To those of us on the outside, giant corporations are just impenetrable black boxes, the inner workings of which we know almost nothing about. We see the human and natural resources going in, and the pollution and executive remuneration coming out, and assume everyone inside is of the same mindset. As a result the dialogue between company insiders and activist outsiders is often one of the mutually deaf, with the gulf between us as large as the one BP filled with oil four years ago.
That was bad news for the environment, but a decade earlier it was globalised Capitalism that appeared to be on the ropes. The Multilateral Agreement on Investments had bitten the dust and the 1999 World Trade Association meeting had ended in bloody confrontation between protestors and police. The barbarians were at the gate and something needed to be done to safeguard the corporation.
Whilst they were fighting on the streets of Seattle, down at Yale Christine Bader was completing her MBA. She had already decided she was neither going to sell her soul for money, nor don a balaclava herself. She had been seduced by the Sun King, aka England's own John Browne, dapper CEO of oil giant BP.
Soon Ms. Bader was in Indonesia doing pioneering work to endure BP's Tangguh plant was built with minimum disruption to the local population. Then she was in Shanghai proving that you can do business in China without compromising human rights, before being seconded to the UN to help to write the international gold standards on the subject. And none of that was as easy I've just made it sound.
Meanwhile it all was all going horribly wrong for BP first in Scotland, then in Texas City, then Alaska and finally in the Gulf of Mexico. The company she done such good work for suddenly turned out not to be an ethical business, but a corporate villain. They had put short term profits over long term safety, had promoted those who cut corners and punished those who raised concerns, had ignored near misses and taken risks which with hindsight looked incredibly foolish.
Ms Bader had nothing to do with any of that, but how a person who is clearly clever than I am could spend the best part of a decade in such a dysfunctional organisation without smelling a rat is the question that runs through this book. Was she fooled? Did she just see what she wanted to see? Or was her part of BP different to the rest of the company?
Certainly Ms Bader admits to not looking too carefully behind the curtain. On the other hand BP's work in Indonesia and China, as well as the parallel progress on human rights in Columbia, was genuinely innovative.
Why? Certainly it wasn't too onerous for them; a few hundred thousand dollars spent as part of a multi-billion dollar project. But whilst Ms Bader is clear to repeat that isn't all about money, when outraged locals can cost a big company millions of dollars when they get spikey CSR does start to look like good value for money. All of which suggests to me, with my activist head on, that what the world really needs is not more CSR professionals, but more rioting mobs.
I suspect Ms. Bader knows this too. She's also aware of the contradictions of being a Corporate Idealist. She is cynical about a colleague working for an investment bank who was seemingly oblivious to where most of its money went, but at the same time she realises she was blind to most of what BP were doing as well. She also knows CSR people can end up just being wheeled out to help bury bad news.
But she also tells of the often cathartic experience of confronting the C-suite with the material evidence of how the decisions they make impact on the people at the bottom of the corporate food chain. It can take a big stick to get progress, but that change can be profound and genuine.
It's not surprising Corporate Idealists and Green activists don't always get along. They both want to save the world, but CSR people very rarely find themselves in Russian gaols or on the business end of police truncheons and you have two groups of people who are going to struggle to bond..
But despite that this book makes clear that the dance between insiders and outsiders is a complicated and important one. BP did well on human rights in Indonesia and China in no small part because Ms. Bader had a gang of NGOs breathing down her neck. Meanwhile in the Gulf they were left alone to do their own thing. So maybe it was actually my team that took its eye off the ball. Oops.
So the Corporate Idealist needs the NGO activist and vice versa. It takes two to tango. Ms Bader knows this, I think many Human Rights NGOs know it too, but how many of us Greens get the message? Not enough I think.
All of which makes Evolution of a Corporate Idealist essential reading, especially for corporate cynics like me. But don't buy it from Amazon. Got to your local independent book store and order it from there before they go bust. Even Corporate Idealists don't really want them to take over the world.
First of all, many people incorrectly believe that an idealist is necessarily "out of touch with reality" when, in fact, idealism and realism are not mutually exclusive. The greatest leaders throughout history were values-driven and attracted followers precisely because of a vision that, without exception, was based on ideals. In this remarkable book, Christine Bader focuses on her nine-year period employment by BP (1999-2008) during which she learned - and now shares -- valuable lessons that contributed to her personal growth as well as her professional development. Hers is indeed a journey of discovery.
Providing some background information is in order. As she explains: "I fell in love with that BP. And BP loved me back, giving me the opportunity to live in Indonesia, working on social issues around a remote gas field; then China, ensuring worker and community safety for a chemicals joint venture; then in the United Kingdom again, collaborating with colleagues around the world to better understand and support human rights.
"BP was paying me to help the people living around its projects, because that in turn would help its business. I was living the cliché of doing well and doing good. and I was completely smitten. My beloved company even let me create a pro bono project advising a United Nations initiative to clarify business's responsibilities for human rights, aimed at creating international policy to help even more people."
These brief excerpts describe "the good BP" during Bader's "best of times." And then Big Oil broke her heart, "the worst of times." She left BP to work on the U.N. project full-time. Some of the most interesting material in her narrative provides stories and reflections from other Corporate Idealists, noting that "while my story may be unique in its details, it is not in its themes" nor in the nature and extent resistance that Corporate Idealists encounter.
These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Bader's coverage.
o Papua: A culturally sensitive setting (Pages 2-6) o John Browne: A Different Brand of Oilman (6-9) o Security and Human Rights (20-29) o On [Bader's] Personal Front (37-42) o An overview of Bader's years in China (42-72) o Human Rights and BP Values (78-89) o A Global Debate (92-96) o End of the John Browne Era (98-104) o The Business and Human Rights Debate (109-115) o Protect, Respect and Remedy (116-122) o The End of the Beginning (134-137) o The Power of Normative Standards (137-140) o BP's "Perfect Storm" (164-166) o Supping with the Devil: Kofi Anan with Phil Knight (179-186) o A Sorting Function (201-208)
While re-reading The Revolution of a Corporate Idealist, I was again reminded of the fact that many of the companies annually ranked as the most highly admired and best to work for are also among those annually ranked as most profitable and having the greatest cap value in their industry segment. That is emphatically NOT a coincidence. Enduring principles and sustainable profits are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are [begin italics] interdependent [end italics].
After all of the best and worst of times that Christine Bader endured, her basic values remain intact but she has also developed what Ernest Hemingway once characterized as a built-in, shock-proof crap detector. When concluding her book, she observes, "The Corporate Idealist community sees both the challenges and potential of big business. We realize that we can't save the world -- we can even save every finger and toe. We can expound upon but not fully explain the disasters of our companies and industries, which is deeply unsatisfying to those who want simple answers and assurances. But we can nudge our companies toward a vision of a better future, one in which 'responsible business' and 'fair trade' are redundant, not novelties or oxymorons."
I hope that those who read this book -- especially those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one -- will become an active member of the Corporate Idealist community. There is so much important work yet to be done. As indicated earlier, I fervently believe -- as does Christine Bader -- that enduring principles and sustainable profits are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are interdependent.
It's all in here. The corporate lawyers terrified of disclosure. The failure of some executives to see either the business or the moral cases for securing social licence to operate, and those executives somehow always being slightly senior to the ones that do (the great and visionary John Browne being a notable exception). Transparency and its admitted risks versus benefits. Procurement departments that just don't get it. Pushing the message up the supply chain. The futility of shouting "ethics!" at a spreadsheet. The great high-level corporate policies, made in plush head offices, that somehow seem impotent at the muddy boots level, especially on the minor projects in out-of-the-way places where NGOs and the press are unlikely to tread.
All in all, a superb outline of the debates, battles and small victories along the way. The section on the U.N. illustrates that small - OK, sometimes even big - victories are possible, even in the context of that fundamentally flawed organization.
What's missing - and what I think is required for the big picture, is an insight into the world of the CSR contractors who prepare impact assessments and the like. In years of working for such contractors I have only heard consultants rewarded for being profitable by swiftly producing light-weight impact assessments, for successfully avoiding public hearings, for giving the client the report they need to present to (sometimes suspiciously un-rigorous) local permitting authorities. Never once for achieving what a social impact or human rights assessment is supposed to - i.e. to level the playing field between a powerful oil and gas company and the disempowered locals that have to play host to it. On one job I was informed by the project manager that my report was only impartial "in theory" as we were being paid by the client.
Such is the realpolitik of those who seek to make a living in the business of assisting multinationals to improve their performance. As Christine points out "we want to rock the boat, but we also need to stay in it".
This is punchy and very readable. A rare thing - a business book which manages, at least for us idealists, to be an exciting page-turner. Fabulous.
And its conclusion is heartening - that although we may be tearing our hair out at our failures, and at times the work can seem futile, the small successes we achieve collectively move the corporate responsibility message forward. At least we're on the right track.
I enjoyed this book. I picked it up as when considering a move into a sustainability position with a palm oil corporation - an industry that has as shady an image as big oil - and wanted to understand the personal and professional implications of "joining the dark side" as one of the interviewees in the book puts it. I found it an honest and inspiring account of what it's like to try to change organisations from within and why that is as important as campaigning from the outside. The book itself is more of a memoir than a "how-to" and I would have liked a bit more discussion about how to drive such changes and how to overcome the internal difficulties. I would also have liked to dive deeper into how to personally reconcile the inevitable position that Corporate Idealists find themselves in - being simultaneously part of the problem and part of the solution. In addition, the book is focused on human rights (her expertise) and a broader discussion would have been more valuable for me. But overall, I recommend it for anyone, especially those with a professional situation similar to the author. For my own situation, I combined it with reading Giving Voice to Values by Mary C. Gentile, which is a very useful handbook for anyone but especially good for those working in difficult industries
5.0 out of 5 stars The fastest I ever read a non-fiction book, May 8, 2014 By MBaghuis This review is from: The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil (Kindle Edition) As various people from my network tweeted about it, I got intrigued and pre-ordered a copy of Christine Bader’s book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down! I generally read non-fiction at my desk, but this book I read on the couch, in bed, on holidays and at my desk. I finished it in less than two weeks, which is rare for me for a non-fiction book.
I enjoyed reading her personal stories of driving change - and the many anecdotes she has put in from her vast network of corporate idealists. The book closes with a clear manifestor the corpodate idealist - which we can all post on our walls to remind us that change is never easy, but it's all worth it!
I even wrote a blog about the book, based on her manifesto, adding my personal thoughts and anecdotes. [...]
Bader's book puts in words experiences, feelings, doubts and convictions of thousands (millions?) of people out there who are convinced that companies can be a force for good. A fantastic read for people wondering what CSR means in real life, for sceptics and pessimists who can get a realistic account of whether and how CSR works, for students in human rights who want to get an accessible intro to the topic of business and human rights, for citizens who wonder what might hide behind (in)famous corporate news lines. But most importantly, this book a rallying call for everyone working within companies to try and steer them on a responsible and sustainable path. By reading this book, you'll see you're not alone, that many other people share your struggle and passion. It gives motivation and inspiration to carry on, and wave high the flag of 'corporate idealists'.