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Simon Nijnens pointing to a slide about his research on CSR

Formative Experiences: Exploring the True Motives Behind CEO-driven Corporate Responsibility


June 04, 2024

In an era where corporate social responsibility (CSR) is more critical than ever, Simon Nijnens’s innovative dissertation, “Owner-CEO–Driven CSR: How CEOs’ Formative Experiences Shape Corporate Social Responsibility,” offers new and profound insights into how CEOs’ backgrounds and personal histories influence their CSR strategies. This research delves into the varied approaches owner-CEOs take toward CSR and uncovers the underlying motivations that drive their decisions. To better understand CEOs’ different CSR approaches, Nijnens conducted 25 surprisingly frank interviews with CEOs of small businesses to large, well-known companies. Nijnens’s study reveals a spectrum of engagement, from skeptical to visionary, by categorizing CEOs into distinct archetypes based on their attitudes toward CSR.

A New Perspective on CSR

Nijnens’s dissertation provides a fresh perspective on CSR, challenging the traditional binary of purely altruistic versus profit-driven motives. The study introduces a novel and comprehensive classification of CSR initiatives — neglecting, calculative and aspirational — that more accurately reflects the varied and nuanced ways CEOs engage with CSR.

From Deniers to Visionaries: The CEO Archetypes

Nijnens’s dissertation uncovers a wide spectrum of CEO behavior concerning CSR, identifying three primary archetypes: Neglecting, Calculative and Aspirational. These archetypes reflect a range of attitudes, from outright dismissal to a passionate commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

  1. The Deniers (Neglecting CSR): These CEOs perceive CSR as an unnecessary distraction from their core business objectives or believe their limited resources should be allocated elsewhere. These CEOs were mostly focused on accumulating financial wealth. They often view CSR initiatives as superficial or even a waste of resources. For them, CSR is merely a box to tick, if it is acknowledged at all. As one CEO noted: “CSR shouldn’t interfere with the main mission of the company. If the company goes down, it’s like the parasite killing the host almost right?

  2. The Pragmatists (Calculative CSR): Most prevalent among the SMEs studied, calculative CSR involves a strategic approach where CEOs weigh the potential benefits of CSR activities against their costs. These leaders often engage in CSR to enhance their company’s reputation, attract customers or comply with expected upcoming regulatory requirements. The underlying question guiding their actions is, “What’s in it for me?” As one CEO noted: “When I look back into my youth, when I was recycling newspapers and glass and so forth … admittingly, I wasn’t really doing it because I was saving the environment, but I was doing it because I just thought, ’hey, this is a process that can make money.’”

  3. The Visionaries (Aspirational CSR): At the other end of the spectrum are the CEOs who see CSR as a core component of their business identities. This category is characterized by CEOs genuinely committed to making a positive social impact. Their CSR initiatives are driven by deeply held values and a desire to contribute to societal well-being beyond mere compliance or financial gain. For these visionaries, CSR is not just about doing good business; it’s about doing the right thing for society and the environment. “I am a conservationist because of my father… poor as we were, my father would never let me throw breadcrumbs away off the table into the garbage. He always made me throw any leftover scraps of anything outside so something living would eat it. He had some amazing commitment to nature … that was just how he was, a disciplinary and a visionary.

Personal Histories and CSR Attitudes

One of the most compelling aspects of Nijnens’s research is the emphasis on how CEOs’ formative experiences have shaped their approaches to CSR. The study reveals that personal backgrounds, early career experiences and pivotal life events profoundly influence how CEOs perceive and implement CSR initiatives. These formative experiences help shape their worldviews, ethical perspectives and personal motivations, which affect their corporate strategies. For instance, CEOs who grew up in environments where social justice or environmental stewardship was valued are more likely to become Visionaries. Conversely, those who experienced financial instability or intense competition might prioritize business survival and profitability, aligning more with the Pragmatist archetype. A detailed analysis revealed that, beyond different CSR approaches, CEOs also focused on distinctly different topics in the interviews. For example, CEOs who neglected CSR mentioned their position of power five times more, talked about themselves four times more, mentioned accumulating wealth three times more and discussed the justification of their very limited CSR scope eight times more than visionary CEOs.

Stakeholder Influence and CSR Implementation

Nijnens’s study also underscores the significant role of stakeholders in shaping CSR practices. The influence of employees, investors, customers and regulators can vary widely, depending on the company’s size and the CEO’s power dynamics. The dissertation revealed that CEOs focus mainly on those areas that give them the most return in terms of recognition or impact. In smaller firms, the personal values and characteristics of the owner-CEOs are often more pronounced, whereas larger companies face greater external pressures to adopt comprehensive CSR strategies.

This dissertation introduces a new, process-oriented model that ties together CEOs’ personal motives, stakeholder influences and CSR actions. This model provides a nuanced understanding of how CEOs navigate the complex CSR landscape, balancing personal motivations with stakeholder expectations and regulatory demands.

CSR as a Strategic Necessity

In today’s business environment, CSR has evolved from a peripheral concern to a strategic necessity. Nijnens’s dissertation underscores the importance of authenticity and strategic alignment in CSR efforts. CEOs who approach CSR with genuine commitment and integrate it into their core business strategies are more likely to achieve sustainable success. This requires a careful balancing act, as they must navigate the competing demands of various stakeholders while staying true to their personal values and motivations.

Practical Strategies for CEOs and Boards

The insights from Nijnens’s research have significant implications for business leaders and policymakers. For CEOs, understanding the impact of formative experiences on their CSR attitudes can help them make more informed and authentic decisions. By reflecting on their personal motivations and aligning their CSR strategies with their core values, they can create more meaningful and effective CSR initiatives.

For policymakers, the findings highlight the need for supportive frameworks encouraging owner-CEOs to engage in CSR. This could include providing incentives, resources and guidance to help smaller companies integrate CSR into their business models. By fostering a more conducive environment for CSR, policymakers can enhance the business sector’s overall social and environmental impact.

Conclusion: Redefining Corporate Leadership

Simon Nijnens’s dissertation contributes to understanding the importance of CEOs’ formative experiences in their strategic decision-making, including CSR. It challenges the simplistic view of CSR as either purely altruistic or entirely self-serving, presenting a more nuanced picture of how CEOs’ personal histories and stakeholder dynamics shape their CSR strategies.

Ultimately, the question for CEOs is not just, “What’s in it for me?” but also, “What kind of legacy do I want to leave?” By embracing this broader perspective, they can turn CSR into a powerful tool for creating lasting positive change in their companies and the wider world.

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