How She Leads

How She Leads: Candace "CT" Taylor-Anderson of Belk

Belk is a family owned and operated department store chain, which, despite its size — 300 stores spread across 16 states and employing 25,000 people — holds onto its community focus. It prides itself on being part of the neighborhoods where it does business, participating in fashion-show fundraisers and beach clean-ups.

Candace "CT" Taylor- Anderson joined Belk as its director of sustainability in 2013 just as the company was beginning to realize that energy efficiency and recycling were good neighborly things to do not just at individual stores but across the company for the wider community, that is, the planet.

Belk created a sustainability department and recruited Anderson to lead it.

She had been working at Walmart on its renowned sustainability initiatives, and brought the ideas of the “personal sustainability plans” that she had championed at Walmart to Belk.

Now, engaging employees in sustainability is just one of many tasks Anderson leads as director of sustainability, but she approaches all the other projects in similar community building, person-to-person engagement sort of way.

In the two years that Anderson has been at Belk, she has led the company to the leading edge of sustainability among department stores, launching company-wide recycling and reuse programs, reduced material packaging and expanding its energy and water efficiency programs. It now uses LED lighting in 8,000 retail spotlights and many of its department stores are LEED certified. She convinced the company to join the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and, most recently, to explore using solar as an energy source.

But as she has led these initiatives, she rarely even used the work "sustainability." Instead it’s about community.

GreenBiz interviewed Anderson about her engagement approach, a topic she has become known for in the sustainability arena, speaking at VERGE 2015 and elsewhere. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Barbara Grady:  So Belk’s sustainability program has greatly expanded since you joined in 2013. What all is Belk doing now?

Candace CT Taylor-Anderson: So we have refined our focus areas under four big buckets: energy and water, waste and resources, sustainable products and healthy living. This last is about tying your personal wellness and your wellbeing to sustainability — it's something that I actually borrowed from my experience working in sustainability at Walmart.

Grady:  I know you have a philosophy about how to engage people in these environmentally positive activities that doesn’t involve the word sustainability. Can you explain?

Anderson:  So, I think one of the things I'm most proud of is getting other folks to connect the dots between sustainability and Belk's values. This company is in the third generation of family ownership and has a longstanding tradition of community involvement and being a steward for the communities where Belk is located, the communities we serve.

 Sustainability kind of has this connotation — it's a loaded word for folks who maybe don’t live on one of the coasts, particularly in California where it's de rigueur. Communication is key, word choices.

"Healthy living" is saying that if I take care of my body, if I am responsible with how I take myself to work and my family, if I'm responsible with the things that I consume, that draws back to the bigger picture of sustainability. So it's tying that personal connection to the company that you work for.

Now we have a cross-functional teams of volunteers across the company focused on sustainability initiatives.

Grady: Belk has 25,000 people working for it.  How do you manage to galvanize so many people to do this work. Is it more challenging to convince the C-suite around these goals or the rank and file employees in the department stores?

Anderson: Our CEO Tim Belk can really be credited with rallying the troops. When you have a few wins, it's easy to expand the program from there. So there was a lot of good groundwork laid before I even got here. 

So we were already doing a lot of these things — energy efficiency of the stores and LEED construction — we just weren't using the language of sustainability. Instead, it was the values of being a good steward, caring about people.

 You have to remember all of our stores are in 16 states in the Southeast. So the word ‘sustainability’ may not resonate here, but the core function of what it does at the base — meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future — people get that.

When you're really passionate — and what I have found in sustainability is that most folks are really passionate about what they do. You find the connection point is there.

Grady:  How did you become passionate about sustainability?

Anderson:  I first worked in real estate development in New York City, I was working on urban infill development and worked on a couple of projects that were brownfields, so (where) contaminated factories and warehouses (stood), and we were able to take them from a brownfield to green buildings.

Real estate is one of those industries where you get immediate gratification.That could be two years but you get to see the physical manifestation of your work. And so I could see those changes, from brownfield to green building, and I was a part of that transformation from the very beginning and that was a really good feeling.  So I thought that I would stay in the commercial real estate industry and build more green buildings. Then at Walmart I was working in their real estate group; I stayed there for a few years and then moved over to sustainability.

Grady: What made you make the switch?

Anderson: There was a program that I started working on, the personal sustainability plan, where each associate was asked to create their own sustainability goals. That program piqued my interest — I became really active in that for my real estate group. Sustainability became bigger than just the physical buildings. So I interacted with the sustainability team a lot and, as an opening came up, I was able to move over to that group.

Grady: What were your interests as a youngster? What did you think you wanted to do when you grew up?

Anderson: I probably thought I would be a college professor or a stay-at-home mom or both. I'm the eldest of five, so I was always teaching or holding court somewhere. But my mother was a stay-at-home mother, so I thought I would follow in her footsteps and have five or six children and maybe get a PhD sometime and teach.

Grady: Did those plans change in college?

Anderson:  I majored in political science and economics. I started out majoring in chemistry, because I love science, and then I met my future husband and he was a poli sci major [laughter] so I changed. There you go.

Grady: And then?

Anderson: After college, I worked on Capitol Hill for a bit. I worked for the Small Business Committee on the Senate side. At the time, Sen. John Kerry (now U.S. Secretary of State) was the chair.  Then (we moved to New York) and I went to the New School, focusing on urban policy and development and that's when I started to get involved in working on these brownfield development.

Grady: Was that an environmental initiative or a real estate initiative?

Anderson: It was a real estate initiative that had an environmental component. New York State has really good incentives and was trying to promote green buildings. I learned about it, I saw the process and that just piqued something inside of me. I was like, this is really cool. And so it became an interest and has been a passion ever since.

Grady: And now you’re leading sustainability in a huge company. How would you describe your leadership style?  What propels you as a leader?

Anderson: That's a good question. I always tell folks when I'm interviewing them for working on our team, that we — that you have to get used to hearing ‘no.’ It's just okay. You're going to hear 'no.' But you have to be diligent and you have to be persistent.

I really, really enjoy life, so I think that helps. So even on days or weeks or months where I hear a lot of 'nos,' there's still a reason to be happy.

Grady:  So you mean when you hear no to a proposal or something? If you hear no, you just go back at it or maybe take a different approach?

Anderson: That's exactly right. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about language. Sometimes people are saying ‘no’ because you're not saying it in a way that they understand. There are times when folks say no and they really mean no, they understand it. But you should do some introspection and double check that first. Persistence is key in sustainability.

Grady: How to you encourage others or mentor others to be leaders? Or is that even important?

Anderson: It's very important. I'm hesitating because I'm going through this kind of crisis of identity because I'm on the cusp between Gen X and the millennial generation. I'll be 40 on my next birthday. So I'm not a millennial, but I work in a field that people associate with the millennials, and there are a lot of folks coming out of school now that have degrees in sustainability. That didn’t exist when I was in school.

So they ask me now for advice. I now have over 12 years of sustainability experience, which feels weird because for a long time I was used to being the youngest person in the room. So I'm struggling with that right now. People are asking me to be on boards.

But back to the question of how I lead. It's teaching — teaching folks how to be authentic but professional. Sometimes when you're young, you confuse being authentic with not wearing the corporate hat or not fitting into the professional environment, and that's not necessarily the case. And so I often tell people that as you're developing who you are or what you believe in, you can always do a gut check to see if you're on the right track, being professional.

Grady: How do you do that?

 Anderson: An intern asked me that last summer. She said ‘I don't know, my gut doesn't tell me anything.’ I said, well, put the phone down and stop talking and just listen for a second.

We're in a consuming culture. We have so much information, so much coming at us that sometimes we just need to be still and pay attention to how we feel when we say or hear something. And so yeah, that's what I try to share. Be authentic.

Grady: How would you tell millennials to fit into the kind of professional cultural – corporate culture?

Anderson: Everyone doesn't get a prize. You're going to hear no. It's not an indictment against you. You can't hear yes or positivity 24-7. That's why I start with you're going to hear ‘no’ a lot, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. You've just got to reconfigure, go back, go back to the drawing board and figure out what the next step is.

Grady: What initiatives at Belk are you most proud of?

Anderson:  I'm proud that we have been able to test things as they change and see the results and have responded quickly to roll out more pilot programs using different types of technology. Particularly in the built environment.

Also, when I first got here and I introduced myself as the director of sustainability, quite frankly there were some people said what does that mean. But here we are, two and a half years later, and we have actual results, actual financial as well as environmental reductions that we can point to that are a part of some collaborative programs that we've come up with.

Grady: Is there anything we should be particularly looking forward to Belk doing in the near-term future in the sustainability realm?

Anderson: I think we're going to find out that playing more in renewables, particularly solar, is going to be good for us. We're in states where the sun shines quite often, many months, many days out of the year. We have some small demonstration projects in solar now but nothing to the scale that it might be.

Grady: But what will we see in the business of sustainability as a whole?

Anderson: The fact that we are making incremental progress, the fact that there are departments of sustainability in small, privately held companies like Belk, well, it's not that small, but a privately held company like Belk and other companies that are — that don’t report to publicly financial metrics still focus on sustainability. That's a big win.