Interview with Net Impact


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Christopher White is no stranger to bringing about positive change. He co-developed and teaches a class on social intrapreneurship at the Ross School of Business, and he leads the Center for Positive Organizations, which helps leaders build high-performing organizations and bring out the best in people. He’s also been consulting with purpose-driven organizations for 15 years. Now you don’t have to be a business student or a client to benefit from his insights—he recently co-authored the book Changing Your Company From the Inside Out, which is a guide for creating positive social change wherever you work. We caught up with Christopher recently to find out what inspires him, how his own work is evolving, and what advice he’d give anyone who’s looking for a meaningful career.

Now that more people are becoming social intrapreneurs, what’s the most encouraging trend you’re seeing as the field grows?

The receptivity of senior leaders to the energy and skill of social intrapreneurs. One might think that CEOs would be afraid of intrapreneurs, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. They love the high engagement and commitment. I sometimes talk about the generational sandwich we have right now. A lot has been written about the millennials’ desire for purpose, and there are lots of CEOs who had some of their formative years in the idealistic activism of the 1960s. If we can unleash intrapreneurs in the middle of that sandwich, we have a really great window of opportunity for creating change in organizations and in the world.

You write in the book about making a case within an organization to create change. What’s the most important skill when it comes to framing an issue well?

I’d say developing a master frame that fits well with the norms and culture of the organization, and then an adapted frame to match to the different interests of your target stakeholders. While there needs to be coherence and some consistency in the story being told, it is rarely one-size-fits-all in making the case effectively in complex organizations.

Which of your recommendations do people seem to have the most trouble implementing?

Using technology tools and data to understand the organizations in which you are operating. Although using software isn’t essential by any means to create change, I think we all rely on our instincts a lot. Daniel Kahneman and others have done Nobel Prize winning research into this phenomenon—and its pitfalls. Tools don’t replace judgment, but they can give us a new, additional line of sight. In the book, we introduce a couple, and innovations in the coming few years will offer tech-savvy change agents and managers a whole new set of opportunities.

How is your own approach to work evolving now?

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how we can best partner with others to really increase our collective impact on the world. I feel like I am in the right place at the right time, and some exciting things are coalescing. I’m a part of the Ross School of Business, with its commitment to Positive Business, and we have a stellar group of faculty, staff, students, and leaders with the Center for Positive Organizations. And we are embedded within the larger phenomenon that includes Net Impact, Conscious Capitalism, Social Business, the B Team, and many more.

What advice do you give to college students and recent grads to find a career that inspires them?

I’d advise people to not to overlook the relationships with colleagues as a source of meaning, purpose, contribution, joy, creativity, support, energy, and fun. So many students are looking for the name of the company, or the job function, or the industry. All these things are factors, sure. But I’d say that within almost any organization, you can find fellow travelers that you enjoy spending time with, and with whom you enjoy creating something exciting that makes a positive difference in the world. It’s not about the name of the company, it’s about the people with whom you interact every day. Develop the skill of finding those people and finding ways to work with them 90 percent of the time.

Who inspires you?

The change agents we write about in Changing Your Company From the Inside Out, and those who come through the class, are my heroes. People like Kevin Thompson and Dave Berdish—these are guys most people don’t know about; they aren’t CEOs, but they have done really meaningful things to make a positive difference in complex organizations.

I’d also like to give a shout out to my co-author, Jerry Davis. Jerry’s a world-class scholar, a truly brilliant mind, but willing to try new things—and he is 100 percent committed to making a difference. He’s also really fun to work with: In most of our working sessions, we just shoot the breeze and make each other laugh for 90 percent of the time, and then get things done at the end.

Want to hear more? Changing Your Company from the Inside Out provides the tools to empower you to jump-start initiatives that matter to you—and that should matter to your company. Drawing on lessons from social movements as well as on the work of successful intrapreneurs, Gerald Davis and Christopher White provide you with a guide for creating positive social change from within your own organization. Get the book >