Thursday, 23 May 2013

Essential Skills for CSR Manager

As in any Managerial position, interpersonal skills or people skills are very important in the professional life of CSR Managers. However there are certain skill-sets unique to the CSR Profession itself. As a CSR Manager, you are expected to work with two categories of people:

Managing People who have Passion and Managing People who have Power.

Managing People who have Passion:

As a CSR manager you will often interact with people who have passion, people who are not just doing a job, but doing something that they are passionate about. Volunteers, NGOs and other groups of people who are dedicated to a cause will come under this category. Their motivation is not money or power, but satisfaction and self-actualization and a deep sense of contributing to sustainable development.

I have come across, volunteers who with their sheer passion and dedication have really made my work all the more satisfying and fulfilling. These volunteers have night shifts (mostly in IT sector) sometimes stretching into the wee hours of next morning 3 or 4am. Still at 8 am sharp they will promptly turn up at a village 50 kms from the city! Their energy and passion is so powerful that to manage such energy levels you as a CSR Manager should share the same enthusiasm and motivation. In my experience, volunteers are mostly young people and unless you share the same vibes and passion as they do, you will not be able to 'connect'. Therefore, do equip yourself with the same vibes that moves generation Y in order to be their effective manager.

Secondly, you need to manage their enormous surge of enthusiasm, energy and motivation. Some of them could get emotionally charged up or some of them could just be frustrated because they are not getting the results as fast as they expected. The key here is to provide some sense of organization and streamline their enthusiasm so that their energies are channeled meaningully. I usually encourage them to take up small projects or break down major themes into “week sized” projects that they can tackle and contribute as per their skills.

Another important “Passion” sub-category are the NGO Partners. In your work as CSR Manager you have to explore, identify, nurture and develop Partnerships. NGOs with their work in the communities become a natural choice. Many of the NGOs have great passion for their work and take pride in what they do. You should respect that and tactfully work on that premise. For me working with NGOs gives me as much or even more satisfaction as working with volunteers. While volunteers with their raw passion just blow me away with their energy, I find the NGOs temper their passion with a deeper understanding of the communities they work with. It helps me to constantly update on the trends in community development and make me put the work I do in the proper perspective.

Naturally, a CSR manager who needs to earn their support must have the same knowledge (if not the experience) as the NGOs. This will make your interactions meaningful. In most cases, NGOs with their years of experience in the 'Field' try to look down on Corporates that undertake CSR activities. They sometimes feel that Corporates are trying to enter their domain without much understanding. Therefore, you as a CSR manager should equip yourself with the domain knowledge as the NGOs are working in. NGOs will then listen to you and lend their support. Otherwise, they tend to “hijack' the programs and run away with their agenda with the corporates not having any say in their choice of interventions.

Managing People who have Power

The other category of people are People who weild tremendous Power and Influence. They could be Government Officials, CEOs, Senior Executives in your own officee, Commissioners, Department Heads, Bureaucrats and even senior NGO Leaders.

While working with these “Influencers” a CSR Manager has to be constantly on their feet. First thing to understand is: these people in power are Resource rich and Time poor. While you may get a whole day to spend with your volunteers and NGO partners, you may hardly get 10 minutes or maximum 30 minutes with them. Even in this extremely short time, they will have other phone calls, VIP visitors and other interupptions. The key here is short precise communication. You won't have time for elaborate presentations or case studies. Another trait is the Power category people are more concerned about results, outcomes and deliverables. While your NGO partners may be interested in the process, your bosses and bureaucrats would like you to jump directly to what results your CSR project has achieved or what it is expected to achieve.

You have to also learn to be calm, patient at the same time firm otherwise you risk intimidation by their powerful presence, body language and sheer speed in their thought process. I want to recall here an incident to emphasize my point. In one of my early assignments when I represented a German Small Business Association , I was to meet the Board Members – President, Vice President and Chairmen of various committies of a prominent Business Association in Tamil Nadu. After duly fixing up an appointment I waited my turn in the imposing Board Room, mentally rehearsing my presentation and what I need to say etc. I had done a bit of homework as preparation and knew that the President and other Board members are mostly Engineers and are leaders in their respective fields and also politically well connected. However, still as it was my first meeting with them, I was very anxious.

Exactly on time, the Secretary walked in and announced that the President and his team will be joing soon. After few minutes they walked in and the President took his position at the head of the table. I introduced myself and requested that I make a presentation of the German Organization that I represent and how we could work together. Even before I could start the presentation, I was faced with a barrage of questions. Sample this: “Do you speak German? ( apparently many of them could) Have you visited Germany? (at that time I had not visited Germany) Are you an Engineer (I am not)
These questions at once put me on the back foot, as I had to answer in the negative to all of them. But I was honest, If I had tried to bluff my way through, I would have been sorted out by the experienced men there and none of my presentation that followed would have mattered.

After this initial hiccup, I composed myself and gave a short,crisp presentation. I could immediately feel that I had made a good impression. They were very appreciative of the work I (my organization) was doing and wanted to know how we could work together. Thus started one of my first induction into the world of Small Business Associations. Over the years the same President and other Office bearers became my friends for life.

The lesson learnt here is, be truthful, be straight forward. It took only few minutes for me to prove that I don't need to speak German or be an Engineer to work with Germans or Engineers. You must learn to organize your thoughts calmly and present them firmly. You have to radiate confidence – not over confidence though - and your actions and communication should express it. You really get only one opportunity to make an impression with these influencers and you have to make it count. Once they are convinced and agree upon your line of thought and action, the rest of your work is a walk in the park.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Amber Forever – A Precious Lesson on Business Ethics

In the summer of 2003, I led a business delegation from Chambers of Commerce to Copenhagen Denmark. The entrepreneurs and small business owners enjoyed the interactions with their counterparts in Copenhagen. We also had regular orientation workshops, industry visits and other opportunities to understand doing business in Denmark.

During the weekends, the delegation also had an opportunity to explore Copenhagen and soak in the local culture, do a bit of sight seeing and shopping. During one of these explorations, our business people came across stores selling “Amber” stones. Amber is actually fossilized resin from ancient forests. During this process, it traps debris like seeds, leaves and insects. Amber stones with insects are considered very valuable. Amber sold in Denmark is considered highest quality and is approximately 30 – 90 million years old (source: internet)

All of them were naturally fascinated by its honey and bright orange (amber) colour and also curious about the insects trapped inside (see inset picture: Source: Wikipedia) Some of them wanted to buy and even enquired the price. Strangely, even after visiting several stores selling Amber, nobody actually purchased any thing. I thought to myself, maybe the price put them off.

On monday morning, when our host for the day wanted to know the experience of shopping in Copenhagen, few of the 'shoppers' were excited about the Amber shops. Our host acknowledged their excitement and wanted to know if any of the curious shoppers brought any Amber. The response came as a chorus from our delegation: “We did not buy, as we are not sure if the Amber sold in these shops are genuine” The host seemed to be taken aback by this 'genuine' question. He took his time to gain his composure then asked them another question: Where did you see the amber stones? The response was in “Amber Stores” Then the host shot back: “If the shop says it is selling Amber, it is selling Amber” From his Danish perspective, he could not even understand the reason behind such a question from our Indian guests. For us fakeness, corruption and mediocrity being the order of the day, it seemed a reasonable question. Whereas in the Nordic Countries that enjoy high level of integrity and transparency in all aspects of life, the question itself struck a jarring note.

Let's pause here a bit while I want to take you back to an incident that occured in “namma' Chennai during the famous Mango Season. Few of my German colleagues were visiting Chennai on a business trip and on their way to airport, asked me if I could get them some mangoes to take with them. I jumped at the opportunity to showcase our King of fruits and went to a fruit seller who had neatly packed “Export Only” cartons of Alphonso Mangoes. After usual haggling on the price, I chose a carton which had “Genuine Alphonso Mangoes” Export quality etc colourfully marked on the sides. I could not resist the temptation to take one more box of this export quality for my own consumption – after all why should only foreigners eat export quality mangoes?

After dropping them at the airport with the neatly packed mangoes duly delivered, I smiled all the way back impressed with my alacrity. My happiness was short lived. When I went home and unpacked the “Genuine Alphonso” cartons, there were only few rotten mangoes and the rest of the package was only paper stuffed in the shape of mangoes. Even the rotten mangoes looked like the local variety and not the colourful Alphonso mangoes advertised on the sides of the carton.

I felt terrible not just for the fact that I had been cheated by “genuine” mangoes but felt sorry for our German guests and what impression they would have when they discover the truth. Later I wrote an email apologizing for the incident.

To get back to the Amber story. It taught all of us a lesson that day of what it means to be truthful and genuine in business and in other walks of life. Of course, the delegates went back to the Amber stores and purchased them – a precious acquisiton - not just because it was 90 million years old, but because it taught them the importance of being genuine in transacting business.