Who Can Push for Change Within a Company?

Corporate structures can be mystifying, and sometimes it's hard to tell who on the inside has actual power.

Darhil Crooks / The Atlantic

Innovation and change in business often mean a shiny new product or a “re-branding” with a redesigned logo and an acronym in a sans serif font.

But what interests me, as someone who has worked for years in corporate social responsibility, is the sort of innovation that changes how a business does business. I’m talking about how decisions get made and how resources get allocated; how projects and departments get evaluated; what gets people promoted and fired; how companies interact with partners, suppliers, the myriad constituencies they affect, and the natural environment. How, and why, do those systems and processes change?

External forces can help lead a company to change. Regulators create laws and policies (and sometimes enforce them); companies compete with each other (sometimes to the top, sometimes to the bottom); investors, consumers, and the media can all exert pressure. But whatever external forces suggest, the company decides whether and how to internalize those pressures.

"The company decides"—what does that mean? Companies are not the command-and-control systems they perhaps once were, where CEOs or boards make pronouncements and troops fall in line. Businesses are not people (despite some legal and other opinions to the contrary). They don’t “make decisions.” They are collections of human beings, rife with competing interests and fluctuating power dynamics. In such a complicated system, who actually drives change?

The answer is important because advocates both internal and external need to know where to direct their energies, and without that understanding, corporate operations can be baffling. John Elkington, one of the first people to work with companies to improve their environmental and social impacts, once wrote that in his corporate engagements he often envied James Bond. “When 007 breaks into an enemy command center, he invariably seems to know which buttons to press. As I began to find myself called into more and more corporate boardrooms, I often had to press every button in sight to see what was linked to what.” Where, in a big corporation, is the “change” button?

Even inside a company, people who want to innovate need help navigating their own organizations—and their own careers, as they wonder where they might have the most leverage. During my nine years working on corporate responsibility and human rights for BP, I had to interact with every department, including legal, communications, procurement, and the C-suite. Their respective influence and power varied depending on the issue, the context, and the specific individuals running those shops.

So for those of us seeking change in big business, from the inside or out, where should we look? Where does change actually come from?

For the next three weeks, I’ll explore how different corporate roles can and cannot drive meaningful change, with stories and reflections from people in those positions.

We’ll start our tour later this week, with one of the newer roles in the corporate world: the Chief Sustainability Officer.