Written by Mason Chenn, Director of Business Development

This past week I rubbed shoulders with 1,000+ other social-impact minded entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders at Business for Social Responsibility in New York City. I walked away with expanded vision and insights into how to effectively bring change to an organization, some of which I’ve shared below. I hope you find this insight as valuable as I did.

Think Different

Change requires thinking differently. Status quo thinking won’t lead to change; it will only maintain the status quo. John Thornton, CEO of Barrick Gold and chairman of the board of trustees of the Brookings Institute, shared simple, yet fascinating experiences about enacting innovation in industries you wouldn’t typically characterize as innovative.

Thornton works in the mining industry—an industry almost as old as the materials miners extract. Thornton has seen mines all over the world: Some mines used no light, others were as bright as day. The latter mines were organized, clean and efficient. The former mines lacked those qualities. When he inquired of miners as to why they mined in the dark, incredulous looks followed, accompanied by a response to this effect, “This is how we’ve always done it. Mining has always been done in the dark.”

As I listened to Thornton I asked myself: “How do you effect change when employees have ingrained habits and are only doing something because it has always been done that way?”

One word came to mind: Simplicity.

Innovation doesn’t—and indeed shouldn’t— be complicated. Simple changes can lead to great strides. Drastic change could be as simple as turning on the lights.

Transparency Builds Trust

Thornton also highlighted how leaders affect change by building trust through open sharing of information with employees and the communities in which they operate. Thornton shared an example of how technology was used to share information to the local community about chemical leaks. Technology enabled them to proactively share information, in the process building trust with community members and creating a culture where employees dealt with problems effectively. Transparency and openness created change that positively impacted everyone involved.

I work for a company that focuses on building transparency through worker voice, so this particularly resonated with me. We also use technology as an enabler of change and to improve transparency in the organization. I’ve seen firsthand how these small measures create a culture focused on finding solutions, rather than pointing blame; empowering employees to be drivers of change, rather than passive reactors to it. (As a side note, my colleague Vivian Chang participated in a panel on worker voice at BSR, which she wrote about here.)

If you attended BSR, I’d love to hear what you learned as well. Send me an InMail or leave a comment below.



John Thornton, CEO Barrick Gold Corporation. President of the Brookings Institute.

  • Innovation in the mining industry, isn’t a place you normally see innovation occur
  • Some of the barriers and obstacles to bringing change to an organization:
  • Innovation doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple changes can lead to great strides.
  • Some mines used no light, other than their headlamps. Other mines he saw were as bright as day. Chinese mines require lights
  • Thinking about things differently can lead to improvements. Status quo thinking won’t change the status quo.
  • Needed to figure out what their identity was. What comprised their culture? Forming relationships was the core of their culture. When they lost that core strength they lost their competitive edge.
  • Transparency and openness in their industry—which is not typical of their industry—creates trust, which drives change.
  • Partnerships are key when trying to guide any sort of social impact or change.
  • Be true to your core strengths and value
  • Use technology as an enabler of change.

John Browne

  • Initially programs didn’t really have much impact
    • We’re successful at bringing employees to the table
  • Regretted not being authentic
  • Accused of being a sell-out
  • Contradictory because he harped and promoted openness and transparency at BP, but wasn’t living those principles in his own life
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