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Focus is key to effectiveness in CSR

Date: 4 Feb 2014

Some companies become particularly recognised for their social responsibility. It becomes part of what makes them famous. And the benefits of being numbered within these ranks are obvious. If you can inspire people with your achievements on the cutting edge between business and society, people will trust you more. You will bank some serious goodwill for when you need it.

But here's the thing. Nobody becomes famous for ticking all the boxes on the Global Reporting Initiative. Nobody inspires others because they have studied and implemented the spirit of ISO26000.

These frameworks are about the hygiene factor. They cover all the bases because, as is the way for all standards and frameworks, at their heart they are about minimum standards not peak performance.

Too often discussion is diverted onto the details of the frameworks as though they, on their own, would make the difference. You can see the mindset of this when you see how CR / sustainability reports are launched, and how they are presented.

Generally, the press release announcing the arrival of a new sustainability report will, in some token feeble way attempting to stir up some modicum of interest, list a number of the achievements of the company as detailed in the report. Whatever stats have come to the fore for that year will be scraped out and presented.

There is no prioritisation. No story or underpinning narrative. And if you look at the report itself, that impression is underlined. Lots of different issues. All given similar weight. Because, after all, we wouldn't want any stakeholder's pet issue to be left out.

People who train individual executives how to be personally effective - how to achieve greatness, even - emphasise focus. You need to know what your unique contribution is, and to really focus on that. You need to keep your major priorities down to no more than three. And then you genuinely prioritise what is important.

If your company had three major priorities when it came to its social responsibility work, you would see that in how you report. And, because you were really focusing on those priority areas, progress would inevitably be faster. You would, in relatively short order, become a sustainability leader in one or more of those areas because everyone else is spending all their time keeping every plate spinning at once.

So to begin with you should be able to define this: "what is my company's unique contribution to sustainability?" The point is that this question draws you towards a focus on what makes you distinctive. The answer to the question on your "unique contribution" can't be that you do the same as everyone else even if, in your mind, you think you do each of those things just a little better than the rest.

Let's take a couple of examples. Marks & Spencer is often feted for its big Plan A programme. But Plan A is just a name around a collection of initiatives. The reason why it works in the context of this discussion is that it gives a distinctive identity to the programme which becomes about size, scale of ambition, and public accountability. That can work - but the programme as a whole has to deliver that scale promise.

But where M&S is most distinctive is in some of its experiments to influence their customers. 'Shwopping' - encouraging your customers to bring something back when they come in to buy new - may not be the answer that leads customers to become more sustainable consumers - but it was asking a genuinely interesting question. It was distinctive, and Marks & Spencer may yet become genuinely famous for being the first retailer to innovate effectively in that area.

Patagonia is highly regarded for its 'Footprint Chronicles' - giving a geographical map of the stories within its supply chain. This one device, stylishly executed, has underpinned the company's credentials as an authentic leader in this space. But it is focused on doing one thing well. And that is the point.

So, having answered the question about your company's unique contribution, you should then identify your three top priorities within CSR. You are only allowed three. Seriously. And they should be areas where that unique contribution should have some expression.

Having identified those three, you can then start to think big. What should you have achieved in those three areas in five years time? Really ramp up the ambition. Suppose you were to become famous for what you had done in one of those three areas. What would it be? How different would your approach to CSR be if, whilst keeping up with the hygiene factor elements, those three priorities became the real focus?

How would you structure your team? How would you tell your story? How would you engage the Board?

And wouldn't that be a more interesting journey than simply plodding your way through the G4 wondering whether that might make a difference to the fact that nobody currently reads your reports?

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