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Studying a Growing Niche: What Does Being a CR or Sustainability Professional Mean?

By CSRWire Blogs

Submitted by Dr. Donato Calace

Corporate responsibility (or its sister concepts such as sustainability, corporate citizenship, and the like) may have won “the battle of ideas”, being awarded with the status of its own in business schools and having dedicated departments in the world largest companies, it still remains a tucked away exotic island compared to well established continents of other management disciplines, such as strategy or marketing.

Despite the explosion of the field in the last 20 years, we know very little about the exotic flora and fauna that populates these departments. Who are these CR professionals? How do they work together? How do they differ from other business professionals? 

My colleague from Cass Business School, Szilvia Mosonyi, is writing a roadmap to this emerging occupation of CR professionals. She presented her preliminary results based on interviews with 40+ CR in-house professionals and consultants in a report available here. In detail, Szilvia observed the dynamics of the client-consultant relationship, pointing out similarities and peculiarities that characterise the CR field.

Having spent my 3 year doctoral programme studying CR and sustainability, and being an ESG Specialist for eRevalue today, Szilvia’s research really resonated with my professional identity, and gave me food for thought on how to be a better CR expert.

One of the key takeaways of the research, is that experts working in the field of CR perceive their professional relationships as distinctive compared to other management disciplines (e.g. strategy, IT, marketing).

In particular, the distinctiveness is articulated in three different aspects:

  1. The field is ambiguous, niche, and evolving.  It is multidisciplinary and often requires a combination of innovative thinking and comprehensive technical knowledge.
  2. The projects are more collaborative and outcomes are often intangible, which results in a hard to prove business case.
  3. Individuals are passionate, value-driven, and strongly motivated by the purpose to make a positive impact in the world.

Such sense of distinctiveness has important consequences in terms of relationship factors that drive success, pose threats, or generate tensions. Indeed, in a field where most of the time “there are no manuals, templates, or frameworks to follow, and there is uncertainty regarding initiatives and solutions”,  honesty and interpersonal qualities are key factors of success. In fact, being a successful CR professional requires connecting people rather than organizations.

The main aim of CR professionals lies in changing mindsets within the organizations, and that requires constant commitment combining technical, interpersonal, and, last but not least, selling skills. The challenge is to make projects economically viable, from both consultant and client perspectives. This implies continuous tension to provide sound business case to budget holders, as well as setting realistic expectations on what can be achieved within the time and resource constraints of the project. Not by chance, the main threat factors in the field are indicated as miscommunication of expectations, time, stereotyped ideas of what CR is and what it entails, quality of delivery, and pricing.

Based on her analysis, Szilvia proposes 7 key actions enabling a successful client-consultant relationship:

  1. Invest time to understand how the other side works,
  2. Recognise that you also work for a common goal and stay authentic,
  3. Be clear about the values you wish to gain when working with your clients and consultants,
  4. Make your goals more explicit, set clear expectations, and check if they are understood properly,
  5. Don’t be a ‘Yesman’. Be honest about your challenges, but also challenge each other so you can achieve more together,
  6. Have those difficult conversations as soon as possible,
  7. Be open about your preferred style of working in the beginning of the project. 

Finally, the report presents an overlook of the emerging trends that are progressively changing the CR domain.The mindset towards CR has changed and is still evolving. Whereas 10 years ago the focus was on compliance and reporting, today integration in core functions of business and alignment with the brand is key. Integration involves strategy, implying that CR is getting on the table of the higher level of management, especially the Board. Technology (e.g. big data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence), social media, and new services are rapidly changing the approach of CR professionals.Finally, growing sophistication of the field is leading consultants and in-house professionals to often swing their roles, creating a sort of ‘permeable boundaries’ between the two worlds.

If you would like to provide comments or have a chat about the report, please do not hesitate to contact Szilvia here. She is also open to further research opportunities in the area.