Throughout her career, Gabriele Zedlmayer has been a passionate advocate for corporate citizenship and sustainability, most recently as vice president and chief progress officer, corporate affairs at Hewlett Packard Enterprises. She spoke to Communication Director about her work, Living Progress and the business case for citizenship.
You joined Hewlett Packard in 1987. How have you seen its approach to corporate citizenship grow?
I’ve seen the company move through many different phases, but corporate citizenship has been embedded into the organisation since the beginning. It was originally woven into the corporate objectives in 1957 and is now intertwined into our business model as the way we operate. We call our approach to citizenship Living Progress, which is how we unite people, ideas and technology to solve the world’s toughest challenges. Over the years I believe that Hewlett Packard has been on the cutting edge with its approach to citizenship and has led the way for the IT sector.
What in your opinion are the ingredients that make for a good corporate citizen?
As Dave Packard said in 1947, “The betterment of society is not a job to be left to a few. It’s a responsibility to be shared by all.” As a company, we have been steadfast in our commitment to conduct our business in a way that also contributes to the betterment of society. We believe companies can address societal challenges in ways that benefit their company while also delivering wider human, economic and environmental value.
In an earlier interview, you said people sometimes mistake citizenship for compliance. Where does compliance end and citizenship begin?
We believe sustainability and citizenship aren’t just things to comply with regulations, indices or to mitigate risks. While compliance is essential, it’s not going to enable the progress we must make as a society to drive a low-carbon economy. Sustainability and citizenship must be integrated into a company’s business strategy. In that way, it becomes grounded as a way that improves your business and the world around you.
Why should companies feel that it is incumbent on them to step up to the role of pushing for human and economic progress?
There are big challenges facing our world, including a rapidly growing population, effects of climate change, economic instability and global health crises, just to name a few. These challenges are interconnected, affecting society and business. We must work to address these challenges holistically. For example, by advancing the health and well-being of people, they are better able to participate in the global economy. When we protect the vital resources of our planet, we improve the well-being of people.
What’s the role of a communications leader in helping companies become better global citizens?
There’s an exceptional opportunity for leaders and communicators to bring clarity to complex issues, to make the connection to purpose and to inspire action. We live in a time of endless disruptions, so communicators have a big job to break through all the clutter and chaos and put meaning and purpose in the heart of their communications. And, don’t forget about transparency – it’s important to be authentic and to face your communication challenges head on.
What have you learned from collaborations throughout your career with NGOs such as Conservation International?
The strength of partnerships is absolutely vital if you want to be successful; no one person or organisation can do it alone. We’ve learned that it’s important, in fact imperative, to be clear on all aspects of your engagement - the timelines, deliverables, reviews, approvals, who the stakeholders are and so on. It’s also important that you don’t concentrate on metrics for metrics sake but rather determine what is most meaningful and focus on measuring that.
NGOs can occupy positions that are critical of corporations. What advice would you give to ensure a good working relationship with NGOs?
As I’ve mentioned, transparency is absolutely critical. It’s important to seek the dialogue, talk with them and work on solutions where they can see themselves embedded in the overall solution. Trouble shows up when you shy away from or try to ignore criticism. And as we’ve discussed with our partnership with Conservation International, being clear about expectations from the outset will help set you both up for success.
“Suddenly people realise that they can’t afford to ignore citizenship and responsibility.”
I was especially struck reading about Hewlett Packard’s Go West strategy in your supply chain: for example, moving supply centre from eastern to western China when you found that most workers had families in the west. Can you tell us a little more about the importance of supply chain responsibility?
Our Supply Chain Responsibility programme was founded in 2001 and is fundamental to HPE Living Progress. Our supply chain standards enhance the lives of people who make and deliver our products and services, and extends to responsible sourcing of minerals at the very beginning of our supply chain. They also lead to higher-quality products a nd help ensure the continuity of our supply lines. We have also expanded the reach of our programme to many nonproduction suppliers. Through our 14-year history of working on supplier responsibility, we have refined systems for collecting and analysing information from many sources to identify new and emerging risks. For example, Hewlett Packard was the first IT company to introduce guidance for the treatment of student and dispatch workers and the first to require direct employment of foreign migrant workers in our supply chain through the Hewlett Packard Foreign Migrant Worker Standard. In addition, we build the capabilities of our suppliers by focusing on workers, investing in their development and empowering them to be involved in improving supply chain responsibility at their sites.
Are western companies doing enough to ensure their supply chains are better integrated with local communities?
We work with our partner factories to participate in a number of positive, community based efforts, often launched by organisations, such as BSR, and industry leading companies such as Disney and Walmart. Examples include HERProject, which is focused on women’s health and education; HERFinance, which is focused on financial inclusion; Women in Factories, which works on increasing women’s economic mobility; and migrant parent training, which is focused on improving and maintaining relationships between migrant workers and their children.
“Sustainability and citizenship must be integrated into a company’s business strategy. In that way, it becomes grounded as a way that improves your business and the world around you.”
Not only do these programmes positively impact workers in factories, but also the communities in which they live. Our analysis also demonstrates that factories that participate in these programmes yield higher overall auditing scores, which helps reinforce the link between responsible practices and good business.
Alongside your responsibilities at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, you’ve also engaged with social matters in positions outside the company. How do you recommend socially-minded senior corporate professionals like yourself to seek out these kinds of extracurricular commitments?
It takes expertise and commitment if you want to be an effective contributor and you need to be passionate about what the organisation is trying to achieve. The time commitment is important. If you want to be an effective board member, you need to engage beyond attending board meetings. With JA [Junior Achievement] I’m part of a subcommittee that works to ensure we have the right mix and expertise on the board itself. JA has an important charter to inspire young people to succeed in today’s economy and they do such great work. It’s absolutely time well spent. It’s critical for young people to be exposed to programmes of that nature. In addition to JA, I serve on several other boards including, the board of directors of Hewlett-Packard Germany, member of the EU Commission e-skills leadership board and the Computer Science Advisory Board of the University of People.
You are also president of the Female Customer Advisory Council at Hypovereinsbank Unicredit, which helps promote socio-political and financial discourse at the Bank. To what extent is the development of women’s presence in the corporate landscape an important part of corporate citizenship as a whole?
Part of good corporate strategy is being a good corporate citizen. And I believe more women need to be in the management and leadership roles of organisations. Fundamentally, women and men think differently, make decisions differently, consider differently. The world needs a balanced view that can only be achieved with women in decision-making positions. Otherwise it gets too one sided. And I’d also say that diversity is broader than just the focus of more women needed in the mix.
“I believe without that diversity too many filters get lost and we don’t tackle the tough issues businesses are faced with today.”
A very recent example of our commitment to diversity is exemplified in how we created the two new boards for HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. We set out to find the most experienced, global-minded and diverse members to help each company win in their particular markets. Those boards truly reflect the market place, and I believe without that diversity too many filters get lost and we don’t tackle the tough issues businesses are faced with today.
Looking back on your career, what have been the major changes in the field of corporate citizenship and responsibility during your professional life?
One of the major changes is that over time companies have come to understand that business can come to a halt for non-compliance. It also becomes an employee engagement and corporate branding issue. But even more than compliance, as we talked earlier, there’s another shift happening – and that’s that companies are realising there’s a business case for citizenship that applies to both the public and private sector. In fact, the US government is on the cutting edge with their sustainable procurement methodology – you can run various products through their methodology to determine the total cost of ownership.
Our Moonshot server was recently put through this methodology to evaluate the externalities with sustainability and incorporating those into the cost decisions. The results were incredible – conservative estimates show using the HPE Moonshot server, the “estimated” savings of four per cent would mean taking six million cars off the road for one year, or the equivalent of eight coal plants operating for one year. Suddenly people realise that they can’t afford to ignore citizenship and responsibility.