15 practical ways to become a successful corporate activist

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Marie Dobenesque

I created Corporate Game Changers for people who want to turn around their bullsh*t job into a positive force for change. Together we can use human-centered leadership and business-for-good practices to pave the way for a better future.

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practical examples as being a rebel in the workplace - a successful corporate activist can have an exciting career and push the boundaries of how the company operates
Maybe something as small as the colour of your socks can start a cultural revolution in your company. Ready to be a sock rebel? | Credit: Pexels.

Simple or complex, short-term splash or long-term commitments, people or planet oriented, there are millions of opportunities to be a corporate activist - but sometimes they are hard to see.


And dangerous to do.


Not everything in the list below will be applicable to your work situation - and legal disclaimer - we can’t be held responsible for what happens if you follow one of these ideas...     :-)

A corporate activist plays at the edge


Being a corporate activist is not about losing your job because you want to change the world.


Rather the opposite.


As a corporate activist you use your job and your company as a platform to do good. And by doing so, you create the inspiration for others to do good as well.


Ideally success as a corporate activist means being praised for your ability to drive the transformation of your company towards business-for-good. I know, sounds crazy right?


But before we can get you this far, a beginner corporate activist needs to get skilled at playing at the edge.


You need to remain a performance abiding employee while you nudge your work environment. Priority #1 is still the delivery of your job description.


Corporate Game Changers logo used as horizontal bar

As a corporate activist, you use your job and your company as a platform to do good.

Corporate Game Changers logo used as horizontal bar

The edge comes from being irreproachable on the contribution to be able to create this tiny space of insolence where you can bring the topics on the table that are usually conveniently avoided.


(I see insolence as a good thing. The general definition is arrogant conduct, insulting behaviour. I think it says more about the one who receives than the one talking… I prefer the less common yet more neutral “quality of being unusual, bold or novel").


But the key to career longevity as a corporate activist is to be audacious without becoming arrogant. To create curiosity without preaching. To be cheeky without offending. To be straight talking without insulting.


Like for everything, it takes practice. Sometimes you’ll be just at the right level of intensity, sometime you’ll go unnoticed and sometime you’ll come too strong.


In all cases keep trying - learn, adjust, pivot, iterate, make allies, seek feedback. Find your own ideas of activation and create your own definition of what it is to be a corporate activist.

Here is a list of real-life examples of sending subliminal all the way to pretty obvious messages through your organisation. Some are meant to get you comfortable enough to begin tomorrow at the office and others to give you inspiration of how far you could go…


Again the placing of the cursor on what is a mild activation and what is a bold action is very much dependent on your organisation rather than the idea itself. So start small and see how it goes!

Soft touches of corporate activism

Idea #1 

Challenge the typical business dress code. If you are a consultant drop the tie and open a button off your shirt when you are not at clients. Roll-up your sleeves and display your forearms tattoos - bonus point if you are a receptionist of the country headquarter for a large multinational (yes it’s a true story!). Alternatively the bold turquoise hair color or gothic CSI-Abby style bring refreshing fashion statements in the analytical lab. Alternatively you can wear visible signs of activism like a 4ocean bracelet or a “kindness is cool” T-shirt. Great as conversations starters - it helps building rapport with someone that is on the same wavelength OR it gives the opportunity of a short pitch on the topic - either way it’s a win.


even though beautiful tattoos are meant to be displayed, it's already an act of corporate activism
Beautiful tattoos are meant to be displayed | Credit: Pixabay

Idea #2 

Politely correct your colleague in a meeting if they are projecting their paradigm and that it may lead to poor decisions. For instance, in a conversation on protecting work/life balance where the group leans towards a ban on evening emails, you can break the group-thinking by referring to the possibility that some people actually relieve stress by getting rid of the piling emails before the next day.


Idea #3

Use the message board or the facebook at work page to distribute information regularly. Use this regularity to mix supportive with provocative news clip - in a ratio of max 4 to 1 and always with a little sentence about why you think it’s relevant. It’s OK to share about how buildings cause one third of global carbon emissions in a yoghurt company. It’s OK to share the latest science demonstrating how milk is not a necessary part of our adult diet in a construction company. Use your political savviness and don't do it the other way round!


Idea #4

Be an ally in meetings. Ask the person who dropped a so-called funny comment in the plenary meeting right away to “repeat what they’ve just said” or “flip it to test it” (“so you see behind every successful Chinese phD student, there is a smart European person” is the kind of remark which needs someone to speak up and cannot be tolerated as clumsy humor).


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Be an ally in meetings. Amplify, support, back up. 

Corporate Game Changers logo used as horizontal bar

Idea #5

Drop a scientific fact about biodiversity / agriculture practices / air pollution / employee safety / [fill in the blank with what you stand for] in the conversation when the opportunity arises. Educate where/when/who you can and help the right message be conveyed by more people. Warning - do not correct a top executive in a meeting with his/her peers or bear the risk of seriously damaging your career!!


Take tangible initiatives of change

Idea #6

Start a Diversity and Inclusion initiative in your workplace by connecting with the newly appointed D&I lady in the central corporate team. Create a mix of what happens there and add your own monthly workshop. Welcome people who volunteer to come and help you and enjoy as you see how the message starts spreading across the teams in your 600+ people building. Celebrate the 2 years and a half of hard work (on top of the one you are paid for) by spending lunch with the CEO.


The moment of recognition when the CEO comes have a chat with you and your fabulous team of volunteers| to discuss inclusive diversity and corporate activism
The moment of recognition when the CEO comes have a chat with you and your fabulous team of volunteers | Credit: Personal photo

Idea #7

Put pressure on your local HR to make sure that the said 8 volunteers can have their contribution to the Diversity and Inclusion program be part of their annual incentive target so that their boss cannot reproach them their “pet hobby” - and hereby keep their career safe.


Idea #8

Identify something that could be improved as a win-win for your company and the planet. Think of a better alternative and create an action plan (i.e. sorting waste in your building by installing new bins). Propose to your n+1 to lead this piece of work on top of your current deliverables, in a concerted way with all involved. Good for the company, the planet and good for your career.


Idea #9

Add spices to the expected story. For instance, when preparing a presentation on packaging innovation for the next cross-functional senior decision committee where everybody expects a predictable update on the recyclability roadmap, introduce in the deck a clarification of the difference between potentially recyclable and actually recycled. For an additional emotional imprinting effect, consider adding the video of the greenpeace single-use-plastic monster being delivered in front of Nestle headquarter. And let the idea sink that your company could be next ...


Be a people person

Idea #10

In a place where most are individually pursuing success through sheer competition and brutal business performance, create a new definition of success through lifting humans. Give some of your time to mentor / coach / shadow someone who is requesting your support. Sometimes all the person needs is to articulate what’s going on to an outsider and get a mirroring question (“so which strategies have you considered?”). It’s incredible how valuable a conversation as short as 10 minutes can be to someone’s thought process. When doing so, be authentic and human first (not business first).


Idea #11

Projects pass but people stay. Be mindful and protective of the people around you - there is an individual, a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend behind each of your employee. Be respectful of them as a person even if you are tough on their performance. It’s possible to establish expectations in terms of performance expectations and to hold people accountable against them - and do this from a place of encouragement and desire to see them grow.


Choosing the career and life path that you want rather than following what others have prepared for you is a courageous act of activism
Choosing the career and life path that you want rather than following what others have prepared for you is a courageous act of activism | Credit: Pixabay

Idea #12

Challenge the typical career path. Be clear and in control of your priorities. Don’t run behind the carrot of the next promotion unless this is what and how you want to define this phase of your life.

Define how far you want to invest and which sacrifices you are willing to make for your career - and don’t cross that line if it is not worth it for you.

Decline the job move if it’s not what you want - don’t let yourself be miserable in a job that you don’t really enjoy; you’ll be better off having your energy set onto finding the job that you want instead. [check Gwen’s interview for more on what happens when you pursue your goals instead of a pre-planned career]


Idea #13

Be trustworthy and reliable. Say what you think and think what you say. Say what you do and do what you say. Only play the political part that is required for survival and stay true to yourself. The best way to be consistent as an authentic leader is to own what you think and to act on your convictions. That's enough to be significantly different from the average.


Idea #14

Be your true authentic self. Pay attention to how much you are conforming to the codes of conduct in place in your organisation. Are people consistently introducing themselves by making a list of their last achievements? Are people critical of each other behind the curtain? Are people expected to be always strong, knowledgeable and decisive? Belonging to the group is a necessity from a sociological point of view as well as for your career - that's why we are all naturally inclined to adapt to the group average behaviour. Decide for yourself how much you want to play along… and how much you just want to be you.


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I thought about quitting, but then I noticed who was watching.

Corporate Game Changers logo used as horizontal bar

Idea #15

Be resilient. By being different (yourself!) and choosing your own path, you will make it harder for yourself than committing to making your boss happy for the coming 2 years and move on to the next promotion. At times you may feel tired, lonely and defeated. In exchange you will have the priceless feeling of pride when looking at yourself in the mirror... and you'll notice that you are allowing others to be themselves and stand for their opinions. You will become this new breed of centered and purpose-led leaders. And together, you'll become an unstoppable movement for change.


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Did this list inspire you? Would you like to know more about one of the examples provided? Would you like to disagree? Which idea would you like to add on or remove from this list? Leave your comment below!

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