Ask a CSO: What is a day in the life of Interface's chief sustainability officer really like?
Ex-attorney Erin Meezan has the dream job: giving her voice to Interface Inc as vice president and chief sustainability officer. Over the past 15 years, she has pursued an aggressive sustainability vision which has landed the company on the annual GlobeScan survey every year. In addition to managing Interface’s eco advisors, the Eco Dream Team, she’s a frequent lecturer on sustainable business to professional and student audiences around the world — in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and around the United States and Europe.
We recently spoke about what life as a CSO really looks like.
Shannon Houde: You have everyone’s dream job. Between completing your degree at Vermont Law School and your career at Interface, what was your journey?
Erin Meezan: I’ve now been with Interface for 15 years and I still feel privileged to work here; it does feel like a dream job. I never could have envisioned this 25 years ago.
I originally moved to Georgia to be a lobbyist but found myself working in the state energy office, but one thing led to another and I landed at Interface, where I found myself working under sustainability pioneer Ray Anderson and then the new CEO, Jay Gould. This is a dream job because I don’t have to convince my team here that sustainability is important; I already have that buy-in. It’s not nirvana though. We’ve embraced sustainability and innovation but we’ve also embraced super hard challenges like reversing global warming.
Houde: What valuable lessons did Ray teach you?
Meezan: He truly started the "reach out and learn" culture. He read "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawken and then he reached out to Paul and said, "I just read your book and realized that my company has been doing everything wrong… I need your help." Ray taught me that there is value in going outside of the company to learn, but also that telling stories can influence others. Be humble and tell your story — you never know who will be inspired.
The company guarded against losing Ray’s vision, and we’ve not only stayed true but have gone beyond it: To be a founder-led business that has thrived even after the loss of that founder has been incredible.
We have adopted ambitious goals. We collaborate a lot internally. It is still hard work, but it’s in the doing, not in the convincing.
Houde: What other CEOs are leading top-down like Ray did on this agenda?
Meezan: Here are a few examples which come to mind, where the company’s leadership has made sustainability an all-encompassing guide to the business model.
Kim Jordan from New Belgium was an incredibly strong leader in both the environmental and social agenda; a personal hero of mine is Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia; Paul Polman really steered the ship at Unilever; and Jesper Brodin is doing an incredible job at IKEA (PDF).
Houde: What advice would you give to those who aspire to be a CSO? How can they best build their skills and position their personal brands?
Meezan: I tell people not to overly worry about mapping their path — just get the experience and education in something you are passionate about.
Being able to clearly communicate "what," "why" and "how" a company develops its goals and targets sounds really basic, but being able to communicate and gain buy-in for these issues, for example, is essential for success. Understanding how to build the business case and gain support from your colleagues is a skillset that must be learned with experience.
The key is really to get experience working in the field, in the industry you want to target, within business. If you want to be a CSO and pursue sustainability in business, then you have to understand their business.
Houde: I love that. If you’re not constantly evolving, you’re never going to think bigger. How can we learn from others?
Meezan: Absolutely. I’ve found that in our sustainable business community people are more generous about sharing and developing others. For example, when I read "The Songs of Trees" by David George Haskil, I reached out to him on Twitter and we connected. Don’t be shy about finding the people that inspire you — and make a personal connection with them to learn from them.
If you’re a female leader I’m going to double down on challenging you to do this. We aren’t great at asking for help for mentorship. I, personally, would like to address the issue of more women being on boards. Female leaders find it a little harder to be strategic about networking or getting introductions.
Houde: What have you seen change and evolve for women leaders over the years?
Meezan: I’m still in the generation of leaders where I was the first woman at Interface to get a parking spot; the first C-suite female leader. But now we have three women on the board, and in just the last five years, things are changing.
Houde: Talk to me about a day in the life of a CSO. The good, the bad, the ugly. Full transparency, please.
Meezan: This morning I had a 7 a.m. cross-functional global team call where we discussed how we should explain the mission of reversing global warming to our customers. Our team calls are a key function of working at a global company.
Next up, I had a video shoot because we are celebrating 25 years of sustainability at Interface. We’re doing a lot of internal celebrating for this amazing milestone.
Then I had a webinar with Arizona State University, Volans, Carbon 180 and a couple other organizations about how to create the map to a new carbon economy for business. This will eventually be a white paper in an effort to build awareness and encourage more aggressive steps.
Finally, later today I have an internal discussion about applying a new methodology to our business. This is a day in the life.