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Five Questions with Stanley S. Litow

From "Reinventing Education," a program serving more than 100,000 teachers and 10 million children globally, to P-TECH schools, to IBM's Corporate Services Corps to train IBM leaders in a corporate version of the Peace Corps, Stanley S. Litow has been at the vanguard of progressive and creative corporate citizenship programs.  

Litow, who recently retired as IBM's Vice President for Corporate Citizenship and president of the IBM Foundation, has now moved to the classroom, where he teaches graduate students at Columbia University about the potential for corporate social responsibility in a fast-paced digital marketplace.  "It's not just about money, but primarily about commitment and solving problems," said Litow.  "You need to understand where you can make a difference in society -- it's far more than just checkbook philanthropy. It's about doing well by doing good."

A former Deputy Chancellor of Schools for New York City, Litow remains active in seeking public-private partnerships to improve education.  He serves as a trustee of the State University of New York system, and is considered a national leader in seeking ways for teachers and students to best harness technology.

His new book, "The Challenge For Business and Society: From Risk to Reward," details the history and current best practices of corporate citizenship and social responsibility, and charts an aggressive path forward for business to consider as they deal with the challenges of becoming effective participants in society.  The book, published May 13 by Wiley and Sons, "not only demonstrates the perils of those that prioritize growth for the sake of growth, but also provides example after example of businesses partnering with communities to create solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges," says Jamie Dimon, the Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase.

Litow outlined some of the most important lessons about how to maximize the returns from strong corporate responsibility and prevent any risk to the company or its shareholders from failure to do so.

Q: What lessons have you learned in a career as a leader in corporate citizenship?

I've learned three important lessons. First, corporate citizenship is not separate from business strategy -- history shows the two are interconnected.  The book shows how companies with a strong corporate social responsibility program will see a bottom-line benefit... and those without it can potentially expose their shareholders to a dangerous set of risks.

Second, a company needs to intertwine a strong set of core values with an equally strong commitment to ethics in how they conduct themselves as both an effective business and strong corporate citizen. Your values have to shine through in all you do.  Finally, being a generous corporate citizen is nice... but being effective is nicer. Your corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts should be crafted to not just address social problems but solve them. Business leaders should insist on the same commitment to metrics and return-on-investment as they apply to all critical functions within the company

Q: You came to IBM after serving as Deputy Schools Chancellor for the City of New York, the largest public school system in the nation, and your career at IBM involved many efforts to address the challenges of improving schools. Why are so many companies interested in education issues now, and can they make an impact?

Education is THE critical challenge facing society in the 21st Century. The U.S. and nations around the world, in both mature and growth markets, desperately need to address the skills gap.  I've seen it in the tech industry, where the White House said has a half-million American jobs that are unfilled because of a lack of skills.  The jobs of the future require the right post-secondary credential coupled with the workplace skills needed to be successful in changing careers. It doesn't always need to be an advanced degree.

Business leaders know that, intuitively.  They know the workforce needs to adapt and grow.  And while there's uncertainty about next steps, there's a growing feeling that we cannot leave the challenge of improving schools to educators alone. The private sector needs to pledge its best skills and innovation and apply it to the challenge at hand, since it's becoming a business issue. In my time as an education leader and at IBM, I have learned that you can't change anything that you don't understand.  That's why we got involved in the P-TECH education model. We found first-hand that you must have a strategy to replicate excellence, and make it scalable and sustainable. I'm proud of the P-TECH schools because it's a new system that scales, and it is creating graduates with good skills.  That's why government leaders from Chicago to Australia are lined up to be part of it.

Q: What are the lessons that emerging business leaders must understand to lead an effective corporate citizenship program within their companies?

First, don't simply donate your excess or spare change, but focus on what is most valuable to the company -- and then mobilize your talent and money in a way that allows you to bring about real change. If you approach citizenship in this way, you will motivate and energize your company's best talent.  You'll also find it is a way to build and enhance your team's skills, and an effective CSR program has helped companies like IBM to retain top talent.  

You also need to build effective partnerships with the public sector and with other companies. No one company can solve any of society's problems -- we all wish it were that easy -- but effective partnerships allow for maximum resources to be brought to bear, and allow for a sustained effort, one that can be modified by clear metrics and learning. Sticking to a societal problem, and being flexible enough to keep partners and employees motivated and focused on results, is the recipe for success.

Q: Is there a role for smaller companies or start-ups to play in corporate citizenship, or is this mainly for larger companies?

This is for all companies, large and small, young and mature. It is clear millennials will only chose to work at companies with a strong corporate citizenship culture. It's also clear that if given a choice, consumers will opt tp spend their money with companies with a strong citizenship profile.  Socially responsible investors control well over $1 trillion in financial capacity and will only invest in companies with a strong and effective commitment to citizenship.  So the imperative is clear: corporate citizenship is vitally important now, and it will only become more important in the future. To be effective companies of any size -- companies that hope to have staying power and have an impact in their markets -- need to learn from companies that are models of excellence when it comes to values and CSR.

Q:  What role does leadership play in building strong corporate citizenship efforts in a company?

It's essential.  Leadership has to insist on a culture that has strong values, a commitment to ethics and ethical behavior, a commitment to its community and a willingness to engage in public/private partnerships. It starts at the top, and then has to be modeled by people at all levels within the enterprise. For example, any company can say they want to retain top talent, but it's not going to be enough without a commitment to diversity and to their community. Leadership must reinforce that view at every level of the enterprise. The same is true of a commitment to environmental standards. Data and facts demonstrate that a strong environmental footprint is connected to the bottom-line success of a company economically, but leaders must reinforce that view so everyone 'gets it.'

I've seen how the most effective leaders, in every industry, made corporate responsibility critical to the success of their enterprise.