Three types of corporate responsibility manager

I don’t know many of you know Malcolm Gladwell’s work, but I think he’s brilliant.

One of his theories, paraphrased here, is that after doing something for about 10,000 hours, you ought to be pretty good at it. You ought to know how it works.

Gladwell says those with particular talent, who put in those 10,000 hours of hard work, can become great.

He talks about folks as diverse as Mozart and the Beatles to make his point. You could probably add David Beckham to that list too, for his dead ball skills. There are many others.

I can’t claim any particular talent, but I do reckon I’ve done my 10,000 hours in corporate responsibility over the last decade. If nothing else that’s due to my mildly obsessive nature.

I’ve met a lot of corporate responsibility people in that time, and these days I tend to put them, more or less, into three categories: (dangerous to do so, I know, but I’m being a little provocative here, deliberately)

1) The defender. They are the kind of corporate responsibility manager you hire when you don’t want to do much. They dash around involving their firm in various low level initiatives and obsess about things like the GRI Index in their social report, at best. Or they simply provide block tackles from their position within public affairs and oversee some community work. But at the end of the day, they are more about defending and maintaining the status quo than making real change. They’ll lead some small steps forward, but not much.

2) The frustrated realist. They have some great ideas about what their company could or should do, but can’t get the traction internally to deliver on it. They get things done almost un-noticed by senior management. Usually there’s someone on, or just below the board, who’s really not interested, and who stymies their ambitions. They get most done where regulation or enforcement looms large, such as on climate change or bribery and corruption. They often don’t stick around for more than the few years in the firm, understandably.

3) The change-maker. These are the interesting executives. They have senior support, from someone who has the ear of the CEO and turns his or her head, and they are given almost free rein to make a serious impact, as long as they make the business case consistently, and play internal politics with skill and care. If they are lucky, they can begin to make CR a core proposition of their business. These are folks who have done more than their 10,000 Gladwell hours, have talent, and it shows. When I meet them, I can tell they’ve been around the CR block, often for around 12-15 years.

We need more of number three in business, clearly. And we’ll see more of them.

As corporate responsibility matures, we’re seeing these change-maker executives lead real and exciting change.

More power to their elbows.


  1. Good observations from someone who's put in the time. Hope up and coming potential change-makers put in their time (or get the opportunity to) but don't need to wait 12-15 years to begin making organizational impact. I think more important than length of time is the person's ability to cultivate allies in senior roles that can really empower, encourage, and protect the actions of change-makers.

  2. Thanks John!

    I hope you are right about the 12-15 year mark, that's far too long!

    I think you are right about alliances.

    I fear cultural change at the top of organisations, the pace of which can prevent alliances, is the biggest problem.

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