10 Minutes with Jackie Prince Roberts, Carlyle Group

The Inside View

10 Minutes with Jackie Prince Roberts, Carlyle Group

This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Jackie Prince Roberts, chief sustainability officer at the Carlyle Group. 

Bob Langert: What does Carlyle do? It seems incredibly complex. (Carlyle is a private-equity firm with 1,700 investors expecting returns from 280 portfolios that employ 635,000 people that span the globe.)

Jackie Prince Roberts: Our proposition is that will we go out and buy companies and we will fix them up, for example, by helping companies grow more or become more efficient or find strategic acquisitions. And after about five years, we will sell them. And in that process, we think that we can return somewhere between 15 percent to 20 percent a year, versus less than 10 percent a year one can get from a typical mutual fund.

Langert: My naïve view of the private-equity approach is one of slash and burn. They come in, buy companies, strip them and make more profitable. Is that Carlyle’s philosophy?

Roberts: What's different about Carlyle is we have always approached it with the overall goal of creating value, and recognize that there's a diversity of strategies for creating value. We want to make sure when we exit, that that company continues to do well and grow after we leave, because reputationally, you're not going to be a partner for future deals if people think that you have a certain strategy that has very short-term benefits.

Langert: You’ve been there for a little more than three years. Why are you Carlyle’s first CSO?

Roberts: Our ESG investment policy was shared with investors back in 2008. But the challenge now is how do you make it come alive on the ground.

My role was created to help deepen the internal integration and to continue to expand implementation.

When I came in, what I focused on is articulating how ESG or sustainability supports our teams. So my works supports cost, obviously, if you've got opportunities for cost savings through energy efficiency or water efficiency. It supports customers because increasingly, expectations for more sustainable products or services are coming from customers.

Clearly, this is a brand and competition issue, because I think we see so many sectors where people are trying to out-green each other or be more sustainable, and it really adds to the brand.

Langert: How did your long tenure at the Environmental Defense Fund prepare for this leadership role?

Roberts: The most important aspect is to understand the range of environmental and social issues that intersect with business. That’s what I was doing for 20-plus years at EDF, with industries ranging from utilities to quick-service restaurants to the transportation sector. It’s critical to be able to understand which are the most material issues for different sectors.

Another big part of my job is supporting our portfolio companies. I couldn't do this if I hadn't had the experience at Environmental Defense Fund and come to understand what's best practice. Or even if I don't know what's best practice in a sector, how to quickly get to the right sources.

And then understanding the challenges to companies in executing projects, whether it's trying to figure out if solar is cost-effective or improving visibility around your supply chain. I think understanding that those initiatives are more complicated than they look on the surface, but doable, is also critical to doing my job, and that was part of the great experience I had at EDF, starting with the work we did with McDonald's. Things we thought that would be really easy weren't, and then harder things turned out were feasible.

Langert: Where do you have the most fun and satisfaction among the three "clients" you serve: Carlyle staff, investors or the actual companies?

Roberts: Certainly, what I really like doing is working with the companies, because that's where you're closest to making changes on the ground. And that certainly is most similar to what I was doing all those years at EDF.

Langert: On the other hand, you've got investors that provide all your fuel and funds for doing all this.

Roberts: Well, right. I enjoy talking to investors as well because if it weren't for their focus on these issues, then I wouldn't have a job. I mean, they are the ones at the end of the day creating a catalyst for change. I feel that they are such a force for good. You wanted to make a difference to your customers. As you know, probably from your days at McDonald's, you want customers to notice. But my first love is getting down in the weeds with the companies.

Langert: Carlyle has a "One Carlyle" culture. So have you been acculturated yet?

Roberts: It's interesting to me that there is such a focus on the culture here because you do have to nurture cultures, I believe. When I was thinking about coming to Carlyle, I talked to people who had worked with Carlyle on deals, often being on the other side of the table, and repeatedly I heard people talking about Carlyle as very collaborative, that the deal teams worked with each other, the portfolio companies even shared expertise with each other. And that isn't always the way private equity operates. And so the One Carlyle culture is really about collaboration and teamwork, which you and I, in the organizations we were in, probably seemed obvious and not necessary to be explicit about.

Langert: So I notice that Carlyle is taking on diversity, especially women in leadership. Why?

Roberts: This year, because we're getting a lot of questions about women in the finance sector, I worked with our human resources team to focus in our annual citizenship report, particularly on what we've been doing over many years to promote women, and what kind of successes we’ve had. It very much starts at the associate level, and you've got to build it from the ground up because many people here are trained internally and it’s very much an apprentice business.

Carlyle very early on had some really talented women who have stayed at the firm and grown with the firm. And now they're senior leaders. And so we put in our annual report a photo of the 18 women who are managing director or above who work on the investment side. But if you're in investment firm, that's a pretty big number for our industry.

Our overall approach to diversity is not new. And it's always focused on a range of diversity aspirations. Racial, gender, sexual orientation, so a mix of things.

Langert: You and I have tracked over the years since we first started working on all this stuff back in '90 or '91. What have you learned about leadership and change management and how to influence people?

Roberts: Being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and I mean really do that.

Change management and influencing people is a lot about asking questions and asking advice, as much as anything. So I think when you're young in your career, sometimes you're scared to ask too many questions because you don't want to seem like you don't know anything. But you should never stop asking questions and asking for advice.

And I think it's interesting that some of the literature around women as managers coming out of McKinsey and other places does point to the fact that women generally are better at asking questions, asking for advice, asking ‘How could I have done that better?’ Especially when they're new to something. And that really helps them become excellent leaders.

Langert: I presume the art of influencing is at the center of what you do?      

Prince: That is so true. I remember Richard Denison [a colleague at EDF] very early on writing something about McDonald’s and talking about the art of lobbying the corporation and what skills could be brought over from other types of lobbying to EDF. And sometimes even internally I'll say yeah, you know, I do a lot of lobbying with the deal teams here.

Langert: How do you escape from sustainability? I mean, your husband, Carter Roberts, is CEO of WWFUS, so you married into the field as well.

Roberts: One of our favorite escapes, Rock Creek Park [in Washington, D.C.], is right next door, which for an urban park is pretty cool. So we try and get out there every weekend, either biking or with the dog or hiking. I'm sure you've heard the new term "forest bathing."

Langert: Forest bathing?

Roberts: Forest bathing. It's the idea of the energy you get from being in nature and the benefits to your mental state of just spending time in nature, or just hanging out in the forest.