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The 5 hard-earned lessons of a self-taught corporate activist

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Marie Dobenesque

I created Corporate Game Changers for people who want to turn around their bullsh*t job into a positive force for change. Together we can use human-centered leadership and business-for-good practices to pave the way for a better future.


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A corporate activist with fist in the air, strong of her hard-earned lessons on how to turn a bullshit job into a force for change
Waking up every morning with the mission to change the world, by going to your 9-to-5 bullsh*t job | Credit: Unsplash.

As I prepare for the next chapter of my professional life, I can’t help but look back at the hard-earned lessons I gathered as I rose to the challenge of keeping my job while being a force for positive change in my company.

 

I am now at this point where I am recognized for my business contribution AND for my positive ruckus making. What started as a negative feature (“she is always complaining”) turned out to become recognized as a leadership strength (“she is driving change we didn’t know we needed”).

 

But it certainly wasn’t always like that. 

The ups and downs of the apprentice corporate activist.

I got started on this corporate activist path after my quarter-life crisis. That’s the time that I reconciled my career choices with my need to change the world, by realising that large companies are the best places to create a real impact. But also realising that despite their external commitments, a lot had to change on the inside to deliver on their promise of sustainability and social challenges.

 

So my goal, my mission, my purpose was to make it as high as possible up the ladder to increase reach, while staying true to my stop-the-bullsh*t-and-save-the-world opinionated self.  I had my WHY, but I had no idea about the HOW...

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The truth is, there is a fine balance to be found between fitting in and driving for change, between the old and the new.

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Many trials and errors later, having to bite the dust and rise again, this is the advice I wish someone had given me at the time: It’s not all about change and speed, and it’s all about balance. I know that it's not as sexy as "find your passion and follow it" - but at least it is sound advice....

 

The truth is that there is a fine balance that needs to be found between fitting in and driving for change, between the old and the new, between safeguarding and disrupting, between learning and teaching.

 


 

 

I split this advice into 5 main realizations - the bouncing-back-from-the-wall understanding of why my many attempts failed and eureka moments from try-outs that finally worked. I hope these insights will also help you crack the code of how to stop being perceived as an annoying trouble maker and start being valued as a much-needed game changer.

#1 - If it needs to be said, it's not common practice.

One of my biggest disillusion was around the company mission and culture - the very loudly communicated corporate propaganda about our commitment to health, to the environment, to the people and to the inclusive way of working and open atmosphere that the company creates as daily workplace. You’ll notice most companies claim more or less the same...

 

The problem is - the company mission is a destination (at best). It’s a declaration of intent, it’s a direction. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a wall decoration. In all cases, what is in the mission certainly isn’t the way it is today. Because what we do today and is well implemented, does not need to be communicated as being the new focus. 

 

 

Many companies declare that they aspire to health for all people, but still sell products loaded with sugar and salt and are only marginally changing their product composition not to lose taste and therefore sales. Many companies claim their commitment to sustainability but have their innovation pipeline based on plastic only, because alternative materials are more expensive or less functional.

 

By the way, the same holds true about the organisation culture propaganda. Many companies will happily praise their openness to being your true self and welcoming feedback. It’s been proven to improve company’s performance and it’s also a great recruitment argument - but it still requires massive communication and training efforts because it’s not the dominant culture today.

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Many companies declare that they aspire to health for all people, but still sell products loaded with sugar and salt. Many companies claim their commitment to sustainability but have their innovation pipeline based on plastic only.

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This means that if you are taking initiative in line with the mission (arguing in a project meeting against plastic) or displaying behavior in line with the culture (openly sharing constructive feedback), you are at odds with the mainstream way of working and probably will get weird looks (if not worse) from your colleagues.

 

Rather look modestly at mission and culture as a permission to open the conversation about alternatives  - and an opportunity to contribute to changing the mindset and culture, little by little. A great place to start is to offer insights and bring education on these topics within your company (e.g. What is zero waste? What is inclusive diversity?).

 

And be particularly wary of companies who claim “common sense” in their mission statement!

#2 - there is no such thing as a company; there is a bunch of individuals plotting their own course.

Even within companies with a strong culture, not all departments and teams in an organisation will have the same culture and way of working. Daily ways of working actually largely depend on the character and motivations of the leaders in place, and on their interpretation and their desire to follow the directions above them.

 

The higher in the tree and the greater the impact on culture. Some leaders will be progressive, others will be conservative; all will be under the influence of their own boss. Typically, a high-ranking leader with a tendency for micro-management will lock the entire organisation and a very limited amount of initiative will be possible, and at great risk.

 

So the insight is to see the individual behind the role, and understand how that plays in the decision making and the priorities setting. This will help you in knocking at the right door when you need some support in unlocking a situation, and to know how to convince that person to help you or your project.

To be a corporate activist you need to learn to plot your own course, and learn to read the courses of others who are in power and shaping their organisation with their decisions
A quote from Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists.

 

As a general rule, observe when you complain about “the company” and try to understand how the power is distributed across the organisation to identify who is/are the stakeholder(s) involved in the situation. Who has an interest in driving change? Who has an interest in blocking? Who has the most to gain and who has the most to lose?

 

Get an idea of the motivations of your leaders and exchange with others in your network about what they know and what they think about these leaders. Are they ambitious or altruists? Short-term or long-term thinkers? Where are the alliances and animosities between people?

 

By overlaying the business dynamics to the leaders individual drivers, you can get access to valuable contextual insights which can help you position yourself and advance your ideas. Political savviness has a bad reputation - but it is a critical skill if you want to rock the boat a little.

#3 - Don't fix a problem until you have been told to.

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Interestingly, the real goal of a middle-management leader is not primarily the overall success of the company.

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Interestingly, the real, intrinsic goal of a leader is not primarily the overall success of the company, particularly when in the middle layers between the C-suite and the shop floor. It’s great if personal goals overlay with business results, but if they don’t, there is a serious chance that self-protection and personal credits will be the primary motivations.

 

Each leader has a certain scope of responsibility and his/her personal performance is measured within this scope. So as an example, if an adjacent department has an issue, one will not likely spontaneously go give help to this other team for the sake of the business. Crazy right? Letting the company get in trouble rather than giving a hand. Why?

 


 

 

For one because spontaneously taking on more work would destroy the narrative that the department is already at full capacity - the ubiquitous “there is not enough people, there is not enough budget to do it all” syndrome.  

 

Two because if you succeed, you will not get credit for resolving a situation which has not yet been acknowledged higher up. The neighbor department in trouble gets to cover up for the deficiencies and the efforts of your department go largely unnoticed.

 

Three because if something goes wrong and in the absence of an established governance to communicate on efforts and risks, you will get the blame, most probably even from the department you are trying to help because you are not following the procedures and ways of working...

 

I got burnt more than once on this one, typically by nicely and naively starting to help without being told to - and getting the blame at the first opportunity. The safer sequence of events is to let the problem get so critical that it will escalate higher up - a senior leader will then request you (or someone else!) to help the other department.

 

Once appointed, you can renegotiate your current workload as well as create awareness on the risk level to you / your team - i.e. covering your rear anatomy. And when it’s fixed, you don’t need to fight to get the recognition for helping!

#4 - You can never make it alone.

You can pile up work and deliver an outstanding job for a sustained period of time - but if you don’t manage relationships along the way, your hard work will not pay off. There is always a moment when you’ll need a favor, an insight or a foot in a door. So work on your pay forward from the get go.

 

Particularly if you are trying to drive change, involve people around you early on. You may have the greatest idea about how to do things differently and you may even be able to implement it successfully in your own team, but nobody will get inspired to do the same unless you’ve embarked them on the journey, by incorporating their views in your plan, from the get go.

 

The other reason why you need to manage relationships well is because of how career progression is managed. Most of the opinions created about you and the critical decisions of your careers will happen when you are not there. Nobody is invited to their own talent review meeting!

 

 

So be strategic about it. People will remember how you made them feel more than what you said or did, especially as time passes. You need to reverse-engineer what you want them to say about you when they are asked for feedback, and proactively act accordingly in your interactions with them. That is active personal branding and it’s vital for your career (too bad for the illusion of meritocracy as ole driver of reward...).

 

 

Finally there is a particular relationship that you need to invest in: your sponsor. Whether it is about having your back if something goes awry or about arguing on your behalf for a promotion, you need to identify who your sponsor could be and how to convince him/her that you are indeed worthy of their hard-earned personal influence.

Managing relationships is critical to your success, and particularly as a corporate activist wanting to bring change in the company.
Managing relationships in the most strategic place: the coffee corner | Credits: Unsplash

 

This insight is true for everyone but all the more challenging for a corporate activist because you are bringing something different to the table. Make sure you perform first of all to gain respect, then be likeable and show that you belong - and only from that place is it possible to bring a diverging - but always constructive - perspective. Especially if you have the back-up of more senior people in the company.

#5 - Take 100% responsibility. Always.

The first level of this insight is that you should never assume. Never assume that the right process and checks are in place, never assume that someone telling you they will take care of it means you should no longer check progress, never assume that something that has been in place forever is robust and sound.

 

So don’t delegate and hope for the best, but take time to go deep and check your assumptions. This is a great way to show interest for people helping you - instead of distributing a to do list and disappear, sit down with them and be curious about what it takes for them to do their piece. You gain valuable insights AND create strong relationships.

 

The second level of the 100% responsibility rule is much deeper. It's about taking full responsibility for everything that happens on a daily base.

 

So if somebody does something wrong to you, rather than complaining about this person and leaving it at that, consider what your part is in the situation. What attitude, words, acts do you display that gives them the idea that they can do you wrong?

 

Equally powerful is to apply this mindset with yourself. Why haven’t you send this particular email on time? Why are you procrastinating on the preparation of a presentation? Why have you forgotten your passport and missed your plane? Stop and ask yourself - what are the emotions, the thoughts, the limiting beliefs which lead me to do / not do this?

 

Taking 100% responsibility for everything that happens to you is a very challenging exercise because it goes against what we have internalized as normal behavior: blaming. Have you ever said to a chair that it was stupid because you bumped onto it? I know you have, we all have... It is much easier to get angry at someone than to admit we’ve been hustled.

 

Yet taking responsibility is a very empowering concept, which allows us to own what we project onto the world - and therefore change our attitude in order to change the outcomes.

A corporate activist is a double agent spy.

If I had to summarize the challenge of being a corporate activist in one sentence, I would say this: even though your daily experience proves you again and again that things need to change and fast, the first step is to accept the ecosystem you operate in - and be accepted by it.

 

I was fortunate enough that the companies I worked for are genuinely well-intended and relatively friendly work environments. But even there, the mechanisms of performance measured at individual levels created short-term mindsets and political games.

 

 

And where there is a game, there are rules, and if you want to win, you first need to be part of the game - so follow the rules. By being too opposed to the rules, you just will forever stay on the side bench and never get to be heard - taking away your chances at bringing meaningful change. 

 

 

A successful corporate activist will understand how to play a double-game - part of the established club on the one hand and on the other hand bringing change from the inside out.

 

A shadowy figure representing a double agent as symbol of the corporate activist - part of the club on the one hand and on the other hand bringing change from the inside out
Being a corporate activist can sometimes feel like being a spy turned double agent... | Credits: Unsplash

 

I am convinced that collaboration works better than competition, that decisions should be taken including the cost of externalities and that we should go for disruption rather than incremental innovation because there is so little time and such a big change needs to happen - but this is not the way most companies operate today.

 

And I see it as my added value to get my corporate ecosystem to see the world from my perspective, but I have to accept that it will be slowly and bit by bit. At the very least, by being visible on my convictions, I give permission to others to own their point of view and together we can stand stronger as a group rather than being a bunch a isolated lunatics.

 

 

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Fit in - but never forget who you are and why you are in ...

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There is an element of humility here as well - it’s not because companies need to change to fit the 21st century challenges that all they do is wrong. There is a lot to learn and best practices to keep, which you can only be aware of if you dig into it. I see my contribution as identifying what we build on and what we change - making it that much more realistic and more likely to happen.


Alive and kicking!

A couple of days ago I bumped onto a fellow ruckus maker colleague who I don’t see very often but with whom I have maintained a supportive relationship for almost a decade. As we catch up on our latest news, he says: “ So it sounds like you are kicking the system less than in the past, aren’t you?” And I answered: “You are absolutely right. But now when I decide to kick, it’s because I believe it will have an effect.

 

This summarizes pretty well how I approach my activism at work today. Because I fit with expectations, I have reached a position with enough influence to be able to have an impact on things that need to change. I have worked hard to gain enough credibility in order to craft the job I was given to fit my need for change-making.

 

I am known and appreciated for being someone who delivers, and who brings convictions to the office and acts on it. My future-proof leadership style is probably even why I was given my last assignment, as the category I now take care of is in need for a revolution!

 

I believe I found the keys to bring my whole self to the office - that is, the best, most useful version of it. It’s not cupcakes and rainbows everyday, but most days I go to the office knowing that in my own little way, I am contributing to making the world a better place. And that might be one of my greatest sources of happiness.

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How about you? What did you learn as you tried to bring

your values and convictions to life at work?

Share your experience in the comments below!