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A Tale Of Two CEOs: BP vs. Massey, Part II, Don Blankenship Of Massey

May 21, 2010

[The following is Part Two of a two-part series that originally appeared on Forbes.com’s CSR blog. Click here to read the original.

What is most striking about the leadership style of Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, is his consistency. Years ago, Blankenship made statements that not only have come back to haunt him, they have cemented him as the “Anti-CSO.”

By CSO, I mean Corporate Sustainability Officer. As I explained in my last post, part of the CEO’s job is ensuring that everything a company does is sustainable. He must consider the positive and negative consequences of the company’s actions, outside its normal business routines. That includes disastrous mine accidents that could result in devastating loss to families and communities, and environmental nightmares like the Gulf oil spill. Inherently, the job of CSO involves an appreciation of the importance of long-term planning.

Blankenship’s style is very much Anti-CSO. Not only does he not look to make corporate sustainability a reality, but he also outwardly opposes elements of the concept.

In a June 2009 interview, Massey chastised the public and politicians for getting “emotional” about accidents, calling some of the safety regulations “nonsensical.” Later, at a September political rally, he said the idea that “they” (meaning Washington, D.C. regulators) care more about miners’ safety than “we” do is “as silly as global warming.”

Ever a provocative, politically incorrect bomb-thrower who scoffs at the idea of corporate sustainability, just a month later, Blankenship penned an op-ed in The Hill, a D.C. publication that covers Congress, entitled, “No harm in cap-and-trade? You lie!”

You’ve got to at least appreciate the fact that you know what you’re getting with Blankenship: a CSO who is not going to be seen at the next Business for Social Responsibility conference.

During the period immediately following the mining disaster, Blankenships’s leadership style could at best be seen as detached and reclusive. He did not lead press conferences (as far as I’ve been able to find), or participate in the press coverage of the frantic search to save the lives of the 29 trapped miners. He did give interviews with a select number of media outlets. But Blankenship’s isolation stands in contrast to the prominence of  BP’s Tony Hayward.

Blankenship represents the opposite of what an ideal CSO needs to be: visionary, supportive, and someone who understands that there is a direct connection between the health and safety of workers and the health and stability of company finances. Blankenship will be forced to understand that connection. In particular, in the area of legal fees, he will pay for his company’s tarnished reputation and lousy employee retention. He will also have to live with the guilt of presiding over a company that employed 29 souls no longer on this earth.

The Third Model: The True CSO

A few weeks ago, I was struck by the statements of Muhtar Kent, the Chairman and  CEO of Coca-Cola, during a press conference with, of all stakeholders, Greenpeace. The best part: It was a friendly exchange between the two organizations. Coke announced it was phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbons in all new vending machines by 2015, and Greenpeace (yes, Greenpeace!) was there to applaud Coca-Cola’s effort. Through this exchange and in on-line company videos, Kent declared himself the company’s Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), thereby underscoring the importance he and his company place on sustainability.

A question for readers: who is a True CSO? Is it Coca-Cola’s Kent? Is it Jeff Immelt with Ecomagination? Or is it Jeffrey Hollender of household cleaning product company Seventh Generation, who has integrated sustainability into his business model from day one? Can a company like, say, GE, which has had its share of environmental problems, move from embodying a Hollow CSO model to a True CSO model, through effective leadership?

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