The Aspen Institute nurtures sustainability leadership among managers.

Strange as it may seem, there are a number of business leaders who’ve created movements for greater social and environmental responsibility inside their companies — and did so without formal authority or executive power.

Where can you find these people?

One place to look is the Aspen Institute’s First Movers Social Intrapreneurship Summit, which is where I was on October 3, 2015.

Since its founding in 1999, the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program (Aspen BSP) has focused on developing business leaders for a sustainable society. According Deputy Director Nancy McGaw, “One of the fundamental founding questions was, ‘If we want business to operate in a way that’s attentive to long-term value creation and an array of stakeholders, what kind of leadership do we need?’ Then the ancillary question, of course, was, ‘If we know what kind of leadership we need, how do we get it?’”

One approach Aspen BSP has taken in its quest for answers is to focus on business education. Their pioneering work integrating sustainability into the MBA curriculum was something I benefited from as a young B-school professor. Through other programs Aspen BSP has also sought to influence business leadership directly by engaging managers currently working in leading corporations.

With seed funding from the Fetzer Institute, they launched the “First Movers” program, which welcomed their initial cohort of 16 managers in 2009. The program is now in its seventh year and has hosted 130 Fellows from 98 companies to date.

What’s unique is that the “First Movers” is not a program for the “Chief Sustainability Officer” or the “Director of CSR.” Rather, it’s for high-potential, mid-career mangers working outside of the CSR department. “Our clear focus was to find people from all functional responsibilities within companies,” explains McGaw. The goal was cultivating professional insiders: creative intrapreneurs dedicated to innovating products and management practices that enhance profitability while simultaneously producing positive social and environmental impacts.

So what has Aspen learned about encouraging social intrapreneurs? Facilitating innovation from the middle of the organization is a real challenge. “It’s not like you have the authority to lead the change,” says McGaw, “you can’t just champion an idea and get everybody on board.” And adding the social dimension only complicates the issue. “First, you have to know how to manage change,” says McGaw. “Then you raise the bar by requiring the change to meet a high standard for purpose and values.”

Fellows are encouraged to begin by being mindful of opportunities within their sphere of influence. “In fact,” explains McGaw, “breakthrough social opportunities may be in operations or in finance. Start from where you are. If you love marketing, then start from that vantage point and look for the opportunity.”

From there fellows are supported in making connections to the larger decision making processes within their organizations. The design consultancy IDEO provides training on mapping corporate “innovation ecosystems” and discovering both the formal and informal processes at work in firms. By doing so, fellows learn to identify and recruit supporters, being “alert to allies you may not even know are out there.”

To ground what they learn in practice, each of the fellows pursues an innovation project within their company. “We use the project as a container for learning,” explains McGaw. Examples include tackling food waste in the grocery business and eliminating carbon emissions at Microsoft.

Through their projects, fellows are encouraged to dwell on the question they’re pursuing and articulate it for their companies. “It’s not about having all the answers,” says McGaw. “If you have the right questions you can open up conversations … ask the question of others and hear what they have to say. That’s energizing and engaging for people.”

Fellows will tell you that one of the things that has most helped them build the courage and capacity to lead has been the kinship with like-minded professionals. As 2011 Fellow Annalie Killian puts it “You have to have a posse, which is people like yourself … so in a way, the Aspen Institute Fellowship is like a posse of people working in social intrapreneurship.”

This, of course, was one of the intents of the program. As Nancy McGaw puts it, “We are striving to build a community of business leaders who, over time, will change the way business operates and the way success is measured.”

You can hear advice from these pioneering social intrapreneurs in their own words in their YouTube video and learn more about the First Movers Fellowship on the Aspen website.