Finishing School for Social Intrapreneurs
The Aspen Institute nurtures sustainability leadership among managers.
Leading Sustainable Organizations
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.