CR Leaders: Anant Nadkarni

AccountAbility interviews Anant Nadkarni, global sustainability expert.

Anant Nadkarni has had a distinguished career in the private sector, spending over 35 years with Tata Group, and having experience with multiple international organizations and agencies promoting social responsibility and corporate sustainability. Mr. Nadkarni has presented his work on innovative ways to address challenges in community building in over two dozen countries. At present he conducts various forms of programs in CSR Leadership and Sustainability.

As Vice-President, Group Corporate Sustainability at Tata group, Mr. Nadkarni coordinated social, environmental and related initiatives with nearly fifty Tata companies. He has partnered with the UNDP to conceptualize and to develop the Tata Index for Sustainable Human Development.

Mr. Nadkarni has engaged with and steered many bodies promoting social responsibility and corporate sustainability. He has served as Member, Advisory Council of the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Committee for ISO 26000 and the ISO 16001; Alternate Member, Social Accountability International’s Advisory Board; Member of the Advisory Group for Task Force on Supply Chain Management of UN Global Compact; Focal Point – UN Global Compact; Member – Advisory Committee, World Economic Forum; and Member of the National Council for Corporate Responsibility of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). He also contributed to creating the national-level Codes and Guidance document on CSR for the CII and the CII-UNDP Social Code. Mr Nadkarni has also served as a member of AccountAbility’s AA1000 Standards Governance since 2010, including Chairing the Interim Standards Board from 2011-2012. He is presently a member of the AA1000 Standards Board.   

AccountAbility (AA): Anant, you spent a number of years at Tata group as their VP for Group Corporate Sustainability. What was the priority for sustainability and corporate responsibility (CR) there during your tenure?

Anant Nadkarni (AN): We first started the Tata Council for Community Initiatives (TCCI) about a decade ago so that all the independent companies within Tata group could be viewed under the umbrella of a common value system.  There are about 50+ companies under the brand agreement of the Tata Sons, and the CEO’s of those companies make up part of the TCCI, which is chaired by a very senior executive of the Tata group.

Our intention was to create a group of enablers, to encourage companies, and encourage cross learning between the companies, and also to help address some critical issues which went beyond and in addition to what the companies were already doing by themselves.  This remains a priority of Tata.

Through TCCI we created a common direction. For example, Tata has a vocational youth training program. Wherein we created a platform where different company representatives come to share their experiences and there is opportunity for cross learning. Strategically, you see companies re-position themselves following what they have learned through these platforms.  

(AA): Looking back, what insights or lessons learned can you share with respect to how you integrated sustainability into the business model, operations, and overall strategic thinking?

(AN): In our case, business was always been seen as an instrument or a force for good. There’s never been a separation between business and sustainability. They’re inseparable. But what you see happening now is that this relationship is becoming more strategic in understanding, and also in mitigating social and environmental risks – just like any other business risk.  Sustainability is not something that you add-on.

What I’ve learned is that a whole plethora of opportunities can open up when you start to look at how your expertise and competencies within the business can reach out to the underprivileged sectors of society. Some innovations came to us by learning about what communities needed, and what we had to offer. For instance, a company which specialized in e-learning came across the fact that e-learning models can be created for children suffering from dyslexia or those with special needs. This has been a big breakthrough for the company, which now has a vertical impact on the business and can serve much to an underprivileged and neglected group of society.  Strategically they are now in a place to reposition this and it opens up many other possibilities of extending expertise to where people really need it.  

(AA): Some organizations have a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), while others have opted to do without, making integrating sustainability a broad responsibility across management. What is your viewpoint on the role of the CSO? What are some of the challenges or opportunities one can face in this role?  

(AN): Given my experience, I don’t think there is one universal answer for the role of a CSO. What is important is that the CSO is in a position where they have an influence on business processes and are able to influence them where it is necessary.

Having capability to deliver is one thing, capacity and expertise build-up is another component, but the third and the most important criteria is that of the temperament and leadership of the CSO. The CSO must exercise cross functional influence; it is necessary to work seamlessly across different departments and throughout business units globally, to create a sense of business influence and function. This is a major challenge of what CSOs have to do. To consider how procurement managers can bring sustainability into what they’re doing. CSOs have to bring marketing, finance, human resources, and other departments together in a single vision.

Opportunities are now arising that go beyond profit and revenue aspirations. These opportunities look at social, human, natural capital and value formation. So beyond finance, you have certain aspirations the company looks for and that excite different stakeholder groups in different ways.  

(AA): What do you see as the biggest sustainability or CR related challenge ahead for those working in emerging or developing markets, such as India?

(AN): There are many challenges but if you want to generalize developing markets, there are great opportunities for bridging the resource and opportunity gaps, because certain historical and social influences and factors have widened gaps.

Another entirely different sustainability challenge is to find, to train, and to encourage the right kind of people to do this work. That is one of the major challenges here today.

(AA): Over the years, you have worked with a variety of different organizations that promote sustainability and CR related activities, such as the UN Global Compact (UNGC) and the World Economic Forum (WEF). Are you optimistic about the potential for common ground and mutually agreeable solutions to some of the sustainability challenges you see ahead?

(AN): Yes, sure, because none of us can be as smart as all of us, right? This understanding is emerging in many sectors, and in the initial years when a company is evolving, it is really good for the company to work with partners in different social and development sectors.  This collaboration helps business from a variety of viewpoints and is a great learning opportunity.

There is a need for global convergence on business behavior and to develop a solution-based approach to making business a real force for good. Working with partners has levelled a lot of uncommon ground. Organizations such as the UNGC and WEF have been particularly useful to global companies because they bring companies together for mutual learning.

(AA): You’ve written about the concept of “co-creating sustainable value,” can you speak to us about this concept and how it has been helpful?  Growing for the sake of growing is the philosophy of a cancer cell, it will inevitably create a lump that no other part of its ecosystem needs.  Any truly successful venture must be sensitive to the needs of its surroundings and grow proactively and with foresight. The value that a company creates must be holistic.  

(AN): Let me say that growing for the sake of growing is the philosophy of a cancer cell, it will inevitably create a lump that no other part of its ecosystem needs.  Any truly successful venture must be sensitive to the needs of its surroundings and grow proactively and with foresight. The value that a company creates must be holistic. That is the kind of growth that everybody wants. It’s very generative, long-lasting and mutual.  Value that is distributed equally also generates acceptance.

(AA): During your tenure at Tata, the Tata Index for Sustainable Human Development was created in collaboration with the UNDP in India. Can you tell us more about this Index?  

(AN): The index is really an extension of the Tata Business Excellence Model (TBEM). TBEM is an evaluation system that takes an employee through an organized systematic process to get them into the habit of thinking and asking questions related to leadership, strategy, customer focus, and so on. But while TBEM evaluates business results and outcomes, the Tata Index for Sustainable Human Development instead looks for human consequences of business projects and operations. For instance, it’s one thing to say that you plan to give water to a community, and therefore how much water you deliver is an outcome.

But if you organize communities to then develop their own access to water, the element of building access becomes a development impact, because communities can then fend for themselves and became sustainable in terms of water.

That’s how you measure in human development terms, whether participation has increased, whether accountability has increased, whether the stakeholders are organized from mere groups into real communities. And in this, you also test whether there are proper systems, people, and systematic programs carrying out activities that show both maturation of profit and the activity.

Each company uses the TBEM index – they scope their projects according to the index. What’s more important however is the way they converge, and therefore, the dialogue and the interactions which happen between the different members. A lot of thinking and learning happens, benchmarking as well.

(AA): Over the years you have worked with a wide array of people, including business, politics, academia, bureaucrats, etc. What advice would you give to those companies seeking to strengthen their ties with the communities in which they work?

(AN): There’s always an appreciation for the big picture – the outcome of whatever you are doing. I think what I personally learned was how to work with people rather than working at or for people. It is appreciating that everybody has a viewpoint, and working to bring the whole collective wisdom of people together to co-create value. When you speak to people it is to provoke them to tell you what they think about these activities. Is it replicable? What kind of governance models in business become more viable than others? Are there any ultimate leadership models for sustainability?

(AA): With respect to engaging employees in CR and sustainability efforts, what do you see as the benefits of a well-organized employee volunteer program?  

(AN): Can you ever organize employee volunteering? A colleague once told me that an organized volunteering program should be as gentle as holding a pigeon. Not so hard to crush it, not so loose for it to fly away. It’s a very delicate affair. One has to be very subtle, sensitive, and yet purposeful and there has to be something concrete and serious about what you are doing. At the same time you should allow people to be passionate. And one should restrain from being prescriptive, you should be more enabling and encouraging. People want to see a sense of worth in what they are doing.

If you look at the advantages or the benefits of a well-organized employee volunteering scheme, they are greatest either when volunteering schemes tend to scale up or gets deeper and more intense. Then I think you have the ultimate satisfaction of having employees who are happy to do what they want to do. They’ve got much more freedom and self-expression, and you end up  having a critical amount of employees who have good values, who are known to be helpful, who have found their expression, and so forth. So individually, they are fulfilled, and they collectively put the organization in a more anticipatory position. That is how sustainability really happens.  A good volunteering system really is the bedrock on which sustainability is built into the company.