was a blast. And even the sky was laughing down – unlike the rainy G20 weekend – scorching weather and a lot of fun.

One thing that was striking this time was the dominant presence of big brands and corporations. Many of the wagons in the parade but also a large number of stands along the pedestrian areas represented private businesses. This did not only include the usual suspects, such as brands like Trojan (a condom manufacturer) or the Body Shop, but in fact the main sponsor of the event was one of the major four Canadian banks, TD Bank. And if one looks at the list of sponsors of the Pride you get the picture.

Now this can be looked at in two different ways. One could easily go up in arms and lament the fact that one of the few core events of counterculture, especially in North America, has now finally succumbed to corporate supremacy. Another example of 'Rebel Sell', as Jo Heath has attempted at stigmatizing the consumer patterns coming out of the hippie/alternative milieu of the late 1960s. 'Revolution' and 'Liberation' turning into just another consumption style.

I tend to disagree with this view. By and large, it is my impression that beyond islands of multiculturalism and liberal culture in North America, such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle and, yes, Toronto, North America is still largely a rather conservative place, governed by mostly religiously informed bigotry and, in this case, homophobia. So living up to your identity, if you are of the GLBT community, is often a risky thing. And that is why I find the corporate involvement so interesting.

By associating their brand with these communities corporations provide some crucial legitimacy to the causes of these minorities. And for me it gave a very palpable experience of how companies become a civic player. The Pride is no longer a loony lefty crazy communist side show, if major brands are publicly supporting it. Most impressive, I have to admit, I found the engagement of TD Bank. The banking industry is probably the most conservative and homophobic industry on the planet. I never forget when I was still in consulting in German in 1999, we had an assignment at a major German bank. Our team leader was gay, and open about it. And by being as he was, he found out that the department of some 30 employees we were working with consisted of 4 gay/lesbian colleagues, who prior to that did not even know of each other. Some of them in long term relationships – but too afraid of coming out.

Now, don't get me wrong. I acknowledge that these companies associate their brand and 'invest' in the Pride not without self interest. The GLBT community increasingly is important as consumers and investors. But the motivation is not really the point here. It is just the fact, that private corporations provide legitimacy to certain minorities in society. It is here where we see the 'political role' of private corporations. They are becoming, by dint of their financial power and dependency on public (and be it only: consumer's) consent key actors in shifting the priorities on how society should be run.

In that sense, I had my very private moment of enjoying the Pride.