From water filters that serve the developing world, to banking products that encourage investments in energy efficiency, to action-focused mobile engagement platforms, companies across all industries are empowering their employees to apply their professional expertise to develop solutions to business and social challenges. Distinguished from employee team and skills-based volunteerism, employee-led product innovation is a powerful engagement tool that drives business, social, and environmental impact.
As someone who spends his day immersed in the development of social impact strategies, it was a pleasure to moderate a panel conversation during the 2017 International Corporate Citizenship Conference in Boston with Laura Kohler, senior vice president of human resources and stewardship at Kohler; Andrew Watterson, senior vice president and head of sustainability at KeyBank; and Jami Buck-Vance, director of corporate responsibility & community partnerships at Cox Enterprises. These practitioners shared how they’ve fostered environments and ecosystems where employees' grass-roots environmental sustainability-related conservation, operational improvement, and product development efforts can take root, and how they’ve elevated these programs to the next level. Among the many learnings from the session, the following three "how-to" insights rose to the top:
- Foster a culture of innovation. To enable employees to act on their ideas, it is essential to connect the dots between innovation, human resources, and corporate culture. Use your corporate mission or purpose as a rationale and call-to-action that grants employees permission to take on new challenges. For example, Kohler associates are encouraged to "believe in better" and are driven to "contribute to a higher level of gracious living for those who are touched by our products." KeyBank employees are inspired to "help clients and communities thrive" every day.
- Be a catalyst for action. As corporate citizenship professionals, our role is to create opportunities for other experts to learn and apply their unique expertise toward social innovation. Through Kohler's Innovation for Good workshops, associates are immersed in mock clean-water experiences and empowered to work together to develop and prototype new solutions. It is during these types of design thinking sessions that Kohler's Clarity water filtration system was developed to bring clean drinking water to families around the globe. At Cox, a mobile platform powered by WeSpire fosters a community of sustainability-minded employees who crowd-source ideas, learn, and volunteer together. Through this platform, the company continuously provides incentives and recognition to maintain employee enthusiasm and engagement year-round.
- Identify and champion your innovators. Since corporate citizenship professionals are most often not the ones developing new sustainability-related products and services, one essential step is to continuously network to find employees who are passionately working outside the box and taking risks on promising initiatives. Once we we’ve found them, our role is to help innovators get things done. When KeyBank noticed employees working on new financial products to enable customers to invest in and support environmental sustainability, they needed to create space for them to succeed. They revised reporting structures, updated performance goals, and provided the additional resources for them to eventually launch a new energy efficiency and renewable financing business segment.
This annual gathering of corporate citizen professionals is always insightful and inspiring. Mark your calendars for the 2018 Conference on April 8-10 in Los Angeles, CA.
You can also enroll in the Center's online course, Deepen Employee Engagement with Corporate Citizenship, to explore other strategies, tools, and leading practices for designing your corporate citizenship with the objective of improving employee engagement.