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The NBA’s Todd Jacobson on Connecting Corporate Sustainability to Mission and Values

Corporations are under relentless pressure from stakeholders to show that they care about more than bottom-line profits, creating an entire industry around organizations’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments.

But how should leaders think about sustainability and identify what to prioritize? How do they decide when to take positions on public policy issues and respond to employees who disagree with those decisions?

At the i4cp 2023 Next Practices Now Conference (March 27–30 at the Fairmont Princess, Scottsdale), Todd Jacobson, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) head of social responsibility, will talk about these challenges and more.

We had the chance to pose a few questions to Jacobson in advance of the conference:

There are lots of terms and phrases to describe the intersection of corporations and society and the environment. How do you define this work and how do you approach it at the NBA?

The work doesn’t just lie in what you do or the actions you take. It’s ultimately the larger impact you want to have as an organization and how that is reflected in all aspects of your business. For us, it begins with our mission and values. There is a clear connection between the principles of our organization and our objectives and work. Everyone is aligned on our priorities and processes, ultimately yielding better outcomes. Our outcomes are not only measured by the end result but by assessing our process and behavior change along the way.

The term Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) is often used to describe sustainability efforts. Which one—the “E,” the “S”, or the “G”—should businesses pay the most attention to these days and why?

The E, S and G are interconnected, and it’s critical that businesses pay attention to each piece.  In my view, it should always start with governance, because the environmental and social components are primarily dependent on strong governance. Governance is not just about being in compliance with laws and regulations—it’s the procedure for how your business is implementing, measuring, and monitoring outputs and actions, and how they ultimately impact the world.

Too often the focus is on the environmental piece because it is easily quantifiable. Companies are often evaluated primarily on the “E” and then put into an ESG index and marked as a “good” investment. But these indexes often don’t take into account how the entire business footprint is impacting the world. It’s important to first focus on how your business processes correlate to your mission and values to create measurable impact.

Stakeholders—including investors, consumers, and employees—are demanding that CEOs speak out on public policy issues like never before. When it comes to these decisions, obviously, you can’t please everyone. So, what’s the ideal way for companies to develop these policy stances on controversial issues to avoid backlash that’s detrimental to the future of the organization?

The best way for companies to develop their stances and engage on social issues is by being authentic to who they are as an organization. It starts with making sure your organization has a clearly defined “why,” or a set of values. These values state your purpose and become a driver of your business approach, practices, and stakeholder engagement. A purpose-driven business will be positioned to act strategically with intent and authenticity around issues and events. For the NBA, the values of equality, diversity, and inclusion have been a part of our DNA as a league and guide our process and progress in addressing social issues. 

For the NBA, the values of equality, diversity, and inclusion have been a part of our DNA as a league and guide our process and progress in addressing social issues.

Creating an inclusive environment that supports employees without forcing certain beliefs or values on everyone is a common challenge for corporate leaders. How should companies respond to employees who disagree with their public positions on controversial issues?

An organization’s culture must consistently reflect its values to establish a strong foundation in the workplace. To that end, it is most important to have clear internal communication mechanisms in place, which informs how a company connects, gathers feedback, and supports its employees. For example, at the NBA, we hold community conversations around important issues and host regular companywide town halls to proactively address issues that impact our work and provide a forum for employees to ask questions and have their voices heard.
In addition, employee resource teams play a huge role in creating space for employees to comfortably find community, and exchange ideas with each other and leadership.

Finally, what’s one piece of guidance you’d give HR leaders to help their organizations make progress on environmental and social sustainability goals and commitments?

This work is only successful with a top-down approach. It’s important to first lay out a clear mission, values and principles that define your organization and inform how you want to show up in the world. Once you define your “why,” you will be much more effective in the “what” and the “how” in your approach to the work.

Katheryn Brekken, Ph.D.
Katheryn Brekken, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). Prior to joining i4cp, she served as an assistant professor of research with the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Policy and Leadership, where she continues to lecture. She has worked closely with government and corporate leaders to develop and evaluate education and training programs and as a policy advisor. She has over 15 years of experience in public affairs and has testified before legislative bodies on matters of higher education and workforce policy. She is published in various academic journals including Politics & Policy, Community College Journal of Research & Practice, and State and Local Government Review. She received her Ph.D. in Public Affairs from UNLV.