The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: A book review by Bob Morris

Evolution:CorporateThe Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil
Christine Bader
Bibliomotion (2014)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”: A tale of two companies and more, much more

First of all, many people incorrectly believe that an idealist is necessarily “out of touch with reality” when, in fact, idealism and realism are not mutually exclusive. The greatest leaders throughout history were values-driven and attracted followers precisely because of a vision that, without exception, was based on ideals. In this remarkable book, Christine Bader focuses on her nine-year period employment by BP (1999-2008) during which she learned – and now shares — valuable lessons that contributed to her personal growth as well as her professional development. Hers is indeed a journey of discovery.

Providing some background information is in order. As she explains: “I fell in love with that BP. And BP loved me back, giving me the opportunity to live in Indonesia, working on social issues around a remote gas field; then China, ensuring worker and community safety for a chemicals joint venture; then in the United Kingdom again, collaborating with colleagues around the world to better understand and support human rights.

“BP was paying me to help the people living around its projects, because that in turn would help its business. I was living the cliché of doing well and doing good. and I was completely smitten. My beloved company even let me create a pro bono project advising a United Nations initiative to clarify business’s responsibilities for human rights, aimed at creating international policy to help even more people.”

These brief excerpts describe “the good BP” during Bader’s “best of times.” And then Big Oil broke her heart, “the worst of times.” She left BP to work on the U.N. project full-time. Some of the most interesting material in her narrative provides stories and reflections from other Corporate Idealists, with Bader noting that “while my story may be unique in its details, it is not in its themes” nor in the nature and extent resistance that Corporate Idealists encounter.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Bader’s coverage.

o Papua: A culturally sensitive setting (Pages 2-6)
o John Browne: A Different Brand of Oilman (6-9)
o Security and Human Rights (20-29)
o On [Bader’s] Personal Front (37-42)
o An overview of Bader’s years in China (42-72)
o Human Rights and BP Values (78-89)
o A Global Debate (92-96)
o End of the John Browne Era (98-104)
o The Business and Human Rights Debate (109-115)
o Protect, Respect and Remedy (116-122)
o The End of the Beginning (134-137)
o The Power of Normative Standards (137-140)
o BP’s “Perfect Storm” (164-166)
o Supping with the Devil: Kofi Anan with Phil Knight (179-186)
o A Sorting Function (201-208)

While re-reading The Revolution of a Corporate Idealist, I was again reminded of the fact that many of the companies annually ranked as the most highly admired and best to work for are also among those annually ranked as most profitable and having the greatest cap value in their industry segment. That is emphatically NOT a coincidence. Enduring principles and sustainable profits are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are interdependent.

After all of the best and worst of times that Christine Bader endured, her basic values remain intact but she has also developed what Ernest Hemingway once characterized as a built-in, shock-proof crap detector. When concluding her book, she observes, “The Corporate Idealist community sees both the challenges and potential of big business. We realize that we can’t save the world — we can even save every finger and toe. We can expound upon but not fully explain the disasters of our companies and industries, which is deeply unsatisfying to those who want simple answers and assurances. But we can nudge our companies toward a vision of a better future, one in which ‘responsible business’ and ‘fair trade’ are redundant, not novelties or oxymorons.”

I hope that those who read this book — especially those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one — will become an active member of the Corporate Idealist community. There is so much important work yet to be done. As indicated earlier, I fervently believe — as does Christine Bader — that enduring principles and sustainable profits are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are interdependent.

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