Why aren't there more Ray Andersons?

I'm not sure I came away with definitive answers about why there aren't more "Ray Andersons," or what it even means to be one, but the dozen or so conversations and e-mail exchanges I’ve had over the past few weeks provided a window of perspective. Based on those conversations, I identified six characteristics that begin to paint a portrait of sustainability leadership among corporate leaders. In no particular order:

1. An entrepreneur’s vision. Anderson was his company’s founder, which likely was a key to his mission. We’ve seen other founders whose companies pushed the envelope on sustainability — Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg, Seventh Generation’s Jeffrey Hollender, Method’s Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan — but none of these built billion-dollar industrial enterprises.

Founder or not, Anderson held a vision of what his company could be and represent, regardless of what others saw or thought. “I was the guy that told him that a good number of his team had thought he'd lost his mind,” says Jim Hartzfeld, Associate Vice President, Sustainable Business, at Interface, who began there in 1993, a year before Anderson’s sustainability epiphany. Anderson’s response, says Hartzfeld: “Well, actually, that's my job — to go around the bend and see what's on the other side, what people can't see yet.”

Of course, successful entrepreneurs combine vision with execution. “Ray had the capacity to look ahead and envision a world in balance, getting things in the right direction, closing the loop,” says John Picard, an architect, entrepreneur, and sustainability consultant, who was a member of the Dream Team. “And then he could go back and he could fixate on 9,000 tasks and go critical on those until he reached his milestone. He was just unstoppable; there was nothing that was going to get in his way.”

2. A passion for learning. Anderson combined an engineer’s problem-solving capability with a hunger for learning more. “He was always, throughout his entire life and career, learning and reading and talking to people,” says Hartzfeld. “He was constantly learning in real time, translating into a better way to do something. One of his daughters once told me that when she was growing up, they'd always go to the beach for vacation. Ray hated the beach, but everybody else loved it so he went. Ray would take stacks of books. ‘We'd come home from vacation tanner,’ she told me. ‘Daddy always came back smarter.’”                            

“He was such a quick learner,” says Picard. “Ray caught up with me in a matter of months and quickly went past us all into a place where I just think he used his company as a rocket or an accelerant to get done what no other normal human could do.”

“He had a serious, scholarly side,” recalls biologist Janine Benyus, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8, an innovation consultancy, another Dream Team member. “He was always reading. His talks were kind of pedantic — the professor telling you things. What Ray would do was call the authors of every one of these books he had read and get us all together.”

“He was a trained Georgia Tech engineer,” says Hartzfeld. “He would wear you out analytically and logically, but he thought as hard and as deep and as powerfully with the intuitive side as he did the logic side.”

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