Christine Bader: An interview by Bob Morris

BaderIn her own words:

“Companies can help solve the greatest challenges facing the world today. Frankly, they’d better – because they’re helping create them. I’m not into philanthropy or dressing staff in matching t-shirts to paint a wall. That stuff is nice, but I’m about improving the impacts of a company’s business operations, all the way out to the tippy toes of the supply chain.

“I’ve spent the past 15 years getting to know people working in, with, and against the world’s biggest companies, pushing for more responsible practices. The result is The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, based on my time with BP and weaving in the stories and reflections of others.

“I now teach human rights & business at Columbia and serve as Human Rights Advisor to BSR. You can find my articles and talks (including my TEDx talk, “Manifesto for the Corporate Idealist”) on”

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Morris: Before discussing Evolution of a Corporate Idealist, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Bader: My grandmother. I lost her when I was in college, but will always carry with me the confidence and love that she instilled. I remember her telling me that I would be able to do anything — my only problem would be choosing! We all need an unwavering champion like that.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Bader: A few years ago I read a New York Times article about The OpEd Project, an initiative to broaden the range of voices in public discourse, starting by getting more women on the U.S. op-ed pages, which have generally been around 85% male. I signed up for one of their workshops and found it incredibly powerful — in part for the instruction on how to write an op-ed, but more importantly for the urging to own my expertise and know that it matters to the world, not just in op-eds but in the work that I do broadly.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Bader: In February 2001 I took my first trip to West Papua, at the eastern tip of Indonesia. I was organizing a trip for a small group of BP executives from around the world to visit the site where BP was to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant.

Those executives were expert in the social and environmental issues that the project faced; for example, the proposed plant site was home to 127 households that would have to move to new homes that BP would build.

The trip was a long one, requiring an overnight commercial flight, then an hour-long flight on an eighteen-seat turboprop plane, then a helicopter ride the rest of the way to the bay that contained the gas field. BP would extract the gas and send it by underwater pipeline to the LNG plant, where it would be chilled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit, condensed for loading into tankers, and shipped around the Pacific Rim.

I’d never been in a helicopter before, and leaned as close to the window as my seatbelt would allow. I saw no people, just occasional flocks of birds bursting from the trees. As we approached the bay I spotted our landing pad, a brown square with a white “H,” and on the horizon an exploration rig.

I had seen sketches of what the plant would look like: a modern complex of gleaming silver buildings, circled by trucks and cars filled with men in hardhats. I tried to visualize the images from those sketches on the scene below me, mentally replacing swathes of forest with steel and concrete. Suddenly the ride got uncomfortable: The cabin felt tiny and the chopper noise was deafening. I mopped my brow, tugged at my lifejacket and took a swig of water, and realized where my discomfort was coming from. For the first time, I was seeing what my new employer was in the business of doing, and it was literally making me sick.

I turned to BP’s health, safety, and environment vice president, who saw the distress on my face. “That’s why we’re here,” she said. “We’re going to get this right. Who else would bring all of this high-paid help here to do this?” I suspected she was right, but still had an uneasy feeling in my stomach.

That trip showed me how important it is to have dedicated and optimistic people focusing on the human rights impacts that business has on communities and societies, and set me on the career course that I continue to follow today.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Bader: So much of the work of corporate responsibility is about communication: translating concepts between different audiences, cultures, professional disciplines, etc. Precise but fluid writing is so important, as is the ability to get up to speed on different topics quickly.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Bader: That quote speaks to one of the dominant themes that emerged from my interviews and reflection on my own experience: the importance of creating ownership. One of my interviewees told me about a time when a senior executive in an unrelated function mentioned her supply chain program before she did—and she was thrilled. “It really gets legs when other people start to talk about it,” she told me, “Not just me.” Another interviewee told me that one of her personal key performance indicators is “when senior people think it was all their own idea, then that’s got to be good.”

One long-time corporate responsibility professional told me that when he first arrived at his current company in 2008, the CEO was keen to emulate the simple, bold sustainability goals that Walmart had recently announced. “He said, ‘We can do this right now. Let’s walk down the hall, meet with our [senior vice president] of the supply chain network, and we’ll do this in ten minutes.’ I said, ‘We can do this in five minutes, you and I, but I want to do this collaboratively. Let me get the business and functional leaders to set the goals and agree on the framework. They will be more invested and the strategy will have staying power.’” The CEO agreed to the more patient approach, which ended up with such distributed ownership of the sustainability goals that they’re factored into incentive compensation for managers and senior executives across the company.

As entrepreneurship guru Seth Godin has written, “If it’s about your mission, about spreading the faith, about seeing something happen, not only do you not care about credit, you actually want other people to take credit.”

Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Bader: I agree with that in principle: I understand the importance of making mistakes and learning from them. The problem is that in the world I inhabit, mistakes can be a matter of life and death — whether an industrial accident, or someone in a tech company turning over user information that they don’t realize can get a dissident jailed or worse.

The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

I couldn’t agree more. Stories are so much more instructive and inspirational than theory or edicts. That’s why I chose to write a book that tackles corporate responsibility through my story and the stories of others.

In fact, I get a lot of requests for career advice, and the one piece of advice I always give is to never accept anyone else’s advice — but instead to ask for their stories.

Most advice is, frankly, terrible. (I say this as a new parent, and therefore the recipient of LOTS of advice.) Whenever anyone begins a sentence with “You should,” I can’t help but take offense even in response to the best intentions. How could you presume to know what is in my heart and mind, what commitments and capabilities I have and want to have, and where I will thrive?

I once asked my mentor if we could spend our next session discussing how to handle personal attacks. He kindly agreed and began our meeting with, “You should always take the high road…”

I asked if he had ever been ambushed by a personal attack. He sighed and recounted having been on a panel where an audience member directed a very critical comment at him; he snapped back and made the situation worse. Needless to say, his story was a million times more instructive than his advice.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist. When and why did you decide to write it?

Bader: As I was writing emails home to friends and family from Indonesia and China — starting in 2000, before blogs were blogs — people found my work really interesting! I realized not a lot of people know that companies have staff deep inside the company doing the sort of investments in communities and partnerships that I was doing. I occasionally thought there might be a book there some day.

Then, after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, I really felt like I had to tell my story: not to defend BP, but to support a more sophisticated conversation than what always ensues after corporate disasters: People assume, “Oh, another evil company, we need more regulation.” Of course we have to punish the bad guys. But most people inside companies want to do good in the world. So we should be focusing on why they fail, and what they need to succeed.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Bader: I had never thought about incrementalism or perceived my work as such until numerous Corporate Idealists brought it up to me. It helped me better understand my time with BP. I did not reach every person in every asset in the company, but I did make meaningful changes on a few important projects and helped a number of colleagues do the same. I piloted specific good practices, such as a human rights impact assessment, that other companies could then emulate. I was also part of broader initiatives, such as with the United Nations, that brought about change beyond any individual company.

The Corporate Idealists I spoke with recognized that they’re not overthrowing capitalism or their companies, nor are they even preventing people from getting hurt on their watch. But they do believe that they are slowly moving their supertanker companies in the right direction. One interviewee shared with me her very pragmatic view of her work: “Whether they were doing enough or doing things in the best way is always open to interpretation. But at least they were far less likely to make major mistakes and behave badly than when I arrived.”

Another interviewee said, “That’s what keeps us here, right? Those little wins make our day. There will always be things that we don’t do as well as we could, frankly, and there are many things that I continue to learn from watching other companies, and there are some things that I know we lead in. But we’ve got a long way to go. Sustainability is an ultra-marathon and the finish line is always moving.”

Yet another colleague told me that he sees incrementalism—which we discussed as saving one finger from industrial accidents at a time—as necessary but not sufficient: “If all of this has no earth-shattering impact, if it’s tactical and operational and it’s about individual fingers and toes, I’m fine with that. But that’s not what this should do. Because what we are actually talking about here is the fundamental question of our age: How does a global business operate?”

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Bader: The book is still very much grounded in my story, which is what I had envisioned from the beginning. But when I first started writing the book I wasn’t sure how prominently the stories of others would fit in. Then as I started interviewing people, I realized how strong the common themes are, and how much highlighting those themes and the stories of others strengthened the book and its key messages. So there’s much more community in the book than I had originally envisioned, which I think is a good thing!

Morris: From your perspective, what was the single greatest benefit you derived from your association with BP?

Bader: I got to see firsthand the impacts of our energy consumption on individuals, communities, and societies. I got to see what big business can do really well, and what it can do really badly. I got to work for one of the most interesting and compelling CEOs in history, and one of the most important companies in the world. All of those experiences will serve me well for a lifetime, not just as a sustainability professional but as a citizen and consumer and investor and neighbor, no matter what I do for work.

Morris: What is your single greatest regret?

Bader: No regrets, just queries! I will always wonder whether I could have done more to promote human rights inside the company — though I know I did as much as a mere mortal could do. On the flip side, I occasionally wonder what it would have been like to have stuck with a commercial career and run a large part of the business — but I couldn’t be more thankful for the experiences that I have had.

Morris: In your opinion, what will eventually be viewed as John Browne’s legacy as a business leader?

Bader: For all of the criticism that Browne attracted after the operational crises BP faced during the last few years of his tenure, I still admired how he took bold stances that shifted the global debate about business’s role with respect to climate change and human rights. I committed to carry on the progressive elements of his legacy, as did other BP alumni who have moved on to sustainability leadership positions in all sorts of industries.

Morris: As a human being?

Bader: Part of the problem is that those two questions are separate, don’t you think? Having stepped down under a cloud of scandal related to an ex-boyfriend, Lord Browne is now pushing back against prevailing social norms — as he did with the role of business with regard to climate change, but this time with regard to the problem of homophobia in the corporate world. In May 2012 he gave his first public talk about sexuality in the workplace; in June 2013 he wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times in support of a bill in the House of Lords in support of gay marriage, and shortly thereafter announced that he would be writing a book called The Glass Closet. He said in the press release: “I wish I had been brave enough to come out earlier in my tenure as CEO of BP. I regret it to this day. I know that if I had done so I would have made more of an impact for other gay men and women. With The Glass Closet I hope to give some of them the courage to make an impact of their own.”

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as [begin italics] the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, Papua: A culturally sensitive setting (Pages 2-6)

Bader: Communities in countries from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe have suffered a phenomenon known as the “resource curse” or the “paradox of plenty.” People celebrate the discovery of oil, gas, or minerals, expecting jobs and wealth but getting nothing but environmental and social destruction.

All too often companies make these situations worse: by not talking to their neighbor communities, wrongly assuming that the company’s relationship with the national government is the only one that matters, and by paying bribes and hiring thuggish security guards to keep local people away.

My first assignment with BP was Indonesia not long after BP had taken over ARCO, the American oil company. One of the crown jewels of the takeover was a liquefied natural gas development in West Papua, at the eastern end of the country.

Given the usual trajectory of extractive projects and the legacy of such developments in Indonesia in particular, it was easy to envision that project going down the same path. But BP’s chief executive at the time, John Browne, wanted to approach the project differently.

Morris: John Browne: A Different Brand of Oilman (6-9)

Bader: The son of an Auschwitz survivor, Browne frequently spoke about the company’s social as well as environmental role. At a conference in 1998, he said that business is “not victory or conquest, but a long-term commitment to the people you work with, the people with whom you do business and the society of which we are all part.”

Browne made BP a force to be reckoned with in economic terms, but also had a broader vision of the impact the company could have in the world. Moves such as pulling BP out of the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group created to promote skepticism about climate change, in 1996 and committing BP to cutting emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2010 — a target the company then met eight years ahead of schedule — won Browne respect beyond his industry, with fellow British executives voting him “Most Admired Leader” four years in a row.

Browne’s legacy would be severely undermined a few years later by a number of operational disasters. But at the time, I saw the Browne that the public saw: someone fashioning himself as a different kind of oilman and BP as a different kind of oil company.

Morris: Security and Human Rights (20-29)

Bader: Extractive companies working in difficult environments have gotten caught up in terrible security situations — the most iconic being the tragic story of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian writer and activist who helped found the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, mobilizing thousands to protest pollution by Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta. In 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues were tried and convicted of murder and hanged. Saro-Wiwa’s supporters pleaded with Shell to use its leverage with the Nigerian government to call off the execution. At the time Shell demurred, saying, “It is not for commercial organizations like Shell to interfere in the legal process of a sovereign state such as Nigeria,” although since then the company has said it made appeals that were ignored.

In Indonesia BP faced a similar challenge: The commander assigned to the area surrounding the Papua project was named by the Indonesia–Timor Leste Commission for Truth and Friendship as having contributed to gross human rights violations around the 1999 referendum that led to East Timor’s independence from Indonesia.

BP couldn’t very well demand that the military stay out of the area or swap out the commander. Accepting the status quo clearly had its own risks, however, such as whether BP might be complicit in any human rights abuses that security forces committed. We might supply them with equipment that could be used for nefarious purposes, or signal that our desire for a safe operating environment was to be achieved by any means necessary—which could be interpreted as license to kill.

Mitigating risks to the community and to our staff and assets would require a new approach.

Morris: [Bader’s] Personal Front (37-42)

Bader: I left Indonesia optimistic about how business interests could line up with community interests. Even the most hard-nosed businesspeople at BP understood that an actively and constructively engaged community was critical to our success around the lucrative but socially and environmentally challenging project I worked on there.

I was also deeply grateful for what I had learned about multinational business so far, with all of its complexities and surprises. My experience bore little resemblance to the tidy, linear case studies I had read in business school. I was even more in love with my company than when I arrived in Indonesia, inspired by the commitment of my colleagues to make sure the company was, in a phrase sprinkled liberally in company statements and literature, a force for good.

Morris: End of the John Browne Era (98-104)

Bader: I sensed that the new BP under Tony Hayward would be very different to the one I joined in 1999 – and I loved the old one. It would take a few years for me to realize that companies that big can’t change that quickly, that “my” BP was hardly perfect. But at the time, because I had joined BP because of Lord Browne, and because I had worked on the very issues that he was such a leader on, the change felt to me like a seismic shift. In the fall of 2008, I left BP to work full time for the United Nations mandate on business and human rights.

Morris: The Business and Human Rights Debate (109-115)

Bader: It’s become increasingly clear that business can impact all human rights — but it has never been clear what their human rights responsibilities are.

In 2003, a subcommission of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights presented a proposal entitled Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights. It should have been obvious from the name alone that the Norms wouldn’t see widespread uptake.

But the title wasn’t the only problem with the document. The Norms asserted that business has “the obligation to promote, secure the fulfillment of, respect, ensure respect of, and protect human rights” – in other words, that companies had all of the same duties for human rights as governments.

BP was practically alone as a company expressing even tepid support for the Norms. With businesses lining up against the Norms, governments felt like they had to drop the initiative even while some NGOs like Amnesty International expressed their support. But even with it officially set aside, the question of what responsibilities business had for human rights remained.

Clarifying business’s responsibilities for human rights was the mandate of the U.N. Special Representative I left BP to work for — which ended up being a fascinating few years!

Morris: Supping with the Devil: Kofi Annan with Phil Knight (179-186)

Bader: I get a lot of inquiries — explicit or implied — as to whether working with some of the world’s biggest multinational corporations is selling out. At the launch of the U.N. Global Compact corporate responsibility initiative, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan was asked whether sharing the dais with Phil Knight of Nike, who had been demonized by anti-sweatshop campaigners, wasn’t like supping with the devil. Annan replied: “The angels don’t need our help.”

We need people protesting out on the street; we need people exercising their responsibilities as consumers, investors, and citizens; and we need people pushing for change from deep inside the belly of the beast.

Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Bader: Coming out of so many poignant interviews with people who have clearly struggled with balancing vision and pragmatism, and impatience for wanting to change the world and patience with recognizing it takes time and strategy, I would be interested in talking with the leaders throughout history who have had to do the same. President Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King come to mind.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which the principles of corporate idealism are most likely to served. Where to begin?

Bader: I would start with that most basic but tragically underrepresented skill in the company: listening: sit with small groups of staff, listen to what they’re proud of and what they’re worried about. Then get off the chair and get out in the field: bear witness to the impacts of those decisions taken from the C-suite on workers and communities at the far reaches of the supply chain. And do more listening.

Then do a few analyses: of processes, of supplier contracts and relationships, of how people are hired, paid, and promoted. Are there some perverse incentives or unintended consequences at play?

And did I mention listening?

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Bader: I hope that all of the lessons in the book are applicable to companies of any size: the importance of bearing witness, the importance of embedding sustainability and responsibility into core processes, the importance of listening. Just like small countries don’t have fewer responsibilities to their citizens than big countries, small companies aren’t absolved of responsibilities for their externalities simply because their revenues fall below an arbitrary threshold.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Bader: None. Bob, you’ve been very thorough.

* * *

Christine cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website link

Her Amazon page link

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is exactly what the title says and more. Run on a shoestring budget out of London with researchers all over the world, they post positive and negative stories and seek responses from the companies involved, posting in full what they receive. Their free weekly email updates are a must. I’m proud to serve on their board.

BSR (at which I’m a Human Rights Advisor) and the U.N. Global Compact also have great resources on their sites.

Ellen Weinreb is a sustainability recruiter as well as a thought leader in her own right, and has a thorough list of sustainability and corporate responsibility job resources on her site.

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