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Switching sectors: WRI’s Kevin Moss on moving from business to civil society

In sustainable business, we often talk about the ideal "ecosystem" of the field, with business, civil society and government all working different angles toward the same end goal.

As a recruiter, I have had many conversations with job candidates wondering what the best sector is for them. The answer might depend on how much they want to earn or the theory of change they subscribe to. But the answer may also be "all of the above." Why not switch sectors?

To shed light on what it can look like to move between sectors, I spoke with Kevin Moss, who became global director of World Resources Institute’s Sustainable Business Center four years ago, after spending more than a quarter century at BT. At WRI, Moss works with the private sector on strategies to drive sustainability and growth. In his most recent role at BT, Moss focused on using sustainability as a business growth strategy.

He spoke with me about what it was like switching sectors, including what he has learned about business from the outside looking in, and the insight he hopes he is bringing in the not for profit world to help accelerate the journey to sustainable business.

Ellen Weinreb: Why did you make the move to a nonprofit after having worked in business for so many years?

Kevin Moss: I wanted a change, and I had not just been in a corporate for a long time, I'd been in one company for a long time. I didn't want to just move into another company. I wanted a broader and very different perspective. Moving into the nonprofit world and into WRI, in particular, gave me both because we work across a lot of sectors.

Weinreb: What are some of the differences you have noticed, working at a company in sustainable business versus working at an NGO focused on building a sustainable private sector?

Moss: I think at their hearts, both roles share significant commonalities: helping the company see the intersections between being sustainable and generating profit, and, where necessary, helping the company face up to the trade-offs between sustainability and generating profit. When you're doing that from inside the company, you have the advantage of the inside track on the details and the dynamics of the decision. But at times that inside track can be a liability, too.

At WRI, I can say certain things — speak certain truths that I might not be able to easily say out loud from the inside. I am not limited by knowledge of all the hurdles that have to be overcome or by my position, and so I can be more of a catalyst for messages that might be difficult to say inside a company.

On the outside looking in, it becomes easier to see and maybe to say, 'Well, we are doing nowhere near enough.'
Weinreb: So is the biggest attraction of the move that you have more independence at an NGO? 

Moss: Yes, and I would also say having a big change was refreshing in itself: having a whole load of new material to learn, new dynamics — that was refreshing. Making a sector change, where the dynamics of the role are different, reinvigorated me.

Weinreb: Now that you’re on the outside looking in, what insights have you have gained about the field of sustainable business?

Moss: Something I see now that I'm on this side of the fence is how much we're doing in business, and yet how far short it falls from how much we need to do. As they say, "If I had a dollar from every company that's told me sustainability or corporate responsibility is in their DNA… ."

Meanwhile, we all know the metrics for supporting an equitable life for all humans on the planet are heading in the wrong direction. I think we all tend to persuade ourselves that the effort we are contributing is significant, and therefore what we're doing must be enough. On the outside looking in, it becomes easier to see and maybe to say, "Well, we are doing nowhere near enough." I hope to hold that mirror up to us in the nonprofit world, too — and I hope that we have the courage to look into it.

Weinreb: What’s the biggest insight you can offer the NGO world, from the perspective of a businessperson?

Moss: There are still some lingering views in the environmental world that companies are bad. I try to reinforce that companies are part of a system, and that the company is no better or worse than the system in which it operates, which comprises its investors, government and customers. In fact, I would argue that most companies are reacting fairly rationally to the system within which they operate.

Therefore, if you want to change the way a company acts, you have to look at the incentives and change the system. This doesn’t relinquish companies of the responsibility to take leadership action themselves, of course, but it puts the onus on all players in the system and doesn’t judge them differently.

Weinreb: Last question: Would you recommend that people who work in sustainable business switch sectors, and do you have any advice for people who are considering a move like yours?

Moss: I think there's an argument for people to move in both directions — sustainable business to NGOs, and NGOs to sustainable business, and government, too — because you learn about those sectors, and you ultimately realize we’re all trying to get to the same outcome. A move helps you ensure you are not drinking the Kool-Aid at the expense of making real progress. Inside a company can be a great place to be an agent of change. An NGO can be a great place as well, and it can give you a different and broader perspective. It might even help you be more effective if you plan to move back to a company in the future (although that is not part of my plan!).

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