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No 1056:
Projecting Different Identities: A Longitudinal Study of the 'Whipsaw' Effects of Changing Leadership Discourse About the Triple Bottom Line

Bertrand Moingeon () and Julie Bayle-Cordier ()

Abstract: This paper focuses on changes in leadershipís discourse about the "triple bottom line" in Ben & Jerryís ice cream from its founding days through to its acquisition by and integration into Unilever. For this study, the authors analyzed CEO claims about "who we are" from their letters in annual reports (what they label projected identity). A sample of employees (both long-service and relative newcomers) were interviewed about their perceptions of B&Jís over the thirty years covered.

Findings reveal that successive CEOís stressed different "logics" about the business and what would make it successful over the years with the founders emphasizing a strong linkage between the economic, product, and social components of the companyís triple bottom line and their next three successors decoupling these components and pushing, each in different ways, for stronger financial returns. As a result, organization members were "whipsawed" between their CEOsí different logics and identity claims.

The CEO letters exhibit a progression over time from a more normative to utilitarian tone familiar in the organizational identity literature. The messaging shifts, however, when a fifth CEO takes charge and re-integrates the firmís triple bottom line. Thus the firmís projected identity evolved in a U pattern starting with an integrated triple bottom line logic, shifting to a more linear logic where the economic mission dominates, and then reintegration where multiple bottom lines are embraced once again.

Here the authors explore both the strategic (external) and personal (internal) challenges informing the different CEOsí messages over years, the whipsaw effect on staff, and the longer term evolution of projected identity in the company and reemergence of its integrated triple bottom line. This study contributes to the CSR and organization identity literatures by documenting how CEOís (and their company) must struggle with maintaining an integrated triple bottom line in the context of commercial challenges and major changes involved in M&A. It also speaks to the practical matters of keeping normative traditions alive amidst competing pressures for change.

Keywords: Leadership; corporate social responsibility; triple bottom line; mergers & acquisitions; managerial discourse; projected identity; (follow links to similar papers)

48 pages, September 1, 2014

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