A fundamental question of leadership

WARNING: LONG POST

When Ray Anderson speaks, you listen. It’s simple as that.

When he addressed the Business of Sustainability event at Ashridge on Tuesday, it didn’t matter one bit that I already knew much of the Interface story (something I first became aware of back in 2004, when interview footage with Ray was featured in Joel Bakan’s The Corporation).

To see and hear him first-hand is to fully appreciate his commitment to the cause of sustainable business and – through the success of Interface – to become “the undeniable example” that corporations can do well (extremely well, as it happens) by doing good.

Despite his obvious passion and the stark nature of his core message – that our long-term survival and prosperity requires nothing less than the complete transformation of the current industrial paradigm of “take, make, waste” – he doesn’t come over in the least bit evangelistic. 

He exudes a sort of calm authority, with a rather homely and self-effacing style that gives him more the air of benevolent American uncle than idealistic crusader. Indeed, lest anyone should doubt that this is strictly about business, he begins by introducing himself as:

“an industrialist… as profit-minded and competitive as the next man.”

It’s a seductive and engaging mix, and you begin to understand why sustainability is now in the blood at Interface. But it wasn’t always so…

In fact, in 1994, when Ray first announced what has since become known as Mission Zero – action on seven fronts to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020 – everyone around him thought he was nuts. (Not surprising really, when you’re in the business of turning petrochemicals into textiles.)

However, since then, Interface has saved over $372million through the elimination of waste – uniquely and deliberately broad in its definition as, “any cost incurred that doesn’t deliver value to the customer.” (Note the word elimination, not reduction – there is no such thing as “acceptable” waste at Interface.)

It has achieved a net absolute reduction of 82% in greenhouse gas emissions, reduced total energy consumption by 45% and water usage by 70%, to name but a few of the impressive statistics.

Over the same period, Ray tells us, sales have increased by two-thirds and profits have doubled – the combination of a well-spring of new product and process innovations, the galvanising effect of Mission Zero on Interface‘s people, and the generation of a level of goodwill that no amount of advertising could ever buy.

The facts speak for themselves: Ray wasn’t round the bend; he was simply ahead of the curve.

In our discussions as a table group, and during the breaks, we find ourselves continually returning the theme of visionary leadership as the dominant thread of the Interface story:

  • the willingness to challenge the prevailing mindset;
  • the ambition to transform a company, even when immediate practical steps to achieve the vision are unclear;
  • the courage to stay the course, recognising that engaging others in such radical change takes consistent and persistent effort over the long-term;
  • the humility to admit that – even now – the journey is only half complete, and the conviction to keep on going; and
  • the selflessness to look beyond one’s own organisation and seek to share one’s wisdom and experience with others.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who instinctively eulogises the role of leader as visionary and charismatic hero. Far from it, I’m a firm believer in situational leadership – i.e. the style and characteristics of an effective leader depend on circumstance and the people around you.

When you think about it, though, visionary leadership is exactly what was required to achieve the kind of radical change Ray envisaged for Interface; and, arguably, it’s exactly what is now required across business at large, where sustainability is concerned.

Ultimately, sustainability is not a discrete role or initiative or target, it’s a cultural thing – a fundamental belief and way of thinking that encourages us to consider the long-term implications of our actions, over generations.

Such cultural shifts take time to permeate throughout organisations and society. If we agree that sustainability is a must, then we could certainly do with a lot more leaders like Ray Anderson – at every level of business and public life.

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7 thoughts on “A fundamental question of leadership

  1. Neil McCrossen

    One thing bothers me about this issue, not with interface, but with how the learning applies to other companies.

    I seem to remember some statistic about the average tenure of a CEO for a large company. 5 years ish… (fortune 100 co’s in 2006)

    Surely the kind of fundamental mind shift and changes as implemented by Ray are only possible when there is a consistency of leadership and vision over an extended timescale.

    How should this issue be addressed where in most companies the focus is on delivering the numbers for this quarter. And the executives are motivated through rewards linked to short-term performance. Agreed the leadership style is needed, but shouldn’t the message be to the key shareholders to focus on consistency and duration of strategy instead of this constant cycle of shuffling the ‘executive deck of cards’?

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    1. Mike Graham

      I am trying to contact Neil McCrossen of Shepherds Croft Estates Ltd about his email address whcih has been confused with ours – i.e. we are getting his emails.

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  2. Dan Gray

    As ever, a very perceptive question, Neil!

    I’m not sure you can address these issues easily in these kinds of companies – at least not until there is a sufficient groundswell of opinion among customers and shareholders (hence my caveat about needing more people like Ray at all levels of business and public life). Change will have to come from the bottom up.

    Ray answered a very similar question on the day, and suggested there are 3 kinds of CEO: the ones who founded their companies, the ones who inherited them, and the ones hired in to run them.

    The way to tackle the issue, in his opinion, is first to target the “low-hanging fruit” – i.e. the first 2 kinds of CEO who have much more emotionally invested in the business, are more likely to be concerned with leaving a lasting legacy, and who are more likely to be granted the time to implement the necessary changes.

    When enough of these examplars exist, and other businesses start to perceive a threat to market share and profitablity, he believes the third group will eventually be bound to follow.

    Indeed, that seems to be the basic credo behind the formation of the partnership between Ashridge and InterfaceRAISE – to encourage the creation of more “undeniable examples” of the business value of sustainability.

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  3. Anthony Kasozi

    It was indeed a privilege having the opportunity to hear Ray speak personally. In addition to being struck by his humble presence and authenticity – I was struck by his willingness to admit that a) he was on a journey of discovery b)he did not have all the answers c) Interface did not get everything right along the way.

    I found this refreshing because the focus on Sustainability matters is raising the bar so high that many well meaning business people are “scared” of revealing what they are doing (or not doing) in case they are villified for being “slow” or castigated for being “inadequate”. I think Ray’s talk had a special significance for me: – wherever I am at, whatever I have started – it can be legitimate. The question is not so much what have I failed to do to date (regrets accepted!) – It is rather – what am I commiting to do next?

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  4. Mark

    Dan, your words deliver the profound message in a highly articulate way.

    Unfortunatley i write this from a blackberry waiting for a plane (as you know i am in the cat of CEO that most probably will get the Alan Sugar treatment).

    The CEO tenure discussion is relevant but to be honest is as big a cop out as the comments i hear about the next generation will understand it better and stinks of the texan bush ! I am measured on Ebit and value creation (measured primarily on the money), the sustainability agenda is fully compatible with these targets. A process that doesn’t add value is waste, over production – waste – over engineering – waste TIMWOOD. So i do care about the environment but i also want a longer tenure as a CEO – addressing sustainability in my business is imperative for me to get a longer tenure. (Sorry for poor gramr and any spell’os but the thumbs aint what they used to be).

    By the way my approach is never to mention green in the business as they think im a left wing socialist from a deprived area of birmingham. Of course i am but i am trying to get over the stigma :o)

    Ps can i class this as a rant on a blog, never added to on on blog before

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  5. Dan Gray

    Cheers, Mark. It’s great to get a CEO’s point of view on this, and I sincerely hope that there are more CEOs in the “hired gun” category who are as enlightened as you are.

    I’m really interested by your point about avoiding any mention of “green”. I think there’s definitely something in that, and it’s not unlike my own “rant” on the language of diversity.

    Make too much of a song and dance about it, and there’s a danger that we encourage people to think of sustainability as something separate and an end in itself, rather than something integral to the way we do business and a means to improve performance.

    Do that and we totally shoot ourselves in the foot.

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  6. Pingback: Paul Polman: 21st century leader | Live Long and Prosper

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