2012 Conference: Microsoft’s Smith calls corporate citizenship a company’s ‘real’ conscience
Brad Smith, Microsoft General Counsel and Executive Vice President, Legal and Corporate Affairs, told the attendees at the 2012 International Corporate Citizenship Conference that their job is to ensure their companies’ efforts are real; a part of the fabric of what and who they are as companies.
“If it’s just the cherry on top of the cake, the applause, while initially loud, typically doesn’t last,” he said.
Smith told how years ago Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer questioned the company’s philanthropy, and wondered if it was really making a difference. Ballmer wanted Microsoft to create systemic change in addressing problems that matter to people. Microsoft’s first effort focused on computer skills training to help individuals improve employment prospects and their lives.
In sharing the story of Microsoft’s journey to make corporate citizenship “real,” Smith stressed the importance of measurement and knowing “not just what you are doing, but what you are doing with impact.” He advised that even initiatives and programs that work must be updated and adapted to keep them fresh and focused.
To make something real in a skeptical world, Smith commented, companies must be willing to put themselves out there a bit to persuade critics of the sincerity of what they are doing. “Have a little edge” to test your company to give more momentum to overall efforts, bring your voice together with deeds, and think more strategically. “It allows us to build something bigger than a popgun.”
In searching for an edge, Smith said, it’s not difficult to be controversial, but a company can’t afford to be radioactive. Microsoft chose to integrate its philanthropy with public policy positions on education funding and immigration reform. “Education is not so controversial but immigration is a hot button issue,” said Smith, adding that Ballmer and Bill Gates had always been involved in immigration issues.
Microsoft’s effort to make a difference on immigration took flight when three employees urged the company to get involved with helping refugees during the Bosnia-Kosovo war. This germ of an idea led to creation of technology tools with HP to provide U.N. identity cards for refugees and build a database to reunite families. Later, growing out of pro bono work in Smith’s legal department in Seattle and working with Angelina Jolie, Microsoft helped launch the national nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense to support refugee children who had become separated from parents and faced deportation.
Smith pointed to this experience as evidence good ideas can grow when you get employees involved. “Having a signature effort, you need to let your employees get involved in a way that is meaningful for them and the company as a whole.”
What do you do when things go wrong?
A true test of how what it means to work responsibly comes when problems arise. Smith recalled Microsoft’s response when a 2010 front page New York Times story claimed the company was complicit in a crackdown by Russian prosecutors on small newspapers and NGOs for software counterfeit. After a frantic weekend getting to the bottom of what was going on, Microsoft put a program in place within 24 hours to create new blanket license agreements to automatically and immediately apply to every NGO and newspaper in Russia.
While Smith wrote in a Times rebuttal that the facts were unclear, he said that even if the story was half true, Microsoft was not comfortable and wanted to focus on the future not the past.
“You can debate the past or define the future,” Smith said. “Don’t get bogged down in the past. Seize and define the future.”
Smith said the case provided fundamental learning for the company about the difference between managing problems rather than solving them. In describing how to drive corporate engagement into the realm of problem-solving, Smith pointed out that every large institution needs a conscience.
“The conscience won’t have the answer to every question, but the conscience is a voice that needs to be heard,” he said. “The conscience needs to be a voice that is sensitive to the fact that other voices will need to be heard as well. “ He went on to encourage corporate citizenship professionals to act as a voice of corporate conscience. “If you think something, share it. If you see a problem, escalate it. … That, in no small measure, is what corporate citizenship is about. It’s about being the conscience for companies in a rapidly changing and very complex time. It’s work that matters. It’s work that is not easy, but hard. It’s the work that will make corporate citizenship real, and I believe that should be our goal.”