How Jim Cannon is scaling Sustainable Fisheries Partnership

The Inside View

How Jim Cannon is scaling Sustainable Fisheries Partnership

Jim Cannon, CEO and founder of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.

What I’ve quite often observed in NGO leadership that works to influence the corporate sector is a shortage of flair and an overdose of passion, often stuck on a rigid agenda. While I admire seeing the emotion and scientific rigor, they are not the key to unlocking corporations’ sustainable power.

An NGO leader needs a pizzazz factor, too — that magical ingredient that reels in company leaders as willing corporate change-agents.

Jim Cannon, CEO and founder of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, is such an NGO leader. When he speaks, his sonorous voice evokes the trust of a Walter Cronkite. The way he maneuvers in his life has the mystique of an Ethan Hunt from “Mission Impossible.” The way he bellies up to the bar with senior executives and fisherman is like he’s your very best mate.

I first met Cannon back in 2002, when he was with Conservation International. My colleagues and I at McDonald’s invited him to our annual Global Fish Forum in Toronto. Gary Johnson, McDonald’s head of fish supply chain strategy at the time (now senior director worldwide supply chain), saw a need for developing a sustainable fish strategy. With recent fisheries getting depleted and shifting, Johnson sought a more dependable, assured fish supply.

Our fish suppliers severely balked at this idea and objected to Cannon’s presence at the forum. But Johnson stuck to his vision, and despite their consternation, they brought Cannon in. It was a move that positively and dramatically would change the trajectory of sustainable fish, well beyond McDonald’s.

Jon Safey, then general manager of marketing for Sealord, a very large fishing company, recalled that first meeting. “The first thing I noted about Jim, apart from his Scottish accent, was that he didn't talk in an abstract fashion; he talked straight and with no BS. That was refreshing, and after a good session on the subject, Jim joined us for drinks and dinner where he showed that he was indeed a good mix of Scottish and Australian. That is, he enjoyed the socializing while showing he had deep pockets (and short arms). He fitted in with the fishing industry people very well.”

I’ve worked with many sectors that have crusty, curmudgeon traits, combined with a deep cynicism of the NGO agenda, and the fish sector is in the top echelon. So how did Cannon win them over? Within a year, he and the suppliers collaborated to develop mapping and guidelines for a fish scorecard and Fisheries Improvement Partnerships that dramatically would improve existing sources and temporarily shift as much as 50 percent of its sources.

By 2014, all McDonald’s fisheries met Marine Stewardship Council standards.

Johnson recalls the time back then and why Cannon clicked with the tough-minded fish suppliers: “Jim knows if he collaborates with business, he can improve fish sustainability rather than with a harder approach. Jim works to help find business solutions but still pushes hard on and drives environmental issues, making sure you understand the total issue instead of just one part of it you may be interested in.”

I recently chatted with Cannon, catching him at a rare, sedentary moment at his home in Hawaii. I wanted to dig into the “how” part of what he does. After all, they don’t teach style and pizazz in business school or leadership development classes.

It’s tough to crack into the “how” with great leaders, because humbleness and deflecting the credit is part of their DNA. No matter which way I asked Cannon “how” he does it, he constantly spoke as “we” and tells stories of how fish companies and their leaders were the ones forging change and success.

It’s not about how much you know, either. I think the danger of NGO leaders is that they know too much. With this expertise, they then lead their advocacy with science, and neglect the style part of change.

Cannon knows his stuff. For example, in the early 1990s, he “got lucky” and was commissioned to help research and edit the U.N. FAO’s Review of the state of world marine fishery resources, summarizing the status of all fisheries in the world. Since then, his knowledge of fish continued to deepen. But he does not “lead” with his vast knowledge.

“It takes listening,” Cannon told me. “I want to start where the company is at, and really listen to them, and what moves them. What their needs are. And I tailor my recommendations to what I hear.”

Cannon came out of Cambridge University and Imperial College schooled in ecology, economics and math. But he quickly learned that facts were not the problem. He said, “It all comes down to politics, and how to build political will.” He shifted his work to companies, where there is the ability to garner the political power necessary.

He sees his work with retailers and first-tier suppliers who need to influence their suppliers and country political leaders in three buckets:

  1. Motivate business leader to lobby their nation’s minister. If they talk about jobs lost, economic impacts and tax ramifications to the politicians and regulators, it is far more effective than coming from an NGO.
  2. Prepare suppliers to advocating changes within their fish catch sector trade associations.
  3. Guide suppliers on putting sustainability criteria into their contracts.

Cannon sees the need for contracts to go beyond their own specific fish suppliers to include the overall fishery.

“You can have your 10 boats or fish farms be sustainable, but if the other 100 that make up the common area are not, your work is at jeopardy,” said Cannon. “We’ve learned from crises like fish stock declines and aquaculture disease outbreaks and pollution impacts that managing the whole fishery or fish farming region is critical.”

Cannon made the big move to start Sustainable Fisheries Partnership in 2006, after he saw the success he had with McDonald’s and Walmart. He worked for Conservation International at the time, but CI was present in only a few of the world’s main fish-producing countries. Seeking to make a broader impact, Cannon left and decided to start SFP, thinking it might only last for a few months.

SFP has thrived, with a staff of 70, a $6 million annual budget and a scope of work across the globe with a host of fishery improvement programs and corporate partners (including Walmart, Sainsbury, ASDA, Tesco, Wegman’s, BSF, Seattle Fish Company and Highliner Foods).

“Since starting SFP, Jim has brokered deals with most of the large seafood retailers,” said Safey (now a senior executive at Nissui, a huge Japanese fish conglomerate), “and he has convinced the fishing world that collaboration is the key to achieving real improvement in seafood sustainability on a global basis.

"One of his key attributes is that he can walk for a time in other people's shoes, and he can translate that into action plans that can be accepted by parties that don't necessarily share common ground all the time. He manages to expand that common ground to the extent where stakeholders in the seafood business can develop agreed targets, and plans to achieve progress, even if it is over a longer period of time.”

Cannon admits that his philosophy — of collaboration, listening, starting where the company is and tailoring solutions that help their business — is largely aided by the fact that wild fisheries are publicly managed. There has to be collaboration. He wishes other sectors such as forestry, palm oil and livestock had a similar mindset.

He also wishes companies would understand their fiercest critics better.

“You should not judge these critics and what they want at face value,” he said. “They are not coming after your company and brand because they don’t like you. Rather, what you really need to understand is the underlying aims of your critics, and with this open-mindedness you can find ways to help both them and your company.”

So how do you get your own style and pizzazz that works for you, whether at your company or NGO? After all, all kinds of personalities make up great leaders — and can you really teach “personality”?

Here’s what I’ve gleaned and interpreted from Jim Cannon:

Too many sustainable leaders proportion too much of their time on getting the facts, researching the science and studying the process. For many, “politics” is a dirty word. Forging and building political will is what Cannon is all about. By his own magic and authentic style, he strikes a chord. But it is because he spends much of his waking hours figuring out how to positively use political will to engage and motivate more stakeholders. And then he invests the time to nurture and grow personal relationships.

Safey sums it up well: “Jim doesn't carry any baggage, and he doesn't depend on financial measures to determine his success. He wears one suit and has three white shirts. What you see is what you get, and his passion is to champion sustainability no matter whether he is talking to a fisherman or a global retail CEO. People respect him for his knowledge, intellect and his direct no-nonsense approach.” 

The future of fish will put Cannon and his SFP to even greater challenges. Lots more fish is needed to feed the world. Cannon projects 15 percent more in the next 20 years. Most of this will come from aquaculture. Aquaculture exceeded wild capture for the first time in 2013, reaching 97 million tons, up from 17 millions tons in 1990.

That’s amazing growth, with more to come. Cannon sees aquaculture as a good thing if done right. Most farmed fish come mostly from private lands and management. For success, what is needed is the same “collective good” mindset that has worked with wild fish.

SFP has set a target of engaging 75 percent in improvement programs by 2018. According to Cannon, “Whitefish is already there. With leadership from industry and the help of other groups, we think this target is achievable for things like tuna, salmon, shrimp and crab.”

With Cannon’s style: Mission possible.