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The Inside View

Lessons for a corporate suit … from Woodstock

What McDonald's former sustainability chief learned from the iconic music festival is still flowering 50 years later.

Anybody that knows me would never think of me as a hippie, or anything close to the counterculture of the late '60s, best represented by the Woodstock Festival of 1969. I grew up a good Midwestern kid and stayed out of trouble.

However, in many ways I feel I have been a closet hippie activist, shaped by those turbulent times and the movement that questioned all authority.

Woodstock celebrates its 50th anniversary Aug. 15-17. I was 13 at the time, but with the help of my older brother I listened to the passionate protest music of that time. The social upheaval and the scale of rebellion around me have never been matched since. I was too young to go to the streets, but my heart was with those demonstrating for peace, justice and equality.

The social upheaval and the scale of rebellion around me have never been matched since.
Martin Luther King came to my southwest Chicago Marquette Park in the summer of 1966. His march landed a half-mile bike ride away. I sat atop my bike on a berm that overlooked the march. I saw my neighbors throw stones at him, spewing hatred that even my 10-year-old mind knew was despicable. But my neighbors were good people. What was wrong?

When he was assassinated, followed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in the first half of 1968, it seemed that hope was killed, too. Seeing RFK’s death on TV is forever etched in my psyche.

I couldn’t get enough of Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Credence Clearwater Revival; and all the artists that were part of what The Who proclaimed as "My Generation." It’s the anthem of my youth.

This song is so supercharged, and in your face, with Roger Daltry bellowing, "Why don’t you all fade away; I hope I die before I get old." When I hear the song today, I still want to go out and say "screw you" to the world that creates war, injustice and polarization.

By the time I went to university, this movement dissipated. My activist spirit dissolved, too.

Package deal

But then one day, 19 years after Woodstock, my boss asked me to save the McDonald’s polystyrene foam hamburger package and reduce waste in our restaurants.

I asked him, "What is polystyrene?" I had been supervising logistics and truck drivers for 10 years. Although this was foreign to me, I was intrigued because it brought me back to my activist roots.

When I started this new role, thousands of "Kids Against Pollution" were sending letters of protest to McDonald’s and flooding our mailroom with used Styrofoam containers.

These kids were "me" 20 years before, questioning authority. Now, I had become The Man, the corporate suit representing authority, working for a company newly labeled as a symbol of the garbage crisis.

Ever since, I feel I’ve had two selves. One that fits into a big company, where getting along and collaborating is fundamental. The other is my Woodstock heart.

I always thought of myself as a business activist. A sustainability leader needs to rock the boat, squelch complacency and forge change for a better world and business.

I knew from the beginning I would need to work with critics and those who, at first glance, wanted to put us out of business.
I knew from the beginning I would need to work with critics and those who, at first glance, wanted to put us out of business. I remember years later speaking at an internal conference for McDonald’s legal team. I was asked, "How is it that you can talk and get along with all these NGOs that attack us?"

I answered something like this: "I don’t see these groups as the enemy. I see them as deeply caring about something important to them. They are passionate and want to make a difference — just like I do. So, I assume innocence first. I assume best intentions, just like I have the best intentions."

My sum experience has proved that critics, even the toughest ones, can help an organization get better. Adversaries can be your best allies.

Today, when organizations are battered, it’s common practice to deny the issue or put out some lame statement. No progress is made.

The alternative is powerful. I’m not saying we fixed every problem and there isn’t more work to be done, but compromise and solutions that can come from critics and their campaigns against you is something we need more of today.

Less defensiveness, more openness to what’s possible.

Most of you reading this are not from the Woodstock era. I encourage you to watch the spectacular PBS American Experience documentary, "Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation." It’s a great history lesson full of fascinating people and times. (Note: GreenBiz’s Joel Makower is a key voice in the documentary and a consulting producer.) It might just motivate you to step up your business activism!

The town of Bethel that hosted the 400,000 or so Woodstock attendees ran out of food by Saturday afternoon. The organizers were panicked. No food or drink! The roads were all too congested to get food through.

The American Experience documentary shows that the townspeople banded together and brought in food from their pantries and stores that fed the masses. They had every right to be angry instead. After all, these hippies were making a mess of their conservative community, and they didn’t share the free love/drugs lifestyle. But they helped and supported the success of Woodstock.

They gave us a lesson for all generations.

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