What leaders can learn from social activists

You don’t have to stage a coup to promote a cause within your company
Support for your cause depends on getting the right people on board.
Social movements vary in size and scope, from the civil rights movement and the Arab Spring to small petitions seeking to rescue a local business or service. But they all have one thing in common: they’re led by individuals who are able to gather support for a common cause, and can come up with a strategy to drive real change. This is why management professors Gerald Davis and Christopher White say that leaders who seek to enact change from within their own companies – so-called intrapreneurs – can learn from social movements to become more effective. In their book Changing Your Company from the Inside Out, they share a few tips.


Leaders looking to change their business have to assess how their initiatives will fit within their organisation’s strategy and culture, just like successful social movements have done in the past.
The American Civil Rights Movement, for example, was able to gain momentum in the 1950s because the political conditions were more conducive to its success. Given this, its leaders were able to get broad-based support for the cause and push for important legislation to end segregation.
Within a company, there are also better and worse times to campaign for a cause. When Bill Ford Jr took over the Ford Motor Company, for example, his environmentalist background signalled that the nearly century-old firm was open to new ideas. Davis and White say this opened new opportunities for innovation, from the introduction of an array of hybrid vehicles to the creation of a “human rights code”, a set of ethical best practices for Ford’s entire global supply chain.


Intrapreneurs trying to enact change also have to gain support for their initiatives. And the way a new idea is presented or framed can strongly shape how its audience receives it. So skilled leaders will connect their ideas to the enduring values and priorities of the organisation, say Davis and White. In a family business, this may involve emphasising legacy. In more standard corporate settings, citing an increased return on investment will be more convincing.


Social movements mobilise people for a common cause. Similarly, for leaders trying to enact change within their own companies, the authors suggest focusing on getting the right people on board.
It was by doing this that a group of relatively inexperienced employees at PwC were able to champion a social audit practice to complement the firm’s traditional lines of business in 1998. They created flip charts with the names of the company’s leaders, their level of interest in the project, and their relationships with known allies. They used this to create a clear strategy and gain support for making PwC an advocate for social responsibility. As the authors say, “innovations spread faster when they are conveyed by the right people with the right set of connections”.

Follow the social conversation

Hshtags is a social media search engine. It pulls together all content posted using a hashtag across an exhaustive list of social platforms, from Facebook and Twitter to Youtube and Vine. You can use it as a way to discover new or popular topics, engage with users beyond your own network, or track the social interactions around a specific event, like a conference or a topic of interest. Firms can also use it to analyse conversations with consumers about their products or services.

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