4 Steps to Leading Social Change from Inside the Company - IEDP
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4 Steps to Leading Social Change from Inside the Company

"Social intrapreneurship" is at the heart of Michigan Ross Professors Jerry Davis and Chris White's book "Inside Out"


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When Pricewaterhouse and Coopers merged to form the newly named PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), two interns in the London office were asked what the values of the new company should be. They developed the bold idea of a triple bottom line that measured not only financial performance, but also social and environmental performance. Many companies pay lip service to the concept of making the world a better place.

The triple bottom line, however, would be a transparent and unforgiving measure of how much PwC truly backed its social good rhetoric.

The two interns, Amy Middleberg and James Shaw, were soon joined by a full-time staff member and the three were not only able to sell their idea to the global management team of PwC, but also become leaders of the unit that implemented this extraordinary initiative.

The PwC story is an example of what University of Michigan Ross School of Business professors Jerry Davis and Chris White call “social intrapreneurship,” the subject of their new book, Changing Your Company from the Inside Out. Intrapreneurship, Davis and White write, is the awkward moniker used to describe an entrepreneurial endeavour — that is, developing a new business or enterprise — inside a corporation. Social intrapreneurship is even more ambitious, since the goal of the new internal venture is to help the company make a beneficial impact on society or the planet.

The challenge of social intrapreneurship is to overcome the resistance to what is often a risky enterprise not related to the company’s bottom line (although financial benefits can accrue from these social initiatives).

The answer to meeting this challenge, as Davis and White detail in their book, comes from traditional social movements in history. Specifically, there are four questions that all social movement leaders must resolve in order to be successful:

WHEN? When is the right time to launch this movement? According to Davis and White, the first step is to understand if the initiative fits with the company’s strategy, structure and culture — what the authors call the terrain of the company. Additional timing-related factors, such as a change of leadership or a competitor’s unexpected action — must also be considered.

WHY? Social intrapreneurs must frame their initiative in a way that fits the culture and values of the company. The frame itself can be a story, imagery, numbers or exemplars — real people who personalize the issue. The idea for the Dow Lab Safety Academy — teaching universities laboratories how to be as safe as industrial laboratories — was sold to company executives after champions of the idea described the tragic death of an undergraduate in a university laboratory fire.

WHO? Who do you need to enlist in the effort? Who needs convincing to successfully implement the initiative? Networking is the key here. Using the vocabulary of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Davis and White describe how social intrapreneurs must gain the support of mavens — those who people turn to for help and advice, and connectors, the well-networked individuals in the company.

HOW? Mobilizing structures, to use the author’s terms, can be any platform that helps supporters collaborate and support the initiative. While social media is an obvious tool for social activists, in a corporate context it can be a double-edged sword. Many companies monitor the Internet activities of their employees, and it’s possible that evidence of a social initiative can lead to what the authors calls the “corporate antibodies” that try to kill change.

Davis and White are not social advocates with big ambitions and big hearts but seasoned business school professors and consultants who recognize the challenge and hurdles of guiding a company toward social change. The four-step methodology in this book, backed by scores of examples, is a practical guide to social intrapreneurship based on reality, not dreams.  


Further Information


Changing Your Company from the Inside Out A Guide for Social Intrapreneurs, Gerald F. Davis and Christopher J. White, Harvard Business Review Press, 2015, ISBN 978-1-4221-8509-4

Corporate cliches are for yesterday’s business. Today's business calls for a new kind of leadership, one that sees beyond yesterday’s cliches and creates meaningful change, the kind of change that yields long-term, sustainable results.

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