Globally the rise in sustainability and social responsibility in the business sector has been met with an increase in specialised centres working specifically on this topic within business schools. These provide an opportunity for business schools to help advance sustainability issues within the business sector, but equally, and perhaps more importantly, to help embed sustainability into the business schools themselves through a variety of measures. I recently had the chance to speak with Joe Lawless, Executive Director at the Centre for Leadership and Social Responsibility at Milgard School of Business in the United States, about how the Centre came to be and how it aims to have an impact.
Briefly describe the Centre for Leadership and Social Responsibility and how it came about.
The Centre for Leadership & Social Responsibility is focused on three key constituencies: 1) students and the activities that will help them develop as responsible leaders, 2) faculty and research support in topics related to corporate social responsibility, and 3) supporting and providing opportunities for businesses and CSR practitioners to come together to think critically about corporate citizenship issues.
Our benefactors, who set up the endowment that funds the Centre and for whom the school is named, wanted the Centre to focus on the intersection of leadership and social responsibility, coming from a belief that you cannot, or should not, do one without the other. Additionally, they wanted us to develop the Centre in a way that best fit the school’s needs and our vision for what the Centre could be. We looked to other centres globally for successful models, programmes, and structures that would allow us to achieve our mission of creating socially responsible leaders who build sustainable organisations and communities.
What did you learn from your research of other successful centres?
We looked to other established centres like the Centre for Responsible Business at UC Berkeley, the Centre for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College, and IMD in Switzerland. One word of advice that we took from the Boston Centre was to stay closely aligned with the faculty and students in the Milgard School of Business. That was good advice, and has helped us keep balance in our approach to the development of new programmes. The risk, when developing this type of centre is to focus too heavily on one piece of this puzzle. Student programmes can easily absorb much of your time and energy without clear focus and purpose. The same is true for research and corporate efforts. The real magic for our Centre has been the balance and interplay between the three key constituencies, which creates more synergy and value than would any one piece by itself.
What did you do to ensure that the centre would be effective in its mission?
Whenever we develop a new programme for one of our three constituencies, we consider how to involve the other two. When developing a new student activity, we consider how that interacts with faculty research and curriculum, and how to engage the business community in a meaningful way. Considering the impacts on all three stakeholders keeps us very mission-focused.
What are some of the projects that the centre is involved in?
We have an internal and an invitational case competition on social responsibility for students, a course on Board Governance that engages each student on the board of a local NGO, and a communications programme that keeps issues of CSR in front of students. We also have an honour code that reinforces honesty and ethics in our academic environment, and a professionalism week and etiquette dinner to reinforce those messages.
Annually, we hold an Academic Research Conference for faculty, which this year is taking place on July 10-11. We also provide curriculum development and community engagement grants, as well as research support and connections to practitioner partners.
With our business constituencies we have an annual business conference that gathers practitioners from the region, a case writing partnership for inclusion in the case competitions, and annual Business Leadership Awards recognising business leadership in the region.
What have been some of the challenges? Successes?
The biggest challenge has been engaging faculty in the emerging field of CSR research when their research interests may not align with the field. Publishing CSR focused articles, because they haven’t been part of mainstream research channels, has historically been more challenging and created a barrier for junior faculty. This trend has begun to change, however, and we now have multiple colleagues focusing their research in CSR-related fields. We also have an ongoing challenge of engaging our students, because we are an urban-serving university with a student population that is older, more diverse, and has more first generation college students than other schools. When students don’t live on campus, have a job, a family, and other obligations, participating in our student activities can be a challenge. We have had to develop strategies to engage students where they are and when they have time.
Our successes have come when we effectively engage all three of our constituencies. Our most recent success has been with our invitational case competition. Ten schools from around the US prepared a solution to a case that we wrote, and then came to our campus to compete in front of judges from the business community. The case we reviewed was engaging, challenging, and provided the company with actionable solutions generated by the student participants.
What advice would you have for other schools putting in a new centre or trying to make their current centre more effective?
Having a base funding level is certainly a great place to start for any Centre. It allows you to be much more creative with your offerings and how you engage the business community. After that, I’d say that paying attention to each different constituency and how they interrelate (as described above) has proven to be a winning formula for us.
What are the next steps for the Centre?
We are fairly happy with the portfolio of offerings that we currently have, but are always looking for new ways to partner with other organisations to leverage the power of the University to create more value in the business community.