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The Inside View

The 10 commandments for sustainability collaborations

McDonald’s had never done this before — inviting NGO leaders into a closed-door, "first look" strategy meeting, with a whole morning dedicated to sustainability.

An independent moderator asked the panelists, who included Suzanne Apple of World Wildlife Fund, "What one big sustainability strategy would you put in place if you were CEO for a day at McDonald’s?"  

She has lived this simultaneously knee-buckling, yet kid-in-a-candy-store-like dream life for a quarter-century, sprightly stepping into corporate hallways with the endearing humanity of Abe Lincoln and the determined guile of Katniss Everdeen.

I recently caught up with Suzanne on the heels of her decision to retire from the World Wildlife Fund as SVP of Private Sector Engagement. She’s taking a breather while she contemplates her next sustainability chapter.  

Her leadership legacy is extraordinary, both at the Home Depot leading its community and environmental efforts (1992-2002) and WWF since 2003. She recently made my NGO Hall of Fame. If anyone knows what makes or breaks corporate sustainability partnerships, it’s Suzanne.

Suzanne has a way of taking on tough, constructive situations as if she’s coming into your family room to have a heart-to-heart. That’s what happened at First Look. I could tell she was connecting when the top execs’ heads and elbows all clicked forward, eyes zooming in on what Suzanne had to say.

There’s fear on both sides. The NGO does not want to sell out. Companies fear being told what to do.

"Beef equals McDonald’s, and McDonald’s is beef," she said as she eyed McDonald’s CEO and others. "McDonald’s brand is beef. Beef is core to your business and central to many of the sustainable agricultural issues of our times. If you are going to be a sustainability leader, you can’t do anything until you take on sustainable beef." 

Others chimed in the same. The room was buzzing. I sat on the sidelines watching a seminal moment for my company. Indeed, it was the tipping point with senior management, who now saw our team vision for sustainable beef as an exciting possibility. 

With this in mind, I wanted to know how one could copycat Suzanne’s art of influencing others such as WWF's signature panda, famous for opening hearts and minds with its simple essence.

Here are Suzanne’s "shall and shall nots" for successful corporate engagement:

1. Lead by connecting with people, not just programs or policy 

"You have to remember it’s about connecting people to people. There’s got to be openness between the company and the NGO. People first. That’s where you build trust and credibility. Always remember that it’s people that make things happen."

2. Invest in a trusting relationship

"You’ve got to take the time to build a trusting relationship.There’s got to be openness, candor, honesty, integrity, empathy, a willingness to listen and understand and not being too quick to judge, and not quick to find fault, on either side."

3. Face fear by trying to wear their shoes

"There’s fear on both sides. The NGO does not want to sell out. Companies fear being told what to do and forced to do things that don’t make sense for their business. So you have to walk in each other’s shoes. You can’t have a realistic conversation until you better understand each other. That means spending time in the company’s plants or stores. It means spending time with the NGO out in the field. You see to see each other’s world."

4. Open the door by being open

"Companies and non-profits are never going to align on everything. NGOs are very mission-driven. Corporations are largely profit-driven. We always managed to find some common ground where the two circles overlapped in a way that we could agree on shared priorities and shared goals. This doesn’t have to feel like compromise. It can and should feel like ownership on each side and a shared platform for work you can do together." 

5. Less telling and talking and more listening 

"You’ve got to listen more than you talk. This is one of things that we don’t always do very well, or didn’t at times in my early days at WWF. Sometimes we as NGOs want to tell you everything you 'ought' to do. But I don’t believe that we can tell them how to do it because we are not experts in their business. We can advise them, give them input and even push them, but I think it’s those NGOs that want to say, ‘Here’s what you need to do and here’s how you do it,’ that don’t make much progress because they set up unrealistic expectations."

6. Pick up the phone

"If I feel a roadblock or barrier with a company, my immediate solution is to pick up the phone and call them to have a private, honest conversation."

7. Don’t assume you speak the same language

"I’ve been in meetings where people literally worked hard at talking in a different language. On our side, we have had to educate ourselves and our teams to better understand how business operates. And to understand that companies don’t necessarily make money immediately when they invest in our joint work. It is often a long-term investment proposition. 

"We have also had to understand that companies may appear to you to have a crass, commercial motive … because that is what they are about, generating profits for their company. But these companies are also about purpose, doing good things and good work. Vice versa, company people often need to be more sensitive to the mission, commitment and zeal of NGOs. At the end the day, for the NGO, it is about achieving the mission. Everything must drive toward that end." 

8. Never stereotype 

"Don’t be closed-minded or cast people in stereotypes. Every person is different, and every organization is different. You have to be open-minded on both sides."

9. Don’t seek the simple solution

"There’s no silver bullet. This sustainability work is important and impactful but it is hard work and we have learned over and over again, there’s not a single solution to all of this. It takes a joint commitment and a lot of hard work to yield the best results."

10. No surprises

"There have to be no surprises. In other words, if something is going on that strays from our work together, we need to talk about it in advance. We may not agree with it, but we cannot be surprised. The same goes for us. Even if the issue doesn’t directly relate to the current work. You have to treat each other as partners and share information as partners do."

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