The Inside View: 10 Minutes with Glenn Prickett

The Inside View

The Inside View: 10 Minutes with Glenn Prickett

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This column is about the "how" of sustainable business, featuring one significant change and how a leader made it happen. This time, it’s Glenn Prickett, co-chief external affairs officer at The Nature Conservancy. We discussed the Dow/TNC "Valuing Nature" collaboration.

My previous column featured Neil Hawkins’ perspective on the same project (interviewed separately).

Bob Langert: Biggest lesson learned?

Glenn Prickett: We learned how much companies and NGOs can accomplish by working together. Dow’s Valuing Nature goal, a commitment to deliver $1 billion in value from investments in nature, is the first time a major company pledged to incorporate the value of nature in its business decisions. Dow couldn’t have done this without TNC’s help, and TNC couldn’t create this business model on our own.

We also learned how much effort you need to put in on both sides to build trust. Neil Hawkins and I knew each other from the Keystone Center board. Neil and Helen Taylor, TNC’s Michigan director, knew each other from projects that Dow supported philanthropically.

We spent a lot of time guiding the collaboration. We assembled core project teams who worked hard to build a strong foundation of trust. We brought together TNC scientists and Dow engineers at different sites, and they worked hard to build trust as they addressed key business issues and their connection to nature.

Langert: How to deal with an impasse?

Prickett: The relationship was strong going in, but it involved working with really important business units in both organizations that didn't have a history of working together. A big part of what made the collaboration successful was our diverse perspectives. But this can also create tension.

So, as you can imagine, some things worked well and some things didn't. After two years, we had a really honest retreat in Midland, Michigan, Dow’s headquarters, just to dig into that.

We were honest with each other about what was and wasn't working from both organizations' perspectives. We had a tough conversation where we said, "Look, we've got to do better than this. We've got to be more honest." We built a much stronger working relationship and a better approach to solving problems.

Langert: What prevents an honest corporate-NGO relationship?

Prickett: I think it’s just human nature, right? You don't want to dig into things that aren't going well.

There's obviously going to be good and bad performance on both sides and both sides have to be trusting enough to own up to what's not working on their side and not try to rationalize it or blame the other side.

That's hard to do in any relationship, human or organizational. When there are big organizational consequences at stake, it’s even harder.

Langert: What attributes did you see from Neil Hawkins and Dow that could break down barriers for getting stuff done?

Prickett: Neil was incredibly committed to this collaboration and willing to take risks to make it work. Valuing nature was a new idea for Dow. Neil could have played it safe and started with a small project, so that if it failed, no one would notice. Instead, he encouraged his CEO, Andrew Liveris, to commit to a flagship collaboration to inform the company’s next generation of sustainability goals — which they did. Neil also asked the leader of Dow’s Texas operations to host our first pilot project at the company’s largest manufacturing facility. Andrew, Neil and the head of the Texas business all took risks. That made a huge difference for the success of the collaboration.

Langert: How do you deal with the perceived conflict of corporate interest (profit) and NGO interest (public good)?

Prickett: We addressed this head-on, because we were trying to show that a company could be more profitable by conserving nature. There's definitely some courage and leadership required on the NGO's side to make these collaborations work. At TNC, we are committed to working in partnership with different sectors of society. We think that if we're going to succeed in our mission, companies need to recognize the value of nature and invest in it.

There were critics in the environmental community who didn’t think we should be working with a company like Dow. We dealt with this by being very clear about our goals and reporting transparently on our progress. We issued annual progress reports, we published the results of our work in peer-reviewed journals and we did a lot of public speaking. We were honest about what worked and what didn’t.

Langert: In summary, what worked with the Dow collaboration, and what would you like to do over?

Prickett: Most of it, I'd say we got just about right. We started with a big, bold goal at the outset, a company-wide impact that we wanted to have. We wanted to integrate the value of nature into Dow’s business decisions, and they are doing that now with Valuing Nature. We laid out a very practical plan. We worked through pilots. We developed tools and methods. We invested a lot of time in the relationship, we were honest with each other and we managed toward outcomes.

We would like to see more impact beyond Dow. Dow has made this change. They've set this goal. They've made this commitment. Our goal was to inspire more companies to do likewise. This doesn’t happen automatically. It's a busy world. Companies have a lot they’re doing and a lot of other input they're receiving.

If we could do it again, we’d spend more time sharing what we learned with other companies and industry associations. Fortunately, we are doing it again. We are in the second phase of our collaboration now, helping Dow implement the Valuing Nature goal, and we are engaging other business leaders to learn from Dow’s experience and do something similar.