The Value of Listening

Listen I wrote a post last week on The Changebase that seems to have hit home for some readers.

It was about the value of storytelling in CSR reports  as a way for companies to not only connect with various audiences but also to bring their sustainability stories to life.

Obviously, I’m a big believer in storytelling – otherwise I wouldn’t have written that post! Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had missed one crucial element: Listening.

Sure, storytelling is a valuable way for a company to get its CSR message across. But even this is still a very one-sided way of communicating.

With the increase in consumers wanting and expecting to have a more immediate and impactful voice on business today (especially via social media channels), it seems that the true CSR winners are those companies that not only tell stories, but that allow their stakeholders to shape the story that gets told.

Stakeholder engagement is an incredibly complex topic, and to be honest, I’m still learning about best practices in this area. If you can imagine that each business faces unique industry- and firm-level opportunities and threats, then it follows that each business must also consider and engage with a unique set of supporters, critics and third-party groups. Not only are there a lot of different voices to consider, but there's no one-size-fits-all model to follow.

Some companies (often the ones that have been burned by crisis or stakeholder anger in the past) have invested a lot of money in better managing these external and internal audiences. Nike and Gap, for example, are two companies I’ve heard (at least anecdotally) that have full departments dedicated to stakeholder engagement. Which makes sense since, in my opinion, it certainly sounds like a full-time job.

Timberland is another company that’s chosen to listen, not just talk. In its Voices of Challenge project, Timberland has created a platform for stakeholders to share ideas, discuss concerns, and create collaborative opportunities for the company.

We’ll be incorporating your feedback as we develop Timberland’s CSR strategy. We hope you’ll join the conversation by posing questions and comments and providing suggestions for how to approach opportunities and challenges. Let your voice be heard – join the conversation by clicking on the buttons below.

And here's an example of the type of contributions Timberland is getting:

Timberland Voices

By creating a two-way dialogue in which the company has the opportunity to hear directly from its stakeholders, Timberland wins a couple of big ways:

  • It earns additional credibility and loyalty from consumers, suppliers, NGOs and others who appreciate corporate transparency and authenticity, and who want to have a voice in Timberland’s business decisions
  • It solidifies the brand as forward-thinking, inclusive and progressive – all adjectives, by the way, that differentiate Timberland from its competitors and inevitably will help drive sales
  • It provides Timberland with additional raw data to understand who its stakeholder audiences are, what matters to them, and by extension, what should matter to Timberland.

Ultimately, when companies listen, they learn.

It’s the kind of no-brainer statement that any market researcher would agree with, yet when it comes to CSR, it’s not always so easy to do.

Companies often worry that by opening themselves up to a conversation with stakeholders, all they may get in return is criticism, anger and frustration. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens.

Yet this fear of being criticized should actually be outweighed by the possibility that true idea sharing can lead to innovations and developments that the company could not have conceived of on its own.

Funny enough, one of my research projects for this semester is to work with a marketing and communications firm to dive deeper into the opportunities that exist for companies to drive innovation, improvement and ultimately revenue by engaging their stakeholders. When you distill it down to our most basic research question, it’s this:

Can listening be a company’s competitive advantage?

Time will tell, but my initial hunch is that it can.

In the meantime, what’s your company doing to listen – I mean, really listen – to what your consumers, customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, and community members have to say? What ideas and insights could you gain from them that will make your business more effective, strategic and successful going forward?

The Value of Storytelling

Storytelling Picture this:

Four MBA classmates and I are sitting in a large, somewhat imposing corporate conference room at one of the world’s largest chemical and gas manufacturers.

In front of us sit 12 Director and C-level executives from our client company, and they’ve come here specifically to hear what we think – as MBA students, as potential employees and investors, and as concerned citizens – about their current sustainability reporting materials.

After four months of intensive learning about best practices in CSR reporting – as well as doing a deep dive into this company’s business and industry – we developed a set of recommendations that really centered around the following:

A successful CSR report doesn’t just tell impact – it tells stories.

Granted this is an oversimplification, but not by much! From what we could gather, it’s clear that this company is committed to not only reducing its own carbon footprint but also that of its customers. When it comes to being an environmental steward and good corporate citizen, this company is doing lots of things right.

Yet, all of this great work had been lost on us initially as readers; in fact, it wasn’t until just days before our presentation that we realized how stellar this company really was.

How could this have happened? How, after hours and days spent poring over their sustainability documents, could we have possibly missed the point?

It comes down to communication. While this company was obviously successful in its sustainability efforts, it had done so little to communicate its story that we’d almost missed it entirely.

With that we presented a number of recommendations on how to present content and provide context in ways that are engaging, interactive and customized for stakeholders.

At the end of the presentation, during the Q&A period, one of the executives asked: “Why does it matter if we don’t tell people about what we do in sustainability. Isn’t it good enough that we do something at all?”

To that our team answered an emphatic “No”. It’s not enough to just do something.

Sure, compGreenwashinganies need to be mindful of greenwashing. Consumers can certainly smell insincerity from miles away - and these days they've gotten even better at sniffing out fake green marketing claims.

Nonetheless, it seems to me (and others out there) that this concern about greenwashing has gone too far. In fact in some cases, greenwashing worries are actually holding companies back from saying anything at all about sustainability – mainly for fear that someone, somewhere will find something to criticize.

Ladies and Gentlemen of Corporate America, take note: 

A fear of greenwashing is not an excuse to stop you from telling your sustainability story!

In fact, by effectively communicating a company’s CSR successes – and, crucially, also its shortcomings – in authentic, transparent and collaborative ways, a company can achieve an array of benefits, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • Proving to investors that it’s focused on the long-term viability of the business
  • Giving consumers a voice and a stake in the company’s efforts to improve communities and the environment
  • Demonstrating to its employees that the company’s values and culture are aligned with their own
  • Engaging NGOs, the media and potential detractors in conversations around the company’s sustainability process, goals, and strategies.

By not focusing on the manner in which it told its sustainability story, our client company had inadvertently left very real value on the table – value that instead was being captured by competitors who had done a tremendous job on both the reporting and storytelling fronts.

Now, don’t get me wrong – to have a successful CSR program, a company surely needs to know its footprint, set strategic and forward-thinking goals, and report its numbers.

But to be a true leader in sustainability, a company must be able to go beyond its numbers and move towards an inclusive, engaging and heartfelt discussion with its stakeholders about its current sustainability journey.

In my research, I came up with a couple of good examples of companies that tell their sustainability stories in compelling ways (Cadbury, Shell, and Timberland, just to name a few). What companies do you think are doing a good job of communicating the story behind the numbers? I’d love to hear what you’ve found.