Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 99, Supplement 1, pp 73–91

The Role of ‘High Potentials’ in Integrating and Implementing Corporate Social Responsibility


    • Department of MarketingCardiff Business School, University of Cardiff
    • BEM Bordeaux Management School
    • Louvain School of Management, Université catholique de Louvain
    • IESEG School of Management
  • David Harness
    • Hull University Business School
  • Marieke Hoffmann
    • Eindhoven University of Technology

DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-1168-3

Cite this article as:
Lindgreen, A., Swaen, V., Harness, D. et al. J Bus Ethics (2011) 99: 73. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-1168-3


The Samenleving and Bedrijf (S&B) network of Dutch organizations seeks to embed corporate social responsibility (CSR) within business practices but faces challenges with regard to how to do so across various organizational practices, processes, and policies. The integration of CSR demands cultural change driven by senior management and other change agents, who push CSR principles throughout the organization. This study examines the change processes that S&B member organizations have initiated, with a particular focus on the role of high potentials—those persons who have been selected for the fast track into senior management. Interviews with nine S&B organizations document their levels of CSR integration and implementation, the role of senior managers, and the effects of high potentials’ competencies on the realignment process. High potentials have the ability and opportunity to act as CSR change agents, but organizations’ expectations of their purposes as future senior managers prevented them from doing so. In the existing organizational cultures, leadership focused on economic success, and the CSR implementation process had just initiated. Therefore, a measure of CSR embeddedness might refer to the performance measurement and expectations of high potentials as potential CSR change agents.


Corporate social responsibilityHigh potentialsChange agentsIntegrationImplementationCase study


Becoming oriented toward corporate social responsibility (CSR) requires an organization to alter its business model to accommodate the principles of CSR. These underpinning principles, as summarized by Carroll (1979), are balance between profit generation (economic) and good citizenship (social), without harm to the environment (environmental)—that is, the triple bottom line framework. Maintaining the economic well-being of the organization is an essential condition to insure it can meet social and environmental requirements (Elkington 1997; SER 2000). The responsibilities framework (Carroll 1979; Maignan 1997) adds two important constructs: First, society believes an organization is responsible for its actions, so it must gain its economic objectives without causing to harm to social and environmental factors. Second, organizations have discretionary responsibility, such that for issues on which society takes no clear position, they should be responsible for more than the bare minimum of regulatory requirements. Failure to do so, as the example of Enron shows, represents unethical behavior (Carroll 1979). A person’s or organization’s CSR-related values in turn determine interpretations of discretionary responsibility, which may be broadened by consideration of various stakeholders, such as employees, owners, and external parties, that influence and are influenced by the actions of an organization (Vos 2003). Because economic criteria have historically dominated business practices and success definitions, the adoption of CSR and its distinct definitions of business success likely require cultural change in the organization (Doppelt 2003; Dunphy et al. 2003; Placet et al. 2005).

The defining principles of CSR as an umbrella concept generally seem well understood and articulated (e.g., Garriga and Melé 2004; Joyner and Payne 2002; Lindgreen et al. 2009; Vos 2003). Less well understood is how CSR might become embedded within an organization and thereby determine business activities, which is the challenge that currently faces Samenleving and Bedrijf (S&B). This network of Dutch organizations is aware of CSR but unsure of how to implement it to achieve full integration. Organizations can achieve integration by ensuring their policies, practices, and processes are congruent with CSR principles, which in turn may provide two distinct and linked benefits. First, it mitigates the charge that organizational CSR is nothing more than marketing communication in response to shifting governmental and social expectations (Pedersen and Neergaard 2008) or “window dressing” (Meyer and Rowen 1977). Second, by embedding CSR into policies and everyday business practices, the firm reduces the potential that CSR comes decoupled from decision making when the organization confronts economic challenges (Weaver et al. 1999).

Both of these outcomes rely on organizational cultural change (Doppelt 2003; Dunphy et al. 2003), which can be achieved through positive senior management leadership (Lyon 2004; Maon et al. 2009; Werre 2003) that supports change and pushes CSR principles throughout the organization (Cramer et al. 2004). Current managers and employees with high potential to become senior managers in the future (hereafter, high potentials) likely play significant roles in ensuring that CSR becomes the dominant business agenda that is integrated into all policies, practices, and processes. According to Randel (2002, p. 70), “although managerial activity must fall within the parameters of organizational role, managers have many opportunities to make decisions (discretionary responsibility) and take actions based on their own convictions that supports socially responsible practice.”

Yet no existing research explores the link between high potentials and CSR implementation and integration. Therefore, we consider what CSR integration is, the stages involved in CSR implementation, and the role that managers, and specifically high potentials, may play. To do so, we first conceptualize a theoretical framework based on a literature review of research related to CSR integration, implementation, and managers and future managers’ roles. We also report the findings of an empirical study in which we qualitatively explore how S&B members have embedded CSR and the extent to which high potentials, as critical change agents, support the process. Finally, we identify the study’s theoretical and managerial contributions, address some limitations, and suggest avenues for further research.

Theoretical Background

Integration represents the desired end stage of a set of activities an organization undertakes to orient toward CSR, which requires culture change. Culture reflects the underlying assumptions about the way work should be performed and what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable business practices (Atkinson 1990). We might identify CSR-generated cultural change by, for example, employee rewards and recognition that are linked to CSR adoption and learning (Lyon 2004; Werre 2003). Ethics research suggests that integration also involves dedicated training about and formalized auditing of activities to insure their compliance with CSR ideals (Maon et al. 2010; Paine 1994; Weaver et al. 1999).

Without such integration and reinforcement, CSR likely remains nothing more than a public relations activity, such that the ties that bind CSR to the organization’s commercial activities eventually break (Weaver et al. 1999). Bateson et al. (2006) call this state of affairs moral hypocrisy, because CSR is simply a marketing activity that becomes “shallow and ultimately a useless concept” (Maak 2008, p. 356).

This description prompts two questions: First, how does an organization measure the extent to which it has achieved CSR integration? Second, how does an organization deepen the level of this integration? Outcome measures, such as employee rewards linked to CSR adoption, might address the first question at least partially, but they cannot demonstrate full adoption of a value system. The second question thus seems easier to answer, by considering prior studies about CSR integration and implementation.

CSR Integration

In a final CSR integration stage, all of an organization’s activities are determined by its compliance with CSR principles. The extent to which organizations achieve this goal determines their level of CSR integration (see Table 1). Two frameworks define different levels of CSR integration. First, Dunphy et al. (2003) suggest that an organization rejects CSR because it perceives the concept as burdensome; engagement then results from regulatory pressure, which ultimately leads to the acceptance of its potential for providing economic benefits.
Table 1

CSR levels of CSR integration

Dunphy et al. (2003)

Core elements

Van Marrewijk and Werre, (2003)

Core elements


Company exists for profit; employees, society, & environment exploited; opposes CSR rules/regulations



Lacks awareness and ignorant of CSR, not actively militant against CSR, profit focused


No CSR ambition, may have some CSR if forced by regulations


Reactive minimal compliance with rules/regulations

Compliance-Driven CSR

CSR as duty/obligation, the correct behavior. Benefits society/charity to regulations


See CSR “advantages,” change HRM & environmental policies to reduce cost, increase efficiency

Profit-Driven CSR

Business case determines CSR integration & decision-making influence: bottom line criteria

Strategic proactivity

Determines strategy, provides competitive edge, facilitates long-term profitability

Caring CSR

Balances social, economic, environmental, beyond compliance & profit maximization, intrinsically accepts CSR

Synergistic CSR

Balances functional solutions to create value in economic, social & environmental dimensions, facilitating win–win approach with stakeholders, recognized as the unavoidable direction for progress

The sustainable corporation

Internalized idea of a sustainable world: strong financial returns, actively & voluntarily promotes CSR, global ecological viability, equitable society & human fulfillment

Holistic CSR

CSR fully integrated & embedded, contributes to the life of every being & entity now & in the future, all beings and phenomena mutually interdependent, sustainability is the only future, each person & organization universally responsible

Second, another framework posits that individuals, organizations, and societies have consistent sets of values, beliefs, and corresponding behaviors that form their value systems. These systems evolve in a fixed order: from survival to security, energy and power, order, and success, and finally to community, synergy, and holistic life systems. Each new value system includes and goes beyond the previous ones, forming a natural hierarchy. For example, organizations initially need to establish cash flow, which drives all their decisions. As they gain success, they can focus on fulfilling their moral and environmental obligations. Van Marrewijk and Werre’s (2003) framework therefore assumes that CSR integration reflects the extent to which managers and employees align their values with the overall principles of sustainability and allow it to influence the way they conduct business.

The differences in the driving forces between these two frameworks reflect the debate about whether CSR is appropriate because it provides instrumental benefits, because it supports wealth maximization for shareholders, or because it provides moral benefits and enables the organization to do the right thing (Waldman and Siegal 2008). However, both frameworks arrive at the same place: CSR becomes the “glue” that binds the organization’s activities.

Furthermore, both frameworks suggest integration is a sequential process; we also note this process may lack sharply defined boundaries between stages and reveal haphazard progressions. For example, the internally determined human resource policies of a single company could be in a proactive or caring phase, but its environmental policies, which require negotiation and agreement with external parties, simultaneously could be stuck in the efficiency- or profit-driven phases. The stages in each framework thus highlight the different levels of organizational cultural change required to become fully integrated with CSR, though they cannot reveal how such implementation may be achieved.

CSR Implementation

The frameworks that outline CSR implementation generally indicate that it is an organizational change process (Doppelt 2003; Werre 2003), though little agreement exists about how many or which stages are involved. For example, Werre (2003) suggests four holistic stages: raising top management awareness, formulating a CSR vision and core corporate values, changing organizational behavior, and anchoring change. Doppelt’s (2003) “wheel of change” instead comprises seven stages: alter the goals of the system, restructure the rules of engagement, shift the flows of information, correct the feedback loop, adjust parameters, change the dominant mind set, and rearrange the parts of the system. The circular processes reflect the different time scales required to attain different levels of integration, such that some stages must be repeated to move forward.

Jonker and De Witte (2006) add that CSR becomes organizationally embedded only when it results in total added value for the organization. Their integrated CSR management framework focuses on shaping the business proposition, defined as the organization’s mission, vision, and business strategy. This proposition then determines the nature of the organization’s identity, its systems, and the levels of accountability and transactivity, such that each becomes CSR-oriented and facilitates integration.

Cramer et al.’s (2004, 2006) approach, which they call “sense making of CSR,” assumes that change agents interpret what CSR means within their specific operating context. Change agents implement CSR by translating their own views and intentions into language and actions that push the organization to change its values (Cramer et al. 2004). The CSR implementation of each organization therefore is unique, determined by the views of its change agents and their personality, functions, and circles of influence (Cramer et al. 2004).

Porter and Kramer’s (2006) consider business and society mutually dependent; investing in facilities to improve workforce health results in productivity gains, for example. This instrumental focus requires the organization to assess the fit between its commercial interests and the societal needs that may affect its ability to succeed.

Stakeholder theory provides a basis for understanding the CSR implementation process. For example, Maignan et al. (2005) emphasize the need to consider stakeholders when defining short-term outcomes and shaping the strategic focus, because this consideration leads to shared ownership and an accepted understanding of where the organization is heading. In this sense, CSR implementation is a negotiated activity, a theme further developed by Castka et al. (2004), who point out that organizations build on what exists and therefore are limited in their ability to introduce wholesale and complete change, so it must also be an incremental process.

Although these frameworks offer slightly different views about how to implement CSR to achieve integration, they also entail some common elements, as we summarize in Table 2. An organization might not pass through every stage, and the stages may progress sequentially or simultaneously, as well as repeat. Therefore, the implementation process appears circular rather than linear. The link across the stages is individual responsibility to drive change (Cramer et al. 2004).
Table 2

Stages of CSR implementation

Stages of CSR implementation


(1) Conduct ‘zero-assessment’

Identify current CSR practice (Cramer et al. 2004; Maignan et al. 2005)

(2) Develop CSR goals within the organization’s mission, vision, and strategy

Identify what the organization wants to achieve and how to achieve it (Doppelt 2003; Lyon 2004; Werre 2003)

(3) Gain top management support

Senior managers determine strategy and without their support become critical barriers to CSR implementation (Doppelt 2003; Werre 2003)

(4) Gain employee support to ensure they own CSR as part of their work life activities

Requires involvement of a cross-section of employees in zero assessment, and effective communication of CSR mission and vision; reinforced though training (Cramer et al. 2004, 2006; Maignan et al. 2005; Werre 2003)

(5) Gain support from external stakeholders

Groups affected by the organization or which affect the organization, for example, suppliers, distributors, and wider community. Selecting organizations with similar CSR believes consolidates the re-orientation of the business (Castka et al. 2004; Cramer et al. 2004; Maignan et al. 2005)

(6) Prioritize change effort and focus on achieving it

An acknowledgment of how the change implementation requires the application of finite management and other resources (Doppelt 2003)

(7) Measure progress and fine-tune the process

CSR implementation is an iterative approach (Cramer et al. 2004; Porter and Kramer 2006)

(8) Anchor change

Ensuring the organization’s activities results in mutual benefits for it and the society it operates in (Porter and Kramer 2006; Werre 2003)

(9) Reorder the implementation system

Reflects continuous nature of the process where stages may occur simultaneously, shaped by the situation faced by the organization (Doppelt 2003)

High Potentials

An organization works toward CSR integration by undertaking various activities, such that its mission, vision, and strategic thrust cascade into its policies, practices, and processes. All stakeholders have a role to play in setting the CSR agenda, but at the start, it needs considerable buy-in from senior mangers (Thomas and Simerly 1994). Senior management is responsible for creating “a vision for the future which is aligned to the demands from the environment and communicat[ing] this vision in a manner that inspires people to act in accordance with the vision” (Werre 2003, p. 248). If managers fail to demonstrate this strong moral responsibility, according to Hemmingway (2005), it is doubtful whether greater CSR integration is possible. Maak (2007, p. 330) recognizes that “we still have little knowledge about responsible leadership and even less about how to develop responsibility in leaders to prepare them for the challenges of a global and interconnected stakeholder society.” In turn, responsibility for the development of CSR within the organization and its usage falls onto managers, as well as those being groomed to become senior managers in the future. Yet research leaves unknown the role that high potentials, as future managers, may play and how the organization can support them.

High potentials, as a group of employees, possess certain attributes that make them attractive as CSR change agents. Change agents employ tactics such as persuasion and vigilance to champion an issue and drive change (Beatty and Gordon 1991). They possess strong personal and business competencies, such as self-confidence and awareness, ambition, clear objectives, dedication and motivation, communication and social skills, leadership, analytic and problem-solving skills, teamwork and team building, creativity and flexibility, the ability to organize and manage, independence and autonomy, and prioritization of improvement and innovation. These competencies might be inherent personal characteristics, such as the willingness to push themselves and others (Gritzmacher 1989; Jones and Spooner 2006), or gained through management development (Pepermans et al. 2002) or supportive communications (Rausch et al. 2001). They also confirm that high potentials can perform as senior managers (Altman 1997; Burke 1997).

But to perform as CSR change agents, high potentials likely need additional competencies. Personal and social-based competencies determine people’s ethical and moral principles (Kellerman 2006). In particular, personal competencies evolve from self-awareness, motivation, sincerity, passion, and conviction for CSR, so they enable the creative application of resources to overcome implementation barriers. Social competencies instead derive from social awareness, willingness to listen, recognition of different perspectives, and openness to dilemmas. Therefore, high potentials with strong social competencies likely understand the relevance of their relationships with different stakeholders and how to achieve goals through communication. Overall, sustainable leadership results from the interaction of leadership constructs, personal moral standards, and the abilities to relate to different groups, align various values into a common vision, and exhibit empathy for others (Maak and Pless 2006).

In Table 3, we compare sustainable versus regular core competencies and find considerable overlap. That is, organizations already recruit employees who exhibit some of the qualities required for sustainable leadership. The differences relate to the person’s orientation toward ethical and moral values, the desire to achieve success by working with others, and the willingness to continue learning.
Table 3

Differences and similarities between regular and sustainable competences

Regular competences

Sustainable competences



Cox and Cooper (1988); Derr et al. (1988); Jones and Spooner (2006); Pepermans et al. (2002); Rausch et al. (2001)

Self-management and self-learning

Kellerman (2006); Maak and Pless (2006)

 Analytic and problem-solving skills

Cox and Cooper (1988); Pepermans et al. (2002); Rausch et al. (2001)

Being a responsible person


 Ability to organize and manage

Derr et al. (1988); Jones and Spooner (2006); Rausch et al. (2001);

Trust and integrity


 Independence and autonomy

Cox and Cooper (1988); Gritzmacher (1989); Jones and Spooner (2006)



 Improvement and innovation

Cox and Cooper (1988); Pepermans et al. (2002);

Facilitating change



 Self confidence and awareness

Cox and Cooper (1988); Pepermans et al. (2002); Rausch et al. (2001);

Self-awareness and self-motivation


 Communication and social skills

Derr et al. (1988); Pepermans et al. (2002); Rausch et al. (2001)

Communicate vision and mission


 Creativity and flexibility

Gritzmacher (1989); Pepermans et al. (2002)



 Team work and team building, as well as social awareness

Cox and Cooper (1988); Pepermans et al. (2002); Gritzmacher (1989) Rausch et al. (2001)

Relationship management and building and teamwork


Finally, we note that prior literature suggests that CSR integration occurs through organizational cultural change, comprising various levels of integration that serve as markers and different types of activities required to implement CSR. The change process requires that the persons who take ownership of CSR principles must encourage them in daily work practices and thus ultimately change the organization’s value system. This process cannot be instantaneous; instead, it must be time-consuming and continuous and require the support of both current and future senior managers. Therefore, we adjust our research questions: First, can organizations, as part of their overall CSR implementation strategies, use high potentials as change agents? Second, what competencies do high potentials need to become CSR change agents? To answer the first question, we need a holistic understanding of the extent to which organization members have implemented CSR; to answer the second, we require an understanding of what organizations expect of high potentials.


We choose a qualitative approach for this study, because we investigate complex phenomena and need to take many variables into account (Eisenhardt 1989; Matthyssens and Vandenbempt 2003; Yin 1994). Specifically, we use a case study with secondary data and multiple interviews to develop rich insights and provide a basis for transferring our findings to other contextual settings (Eisenhardt 1989; Lindgreen 2008). As the established body in the Netherlands for promoting CSR for business organizations, S&B offers a good subject. Its 28 members include highly respected and leading national and multinational organizations.

Because our goal for this exploratory research was to develop an understanding of the CSR-related competencies required for high potentials, as well as how management might help them add value to CSR implementation, we focus the data collection effort on identifying the sampled organizations’ CSR adoption stage. The evaluations of their mission statements, strategies, values, and principles, as well as the CSR strategies and activities they had in place, provides case-specific contexts for examining the link between the CSR implementation stage and high potentials’ involvement with regard to managerial development activities and desired core competencies. For the interviews, we identified four main topic areas, derived from our literature review and secondary organizational data: organization description; mission, strategy, and values (or principles); CSR strategy and activities; and the nature of high potentials’ competences.

Case Description

All the participating organizations are members of the S&B network, which means they are committed to developing CSR practices.1 However, each member is likely to represent a different level of adoption. To insure our results apply to organizations outside the S&B network as well, we insured that the sample represents six different industries. We interviewed employees of two firms from the accountancy and consultancy, information and communication technology, and finance industries, and we interviewed member from the telecommunications, electronics, and mail and logistics sectors. Each of these targeted organizations actively implements CSR across the entire company; other members of S&B have yet to move from the awareness or creation stage to CSR implementation, so they probably have not amended their recruitment or training policies to reflect a stronger CSR orientation.

Data Collection and Analysis

To build each case, we collected data with various methods. First, the case study organizations provided written documentation, including annual reports, corporate responsibility reporting documents, and information related to the recruitment and training of new employees and high potentials. In addition, we evaluated the organizations’ Web sites and pertinent academic papers. These data offer comprehensive insights into the CSR practices and recruitment and management development activities of the sampled organizations.

Second, we conducted interviews with 14 persons responsible for either the recruitment and development of high potentials or the implementation of CSR. Each semi-structured interview lasted between 45 and 60 min. Although we had hoped to interview both the CSR and the recruitment managers in each organization, we could not do so for two firms (either because the same person could address both sets of questions or because a manager was unavailable during the time of the study). All interviews continued until they reached saturation, that is, no extra questions yielded additional insights (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Although the interviews provided most of the necessary information, we gathered any missing information from other data resources, such as the organizations’ Web sites. The interviews were recorded and transcribed, then translated into English. The transcriptions created 43 pages of text (Arial, 11-point, single spaced). To analyze the transcriptions, we first eliminated irrelevant data, then divided the remaining data into the four main categories: mission, strategy, and values (or principles); corporate social responsibility; high potentials as CSR change agents; and high potentials’ CSR competencies.

These multiple methods for collecting data enhance the robustness of the study’s findings, help compensate for the weaknesses of any one data collection method, improve the quality of the final interpretation, and help ensure triangulation (Beverland and Lindgreen 2010; Jick 1979; Strauss and Corbin 1998; Yin 1994). Because the unit of analysis is each case organization, we combine the information from each set of interviews and the secondary sources into a final case manuscript for each organization. Throughout the study, we also adopted precautions to improve the research quality. First, in preliminary research, we identified the most appropriate members of S&B to insure a broad range of organization types and levels of CSR commitment. Second, the three researchers involved in this study each provided independent interpretations of the findings. Third, we conducted multiple interviews and gave interviewees the opportunity to provide feedback on the initial findings. These tactics also reinforce the reliability of our findings. Furthermore, whereas colleagues performed the independent coding of the transcripts, all the interviews were conducted by the same interviewer, which reduces the potential for bias (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Strauss and Corbin 1998).


The organizational data sources, such as websites, company reports, and the interviews, revealed how the organizations had changed their activities to support their CSR implementation; the extent to which they had achieved their CSR integration; whether high potentials were involved in the CSR implementation; and the opportunities for high potentials to become involved in the CSR implementation.

Mission, Strategy, and Values

A CSR orientation is likely to appear in an organization’s mission statement, with further elaborations in its business strategy and corporate values. Of the nine sampled organizations, three mission statements made direct references to CSR, such as enriching customer lives, ensuring employees consider social issues when performing their duties, and taking responsibility for the organization’s impact on the world. The other six organizations highlight CSR in their strategy statements and employee value policies. As part of strategy, their CSR appears in phrases such as teamwork, developing people, and excelling in business collaboration.

To translate a mission into operational activities requires that CSR underpins the values and principles that define business conduct and the treatment of employees. All nine organizations listed certain values and principles, and though they vary in number, at least half of them centered on CSR. This finding indicates that organizations have begun the process of cultural change to achieve their CSR orientation. The most common CSR themes include a focus on employees and teamwork, leading by example, working with partners that share similar CSR views, being responsible corporate citizens, taking personal responsibility for their actions, respecting human rights and the environment, being accountable, being open, and working in a context of mutual respect.

Corporate Social Responsibility

As an inherent feature of the CSR framework, the organization must align its strategic thrust with the principles of CSR, with the support and perhaps impetus of senior managers. All organizations had the support of their senior manager to promote CSR, though that support depended on the managers’ personal views, as the following quotes demonstrate:

They [i.e., the board] have a personal interest. They realize society is changing, customers change, and they want to adapt to that (CSR Manager, Bank 1)

We noticed that when we took proposals to the board, it was difficult to discuss with them why CSR is important for the company. That is what surprised me. We can readily make a decision on a business issue, we can invest, we can sell and buy, but deciding on a theme in CSR, that is something personal. (Board member, Accountancy Company 1)

I personally think that looking at the change in our environment, accountants and consultants are covered under rules and administrative burdens to do their business. A second pillar has to support the business, that is CSR. The company and its employees have to take the responsibility for what is happening in their surroundings. (Board Member, Accountancy Company 2)

Therefore, the desire to keep the organization aligned with the CSR views of wider society drives their CSR adoption, but the individual values of the senior mangers shape what that adoption means for the organization.

Further evidence of senior management support emerges with regard to how the organization publicizes its CSR activities. All organizations reported CSR activities in their shareholder reports or more focused publications, such as a sustainability report. This publication seems to encourage the elaboration of CSR into principles and policies. For example, seven organizations expressed specific CSR principles, and two embedded them into their business practices. Four organizations undertook CSR initiatives aimed at developing a specific staff group or the whole organization—for example, creating teams of young employees tasked with implementing CSR, rewarding staff who worked on community projects, or partnering with UN initiatives to support children’s education in developing countries.

Several factors also appear to determine the speed of CSR implementation. First, with one exception, all the organizations were in good economic health, which enabled them to devote resources to CSR. The one exception was focused on securing its financial well-being; it also regarded CSR as an important but a lesser priority. Second, the duration of the organizations’ CSR involvement largely determined their stage. The majority of firms were still developing their strategy, though two considered themselves on the road to implementation. Third, selecting a CSR strategy that appealed universally to employees was challenging. Fourth, both organizational size and the extent to which individual members valued CSR also influenced implementation, as the following quotes show:

Employees were enthusiastic to do something. The support from the board could be better. It seems like it is only a communication issue right now. It should be a more important issue within [the company], it should be implemented in the whole organization, but [the company] is not that far. Right now, [the company] is searching which way they should go with CSR and the implementation. (Corporate Communications Manager, Electronics Company)

Awareness is a step-by-step process that takes time, and we are not done yet. I think that everybody at Bank 1 knows that we are involved in CSR, that about 25% of the employees understand what our choices are in CSR, but a large group does not yet know. People feel a certain involvement with the issues in society that they see in the media and think what it means for them in work life. (CSR Manager, Bank 1)

The extent to which employees support CSR thus is critical to CSR implementation. In this sense, implementation pertains to the values employees hold and how those values align with the values of the organization.

High Potentials as Change Agents for CSR Implementation

Change agents use their views and values to influence the nature of CSR within their organization. Organizations might believe that high potentials can serve this role; our results reveal that because of their youth, they seem to reflect current societal norms, such that they were expected to have knowledge and understanding of CSR. That is:

They live in a different period. They are confronted with all kinds of issues in the world and they are concerned about that. As a leader you are forced to think about these issues and do something about it. (Manager Environment and Sustainability, Accountancy 1)

They are the people of the future. What you see is that it is an important strategic issue for our board that young people have CSR in their head and heart. (CSR Manager, Accountancy 2)

The society from which the organizations recruit their employees faces the constant challenges of, for example, environmental issues and social concerns. Unlike current senior managers, whose business philosophies likely were forged during a different period, young high potentials, simply by virtue of their membership in modern society, are perceived to have relatively higher awareness of CSR.
The organizations also believed that new employees, especially young ones, should be exposed to CSR early in their careers. Four organizations used training or mentoring to communicate their values and principles. One organization even differentiated between high potentials and normal staff with regard to the level of CSR exposure they received when they joined the organization. However, most firms did not identify their high potentials until after they had worked for the firm for a period of time, and many believed new employees needed time to adjust to working in a new organization. Therefore,

For young starters it is good that they are confronted with CSR and take it into account in their ambition; that is clear. In the long term, they can translate that to their employees, but in the first year they cannot do that. Then they are searching for their own role within the organization instead of putting sustainability on the agenda. I see this as a long-term role for them.

I also think it should not be a topic for a select group, but that it should be embedded across the organization. (Manager CSR, Bank 2)

It is important to involve them from the beginning. But it is important that everybody at [the company] knows CSR. I do not think they are the most important, but they are one of the important parties. (Corporate Communications Manager, Electronics Company)

Even when the high potentials did not serve as CSR change agents though, they were included in activities designed to increase awareness and help shape CSR policy, such as spending a working week on a CSR initiative or being part of a cross-functional team involved in a zero assessment exercise:

In the essential projects I include young people; they get prominent attention when we promote it externally or internally. Besides that I include important people on a higher level to create a win-win. (CSR Manager, Accountancy 2)

Depending on the position they reach, they can have a lot of influence. So they are important for the future. A leader is important for a company and what they do. If a leader thinks CSR is an important issue than he will use that in his company. So if a high potential becomes a member of the executive board of a company he can have a lot of influence. (Manager for Environment and Sustainability, Telecommunications)

The leadership progression cycle thus brings high potentials in contact with a wide range of employees from different business functional areas. In turn, they can identify and attempt to understand the values of other employees, as well as the challenges associated with aligning their views with the organizations’ CSR objectives.

High Potentials’ CSR-Oriented Competencies

Recurrent throughout the interviews was a belief that individual members have personal ownership of CSR as a sort of inherent characteristic, though the lack of a CSR orientation was not necessarily as a barrier to recruitment:

If people have no affinity with CSR they will not be rejected right away. There are many people who have not thought about the issue and that are just confronted with it when they start at [the company]. Then they might find it very interesting. (Recruitment manager, Logistics company)

We do not want to take the risk of reputation damage, so we are aware of what we do and with whom, but the main focus is still profit and keeping our stakeholders satisfied. So we will really steer on cost reduction, also in the projects the trainees do. (Young Talent Manager, Bank 2)

Instead, the imperative for all sampled organizations was that they recruited persons they could develop into managers who would be capable of leading the organization to success in terms of its economic objectives. All S&B members are involved in CSR implementation, so we had expected CSR competencies would be criteria for hiring high potentials. As we show in Table 4 though, only four CSR competencies receive confirmation (from three or more organizations) as important. Integrity, compliance, trust, and honesty is the most relevant, followed by responsibility in relationships and teamwork, which is not surprising considering the nature of these competencies. However, the low level of acceptance of the other competencies suggests that organizations have yet to fully understand or define them in relation to their own business needs. It also offers evidence that organizations do not link their CSR implementation to high potentials, whether by recruiting employees that already possess such skills sets or by developing them through management training.
Table 4

Regular and CSR high potential competencies


Number of organizations citing competency

Create vision and strategy


Integrity, compliance, trust, and honesty


Focus on customer/excellent service




Facilitating change










Risk taking and management


Commercial drive


Result focus




Effective management




Problem solving


Learning capacity


Innovation and creativity








Openness or social awareness


Responsibility in relationships and teamwork






Self awareness


Self management


Social skills


Notes: Italicized rows are those the organizations identified as related to CSR

When we asked if the organizations’ competency requirements had changed to take CSR into consideration, two companies noted their active efforts:

The competence profile changed based on new insights, also because of new board members internationally. A new person has new ideas and visions. That is based on a changing world. [The company] is a product as well as a project company. We observed that products alone is not sufficient anymore, you need to do more to stay ahead of your competitors. That means that image, changing fast and flexibility of people becomes a more important theme. Then you notice that next to knowledge and experience the behavioral component becomes more important…. That is influenced by the outside world and new insights. Based on that, the competence profile changed. CSR has had an influence on the change of the competences. It is, of course, a win–win situation. We do not do CSR for charity. What we want to search for consciously is where the profit is for us and for the end user. (Manager Development Academy, Electronics)

I think high potentials can play a role in CSR implementation, but I do not consider them crucial for the success of current social involvement programs since these are meant for all employees. Knowledge and skills of high potentials could be used in the broader discussion, but the question is will it deliver growth for us. Especially because it has less attention among our type of company and also is seen as less relevant by the outside world. (Director Marketing and Communications Director, ICT Products and Services company 1)

Whereas, these two organizations had developed new competency criteria that affected their selection and development of high potentials, the other organizations were less certain. Three stated that they did not seek to recruit or train high potentials in CSR, though they did expect them to exhibit the values the organization prioritized. None of the organizations stated that they recruited on the basis of prospective employees’ CSR beliefs. Instead, they asserted that high potentials had to perform well for the business, which meant that their development had to remain broad-based.


To understand how high potentials might embed CSR into an organization, we first assessed the level of integration of our case organizations. Although economic requirements remain dominant, all our organizations had reached at least a strategic or synergistic CSR phase, such that CSR had become an important part of their overall business strategy. None had reached the point that CSR was fully embedded though; the level of integration achieved by each organization varied according to the length of time it had been involved in CSR and the existence of other competing (economic) priorities. In contrast with the similar outcomes that result from Dunphy et al.’s (2003) and Van Marrewijk and Werre’s (2003) frameworks, we instead find two unique drivers of organizations’ efforts: instrumental and morality. Both driving forces are exemplified in the actions undertaken by the S&B, which seems to support Waldman and Siegal’s (2008) claim that CSR integration begins with economic benefits, then evolves with the shift in values. The balance between the two drivers appears unique to each organization, though S&B can appreciate at least that the sampled organizations have moved beyond awareness generation.

The findings also suggest a comprehensive implementation framework (Table 5). Organizations move through each phase according to their own needs. For example, in the case study organizations, we find evidence that they had started the CSR process by aligning their mission, vision, and values with CSR, which represents a significant step (Jonker and De Witte 2006). The work to realign their corporate cultures remained an ongoing and considerable challenge. As Porter and Kramer (2006), Maignan et al. (2005), and Castka et al. (2004) note, CSR implementation is a gradual activity based on negotiated outcomes with stakeholders in an attempt to gain collective support for the desired change.
Table 5

Identified stages of CSR implementation used by sampled organizations

Stages of CSR implementation


(1) Conduct zero-assessment

One organization used a team of young starters to identify the level of CSR activity and then act as CSR ambassadors to strengthen CSR engagement

(2) Develop CSR goals in organization’s mission, vision, and strategy

All nine organizations have a CSR strategy through which they define their activities (see the Appendix)

(3) Gain top management support

Two organizations had proactive senior management support; the remaining were seeking to strengthen it

(4) Gain employee support to ensure they own CSR as part of their work life activities

All organizations were active in achieving employee support through a range of initiatives. The extent to which it had become universally accepted was difficult to gauge, and the task was considered relatively large, requiring time

(5) Gain support from external stakeholders

All organizations sought stakeholder support, three focused especially on the issues of stakeholders and stakeholder management, and one organized an extensive stakeholder dialogue

(6) Prioritize change effort and focus on achieving it

A range of CSR-related areas were covered, linked to each organization’s core business processes. Three focused on the people part of CSR, and three on community investment projects. One had yet to define the themes

As a measure of cultural change, we have considered the recruitment of high potentials because of their CSR-oriented competencies. None of our focal organizations did so, nor do we find evidence that they focused on developing such competencies among existing employees. These skills may develop indirectly when the organizations’ principles and values focus on CSR. Furthermore, the organizations could define sustainable leadership competencies that overlap with regular competencies. For example, trust and integrity, creativity, relationship management and teamwork, coaching, communication, and facilitating change and social awareness are both regular and sustainable leadership competencies. The acquisition of other competencies and the realignment of existing ones to support CSR implementation again represents an incremental process and provides a strong foundation, which may reduce resistance to change and speed the CSR implementation.

However, the majority of the sample appeared reactive with regard to the adoption of CSR principles by high potentials. High potentials received the same exposure to CSR principles as did other employees, with the consistent objective of ensuring the employees understood the organizations’ CSR philosophies, strategy, mission, values, and policies. In addition, according to these organizations, the purpose of high potentials is to become future leaders of the business and achieve economic success. Thus, even though high potentials have the leadership skills needed to support CSR implementation, they were not used as change agents, because the conditions in the organization did not enable them to serve this function. Although organizations do not use high potentials in this role currently, they generally believe they will in the future.

Management Implications

A key driver of CSR integration is the notion that it can become deeply embedded in an organization’s policies, practices, and processes. Thus, the organization can prove to its constituent stakeholders that its adoption of CSR is a serious endeavor, not a cynical marketing communication activity. But defining a CSR strategy and aligning the organization’s mission, vision, and values may constitute the easy part. The much harder part is converting these concepts into actual practices, policies, and processes, even when the focus of the activities is internal to the business. High potentials could play a significant role in CSR implementation and integration, but allowing them to do so also appears difficult, because ultimately, their purpose is to lead the business to economic success. Success still is defined as the imperative to create shareholder wealth; broadening the definition of high potentials’ contribution to the organization therefore may be a critical goal of CSR integration activity.

Yet economic success cannot be ignored; it provides the resources that support social and environmental activities. To overcome the challenges posed by an economic imperative requires a strong link between the organization’s CSR ambitions and the roles the high potentials undertake. Therefore, organizations must overcome a key barrier: CSR integration by its very nature may be ephemeral, because it reflects external views of what CSR is, as well as how the organization determines it, both of which are subject to change. Implementation frameworks consistently recognize that the process is iterative in nature and continuous. Therefore, critical markers may provide a good means to assess both the extent of change in the culture and the evolution of the organization as a whole. One clear marker would be whether high potentials take responsibility for CSR implementation and integration and whether this task is regarded as a positive goal, not a diversion from more important business activities.

Limitations and Further Research Directions

As does most research, this study contains certain limitations that affect the interpretation of the results and suggest directions for further research. First, though the case study organizations can be considered representative of S&B members, the study involves only Dutch businesses. Another investigation that considers these issues in other European countries or North America, where the legal requirements differ, could provide additional insights. Second, a longitudinal study may highlight more fully how CSR, as employees take ownership of it and integrate it into their business practices, affects the selection and development of high potentials, and thus their ability to become CSR change agents, which in turn would increase the speed of implementation and sustainable integration. Third, much of our discussion is based on the assumption that high potentials represent a young generation and therefore have strong CSR-based values. The extent to which this assumption is true, and the role that high potentials might want to play as CSR champions, demands careful evaluation. With such an understanding, organizations could determine how to recruit, develop, and ultimately use high potentials to achieve their CSR objectives.


The S&B networks main goals are to embed CSR into participating organizations’ business processes; actively contribute to Dutch social issues; inspire employees in member organizations to adopt CSR; and influence the Dutch CSR agenda.


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012