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The Inside View

A sustainability leader’s lessons of a lifetime

Be fearless, speak your mind, mimic Steve Jobs — and don't stop until you really, really have to.

Part Three of a three-part series. Read Part One and Part Two.

The first two parts of this series focused on sustainability leadership during times of turbulence and turmoil. Let me shift and talk about what I learned from others that really stuck with me and, ultimately, altered what I did.

My first boss at McDonald’s was the best mentor for me, Shelby Yastrow — Uncle Shelby, as he liked to be called. He was brilliant. The fact that he liked being called "Uncle Shelby" showed his refreshing approachability. Shelby was McDonald’s top lawyer.

Four things he passed on to me:

  1. He believed in developing relationships that built trust. He would get to know the top guys personally. They trusted Shelby implicitly. Shelby allowed me to do many things that had no immediate return, such as traveling the world, visiting with lots of people. He knew that these years of relationship building would make a better leader later on. He was absolutely right.
  2. He insisted I work on less, not more. He wanted me to focus just one or two big things. He wanted big impact and led by example, with extreme focus.
  3. He hated meetings and "consensus." He said if you have a committee to choose carpeting, they would pick beige. I adopted his attitude about avoiding meetings, although they are sometimes necessary.
  4. He told me to ask for forgiveness, not permission, and he meant it. He wanted me to take initiative, take chances and apologize later, if necessary. I loved him for that.

I had a corollary rule that I developed myself and always told my team:

Don’t give up until someone of authority tells you to stop. And when they do, look for another way to get back in, perhaps with someone else’s blessing. That’s not stubbornness; it’s tenacity.

Be fearless. Uncle Shelby’s long leash was very motivating. When I say "fearless," here is what I mean: You need to act every day as if you are ready to be fired from doing something you believe in. This frees you up to speak your mind, do what is right and overcome the barriers.

The No. 1 reason I always felt fearless at work was something deeply personal: the murder of my youngest brother and his pregnant wife, from the gunfire of a 16-year-old.

My brother Rich was murdered point-blank in 1990, just as I was deciding what to do with my career in a "temporary" environmental assignment at McDonald’s. His wife and unborn child were shot and murdered by a teenager seeking the thrill of performing the perfect murder.

This evilness of this act deeply impacted me, and does to this day.

My brother’s life was brutally cut short at 30. He could not live out his dreams. I was 34 and concluded that I was just hobbling along in my personal and professional life with no particular passion or purpose. I was wasting a lot of time.

I said to myself then, and still do today: "My life may end tomorrow. I am going to make the most of it every day. I am going to make a difference. And I am going to contribute Good in this world to counter the Evil."

I said to myself then, and still do today: 'My life may end tomorrow. I am going to make the most of it every day.'

This mantra drives me big-time, even now, 26 years later.

We each need to find our own way. I hope you don’t share this same type of tragedy, but we all need to find a source of inner motivation — something that helps us get up each day and say, "I am here, this day is great, and I am going to make the most out of it!" What is that for you?

Eleven sticky nuggets

Several nuggets have stuck with me. I wish I had learned these earlier in my career. Here, in no particular order, are 11 of them:

1. Love feedback. Why is soliciting feedback so feared? Asking and encouraging the unvarnished assessments of others should be natural.

I recently ran into the brightest young Ivy Leaguer imaginable. She said she did not want to ask for feedback from her boss. She thought it would show weakness and affect her pay and promotability. In fact, it was just the opposite. Her lack of honest engagement was probably holding her back.

But if you’re on the giving side of feedback, consider this, one of my pet peeves: Never mix good and bad feedback. It dilutes both.

2. Speak your mind. Why are people inside big companies so afraid to speak openly and honestly? Employee surveys have barely hit 50 percent over the past couple decades on this question: "Can I speak my mind open and honestly at my company?" Can you imagine what you’re missing by having people afraid to speak their minds?!?

Can you imagine what you’re missing by having people afraid to speak their minds?!?

3. Ask! We had a sign in my second job that resonates with me even today — in big blue bold letters: ASK. ASK. ASK. It is amazing how you can get people to think and change course simply by posing questions instead of demanding, pushing or mandating.

4. Have a bit of Steve Jobs in you. Whatever you feel about Jobs, it’s safe to say he was both a jerk and a genius. What I admired about him was that he was determined in his vision and didn’t capitulate. He didn’t play it safe. I really believe you can be a tough-minded leader and still be a nice guy.

5. Be present. On my desk for the past 20 years is a daily reminder: Be Here Now. Whether you are with a staff member, an external stakeholder or anyone else, give them your undivided attention. Don’t think about the White Sox, Neil Young, your next meeting or whatever else is rattling through your brain. I promise, it can wait.

6. Go there, see it, smell it. How are you going to deal with tough issues unless you experience them firsthand? At McDonalds, I rafted the Amazon River where soy is destroying the rainforest. I went to the toy factory in China were 10,000 Chinese were making Berenstain Bears and living together in small rooms. I picked tomatoes with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. I saw animal handling all the way to the killing floor. Then I was in a better position to make good decisions — and had the credibility to back them up.

7. New York Times decision making. Act as if The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal were following you around, and that all you say and do could end up in a story that will be read by your customers, colleagues, competitors and critics. If you cannot stand tall for what you are doing, or will do — and would not like to read about it in the paper — then stop and reconsider.

8. Shadow of the leader. Everything you do and say and how you conduct yourself casts a shadow far and wide. This is a privilege, not a burden.

I realized that I was not practicing active listening. Ever since, I lean forward, nod my head a lot and show emotion in my facial expressions.

Consider body language. I’m often stone-faced in large group meetings. We finished one with our CEO, who told my boss afterwards, "I think Langert doesn’t like me." I realized that I was not practicing active listening. Ever since, I lean forward, nod my head a lot and show emotion in my facial expressions. It’s not fake; it’s just baring my inner self more.

9. It’s all about communication. McDonald’s masterful turnaround CEO in the early 2000s was Jim Cantalupo. He was brought out of retirement to reignite the business. When I asked him what was the biggest surprise was as CEO, he said: "Ninety-nine percent of the job is communicating." You need to hone your skills as a communicator.

Along those lines, read "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die," by two brothers, Chip and Dan Heath. Best business book I ever read that actually affected my behavior at work. And consider getting media trained. You’ve got to know how to handle tough questions, whether from the media or anyone else. It was the best training I ever did.

10. Spend a third of your time on developing people. I know: My math may be wanting. How do you spend 99 percent of your time communicating and 33 percent developing people? When I heard this in a training class a decade ago it sparked a great conversation. It put most of us on a guilt trip because we all fell far short of this goal, but it made me turn the corner and put people on my agenda every day as a priority. And, of course, communicating and people development go hand in hand, so there’s no real arithmetic problem here.

11. Make a difference every day. Every day, you can touch people in a positive way. Send someone a positive note. Place a phone call to give a compliment. Go out of your way to provide advice and direction. Move something along that eventually will make a big difference for your company and society. It takes an effort, but the great joy you’ll get will be worth it.

I hope some of these tips and nuggets are helpful to you. I’d welcome feedback from other sustainability professionals. What has worked for you that you want to pass on to others? How have you failed in a way that you can help someone else succeed?

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