08/06/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Skating to Where the Puck Will Be, a CR Leader's Mantra

A few days in Aspen under a vibrant blue sky is a great way to clear away the cobwebs and make room for some new ideas, especially in the company of executives who move easily between "big vision" and practical realities. I had one of those opportunities a few weeks back, when we convened a group of seasoned Corporate Responsibility (CR) practitioners.

Although the titles for these business leaders vary, they share a challenging and broad mandate. Their job responsibilities sit at the intersection of long-term value creation, risk and the license to operate. To succeed in these roles requires seeing both the forest and the trees, and operating with the kind of political dexterity expected in CEOs.

But these executives don't have the authority of the CEO, and most of them function with extremely small staffs. They manage by persuasion, not by command and control. And, in the face of greater public expectations but low trust in business, and a media on the hunt for headlines, they have to be very savvy about where to expend their time to be both effective and relevant.

So what is on the minds of these leaders, and what ideas are they taking back from the mountain into the hallways of some of the largest private enterprises on the planet?

Finding Value in the Values: Many CR professionals consider this the Holy Grail. Companies from Unilever to Google have begun to experiment with the tenor and content of earnings calls, investor and public communications to break down the traditional divide between the playbook for talking to Wall Street and the strategy for building trust and loyalty among customers, suppliers, communities and talent.

Realistically, however, if the CFO measures success in 90-day increments, it's unlikely the strategic work of the CR team will rise to the level of significance inside the gate. The kinds of investments and initiatives that are on the radar of the sustainability czar may not pay off for years; in fact, the early beneficiaries may be host communities and fence-line neighbors who affect the medium to long-term reputation of the firm, but do little to reduce costs in the short-term or secure competitive advantage today.

Deciding what's Mission Critical: Which of the myriad CR issues in play are critical to business performance? Getting serious about what's "material" to the health of the business is an important step if the CR leader hopes to move out from under the flood of requests for help or information from NGOs and well-meaning colleagues and spark innovation where it is most needed. A financial services company, for example, should think first about protecting the billions of dollars with which they are entrusted or the consequences will be felt across the entire global economy. Industrials have a long reach and big footprint through the supply chain; their top CR talent is needed at the table on key decisions that affect the future of the company, from labor negotiations to design-for-environment. Traditional philanthropy and community engagement are important, but pale in comparison to how these companies conduct their core business.

Breaking down Internal Silos: A focus on materiality offers a window into the core business processes and protocols with the greatest impact on the company's bottom line and future potential. What competencies will be needed ten years from now? Recycling may be today's challenge for a waste management firm, but what radical process innovations will be needed to redirect organic waste, which represents 30% of the waste stream? How does a consumer products company move ahead of the curve on future expectations regarding water usage in emerging economies? Effective CR leaders are astute about the external game, but the innovators are also working to build relationships inside the firm in the business lines and functions that extend their reach in critical ways, from product design to how employees are trained or incentivized. These processes, when designed and implemented effectively, can help the business-society connection break out of Corporate Communications and find a home in key business decision rules.

Staying Ahead of the Curve: Catalytic leaders are proactive in seeking out both the facts and the trends, and they often need to act even when the business motivations are fuzzy. Staying attuned to new players like Millennials, new markets like the BRICs, new forces like social media, and to entities that punch above their weight on issues and capture the imagination of the public -- e.g. creative market upstarts that merge commerce and community à la Warby Parker or Clif Bar -- keeps the CR leader ahead of the curve and has to be part of a successful leader's toolkit.

Where's the Urgency? Some of the most significant challenges with the biggest long-term risks for business are off-the-radar because they fall in the category of "Too Big to Solve" but they have moral as well as business implications. Climate change, the need for large-scale job creation and food security are examples of substantial societal concerns where business has a role to play, but for which the solutions lie outside the domain of any one corporation.

The leaders in Aspen understand the need to develop capacities at their individual companies and to enable large-scale collaboration and policy interventions where necessary. Building the platform for leadership could also mean creating a sense of urgency through new forms of dialogue and collaboration. Listening deeply to your own people as well as external forces helps you "skate to where the puck will be" or in business terms, to be ahead of where the CEO -- and the rest of the company -- will need to move as the sight lines between global realities and business capacities converge.