Sunday, June 12, 2011

Strauss: a lesson in stakeholder engagement

Working in my home market, Israel, on sustainability, I am often reminded of the two shoe salesmen who visit Africa and find that people do not wear shoes. The first reports back to his boss: "They have no shoes. Great. What a market opportunity!". The second reports back, saying: "They have no shoes. Terrible. We have no market." Here in our small market, the advancement of corporate responsibility and sustainability should be characterized by the first approach, but  is regrettably, mostly characterized by the second. The number of companies which have shown leadership in truly advancing sustainable practices is low, the number which operate with a respectable degree of transparency is even lower, and the number of companies which engage in stakeholder dialog in a meaningful way is lower still. Against this background, it is a pleasure to praise one company who has taken the lead in demonstrating all three. It is no coincidence that I write this post now, having just returned from participating in a stakeholder engagement event which is certainly a first in our market and, I believe, a world first.

The company is Strauss Group, Israel's second-largest food and beverage company and also an international corporation with approximately 13,500 employees operating 25 production sites in 21 countries around the world. The Group has partnerships with leading multinationals such as Danone and PepsiCo and recently Strauss Water and the global electronics giant Haier Group entered into partnership to produce, market and sell watermakers in China. Strauss is an iconic brand in Israel, carrying the name of the even more iconic Strauss family, who have been admired and respected business leaders in Israel since their humble beginnings in the 1930s. Today the Group is skillfully led by the First Lady of Israeli business, Ofra Strauss, granddaughter of the founders, who took over the helm as Chairwoman in 2001. Ofra Strauss has always been a visionary, strategic, thoughtful businesswoman who has steered the Strauss company into globalization with a good measure of talent and the entire legacy of the Strauss family values and ethical approach to business.

Strauss Group published a first Corporate Responsibility Report in 2008 (covering year 2007 and 70% of Strauss operations) and today launched their fourth report, compliant with GRI at Application Level A, covering 100% of the Company's global business. Strauss is the only company in Israel to have issued four reports, consistently, year after year, once having set the ball rolling.  The 2010 report is at present online in the local Hebrew language only but the English version will be out in a week or two.

The report is in digital / social media format, and closely linked to the Company's Facebook activity. On each page of the report, there is room to include feedback or questions (and receive responses), with all posts feeding directly to Strauss's Facebook page. Equally, there are a range of social media sharing tools for each page to Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and RSS. This is a first for our local market and is a sign of a company who is boldly embracing transparency (Strauss has been in the top three in the Israeli Transparency Index for the past three years) and using cutting edge social media tools to do so.

However, equally important as the report itself is the way the report was launched. The Company held a Stakeholder Dialog meeting with 90 representatives of business, academia, government and non-profits, who had previewed the report a week before the launch. The stakeholders were split into different groups focusing on workplace, environment, governance, ethics, community involvement and product responsibility and all were able to provide feedback to Strauss on the report, ask questions and engage in open discussion. The entire meeting was streamed live to Facebook, and those not present were able to ask questions which were answered by a panel of senior managers in the closing session.

Stakeholder discussion on responsible workplace

Opening the meeting, Ofra Strauss, Chairwoman of Strauss Group, said that you are never 100% prepared to receive criticism. "It is not always pleasant but it is always necessary." She added that transparency is an essential part of the way Strauss runs its business, and this is not only due to increasing pressure from regulators. "It is good that the regulators are waking up", she said, "but it's not enough. As a business, we have to do more. Change is only possible when we do it together".

Ofra Strauss opening the 2010 CR Report dialog launch meeting

This launch dialog is important in many ways, and not just for Strauss. The digital format will ensure ongoing accessibility and engagement but the face-to-face meeting was pivotal.

First, I am sure that the company received important insights  - I know that in our discussion group, many important comments were made and I believe that the Strauss representatives in our group found them interesting and not entirely predictable. There is a great tendency to publish a report and sit back thinking that everyone will rush to shower praise and congratulations. In the frank discussion that took place, while there was praise, there were also clear expectations and some criticisms. I believe this form of dialog is very humbling and ensures that the report lives longer than it takes to upload it to the internet.

Second, the 90 people in the meeting all learnt something new. By participating in the dialog, they heard new perspectives and perhaps, for those who don't live sustainability reporting (guilty), gained a new paradigm about the value of reporting and how to read reports. Talking about sustainability reports is a form of educating stakeholders, not just involving them.

Third, the participation of a wide range of Strauss managers in this process placed them in the frontline of stakeholder interest and influence. None of them can now say that "CSR is not my responsibility". All of them now have a direct experience of how stakeholders feel. This reinforces their roles not only as managers but also as CSR ambassadors in their organization.

Fourth, this meeting represents a commitment to ongoing dialog. The written word, published to anonymous stakeholders, is a form of commitment. Talking about the content with real people face-to-face reinforces that commitment in an acute way. When Strauss managers think about their responsibility, they will see the faces of those who attended the stakeholder dialog meeting.

I will keep you posted when the English report is published. In the meantime, I add my praise and congratulations to the Strauss leadership and hope they are charting a path that many other local companies will follow.

Oh, and before you ask, no, there was no ice cream.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)


Anonymous said...

Terrific post Elaine, thanks and was excellent to have you with us! Daniela

Unknown said...

What a fantastic process Strauss has committed themselves to. I am certain their managers who attended the stakeholder meetings have gone back to their desks noodling over new ideas to improve their business in the upcoming year, and will catalyze teammates in the process. There is nothing like feedback and teamwork to spur innovation. Strauss is smart to utilize their stakeholders to stay ahead of the competition.

Reana Rossouw said...

Thank you so much for this insightful article. Not only did you provide context to stakeholder dialogue but also advice on the actual engagement process.
I believe stakeholder engagement is truly the stepchild of sustainability reporting.
I look forward to reading the report in English, please keep me posted when it is available.
What would be interesting is the commitments made in the stakeholder engagement process and read how this has influenced the sustainability strategy and subsequent reports of Strauss.
Well done and congratulations - truly market leading!

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