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Bankole: When business leaders listen, community gets better

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News
DTE Energy Co. CEO Gerry Anderson

As business executives were preparing for the annual Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber, DTE Energy was feeling the pulse of the community about how to enhance its corporate social responsibility efforts.

A cross-section of activists, civic and religious leaders showed up May 23 at DTE’s headquarters for an open meeting with members of the senior leadership including chairman and CEO Gerry Anderson and president and chief operating officer Jerry Norcia.

 The event, dubbed “Community Stakeholders Meeting,” is a unique program held every year, which allows the top leadership of the Fortune 500 company to personally interact with diverse members of the community as well as listen to grievances even from their most ardent critics.

 “I think this is fabulous. It tells you what they are doing, and we can argue with them about it. It is important to have this kind of open dialogue,” said Maureen Taylor, the head of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, who worked with DTE to map out a utility affordability plan for low-income customers.

“All corporations should open their doors and demonstrate a sense of morality about what should be done in the city,” Taylor said. “The idea of creating a space like this to talk to us in the community fits the way we ought to be treating each other.”

Let’s be honest. Most companies like DTE don’t typically open their executive doors to the community. They insulate themselves and usually speak to the public through intermediaries and sometimes only in moments of damaging crisis. 

They do more talking than listen to the community, which is why the energy giant’s model is commendable and should be replicated by others. 

After all, a company’s reputation is only as good as its standing in the community and its willingness to engage diverse voices including critics for the public good.

What DTE is doing in many ways is redefining the concept of community engagement, which is more than just buying tables at a sell-out dinner where diversity is celebrated. It also means creating opportunity for face-to-face unrestricted and honest dialogue between industry captains and advocates in the community regarding how to address some crucial issues.

In doing so, the corporate leaders themselves can hear directly – without any filters- how the community really feels about a range of issues that fall within their corporate citizenship mantra. 

“DTE Energy takes very seriously their mission to be a force for growth and prosperity with community engagement providing them the insights needed to better serve their employees and their customers,” said Steve Spreitzer, CEO of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, who attended last Wednesday’s gathering.  “I have seen the results of this engagement in a number of ways including efforts made to treat customers who are economically challenged with dignity, investing in making Detroit safer and serving in a lead role in the career development of young talent.”

Juanita Moore, who runs Charles Wright Museum of African American History, saw the event as empowering.

“I think this does make people in our community feel empowered because they are talking to the leadership of the company,” Moore said. “This is an example of community accountability.”

Norcia, the DTE president, says it’s also about partnership.

“The strong relationships we have with area nonprofits and community organizations drive opportunities to positively impact our customers and the communities we serve,” Norcia said. “We hear from community stakeholders that they’re surprised by the depth and breadth of DTE’s involvement both in Detroit and throughout the state.

 “Those with whom we partner on environmental issues for example are surprised that we are equally invested in in areas ranging from workforce development to economic progress and neighborhood revitalization.”

For companies to have meaningful credibility in the community they should see this type of inclusive public engagement as necessary to their short and long-term success. It has to be more than the bottom line. How people perceive and feel about your company matters. 

That’s worth remembering on Mackinac Island.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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