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The Elkington Report

What exactly does a Chief Pollinator do?

Birds do it, bees do it. So do visionary sustainability leaders.

If you want to be a thought-leader, outside or inside business, a degree of playfulness can help spur creativity. But don’t expect everyone to share your sense of humor.

A couple of years back, the Financial Times celebrated one of my job titles in its Guffipedia hall of fame. Or perhaps "celebrated" and "hall of fame" aren’t quite the right words. The paper’s razor-witted Lucy Kellaway wanted to know why — if I so resisted being labelled, as my bio proclaimed — I had allowed myself to be dubbed "Chief Pollinator"?

Why, she demanded, did I want to sound like an insect?

Well, Lucy, my answer might have come in two parts, albeit with a sting in the tail — which I’ll leave until later. First, I have loved bees since I was knee-high to a hive. Sometimes I still plonk myself down in the midst of insects streaming in and out of a hive, enjoying an intense sense of connection with the wider world.

Second, cross-pollination has been my unwritten job description for decades. A job where, as with honeybees, the beneficial impact is often as much a result of happenstance and coincidence as of purpose and planning.

It's a job where the beneficial impact is often as much a result of happenstance and coincidence as of purpose and planning.
I genuinely admire Lucy Kellaway, even more so since she headed off to teach mathematics to schoolchildren. But as the world’s first chief pollinator, I have clung to my job-title, and continue to buzz around the planet, cross-pollinating as I go.

Yet, while the job title can amuse, such playfulness also can bemuse. And despite the continual stream of visitors through our offices, some people still struggle to grasp what goes on inside the Volans hive. I was reminded of this last month when Paul Simpson, CEO of CDP, introduced some of our team to some of his by saying he was never quite sure what we did.

Earlier that same day, Generation Investment Management co-founder David Blood also expressed surprise when told that our core team is just seven or eight people — saying he had thought it must be more like 50. Given that Generation has funded aspects of our work since 2012, I concluded that it was time to be a weeny bit clearer about who we are and what we do.

So here, to mark our 10th birthday March 30, is a hybrid between a birthday card and an Advent calendar — both celebrating a milestone year and throwing open several windows into our small world.

Launched in 2008, in the teeth of the biggest financial storm since the 1930s, Volans branched out from SustainAbility, which I had co-founded in 1987, and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. The organization’s name originated from the scientific term volans, indicating a species that flies — such as the flying fish (Piscis volans) or various lemurs, possums, lizards and, yes, spiders.

Spanning the yawning divide

We aimed to span the yawning divides between what the sustainability industry was doing and what needed to be done. In particular, we worked to bridge between the incumbent world of mainstream business and the insurgent world of social entrepreneurship and impact investment.

We also began to cross-connect business leaders with pioneers in exponential capitalism such as the XPRIZE Foundation (whose chief scientist, Paul Bunje, joined our board last year), Google X and Singularity University. Some of this is captured in the filmed interviews of innovators, entrepreneurs and investors featured on our Project Breakthrough website, co-hosted with the U.N. Global Compact.

All very much a collective effort. And several energetic queen bees have been involved in Volans over the years. They have included the late Pamela Hartigan, who went on to head the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School; Charmian Love, who now co-chairs B Lab UK; and Amanda Feldman, now a director with Bridges Fund Management, leading the charge on its Impact Management Project.

We also have had our failures. Our Singapore operation, supported by the city’s state’s far-sighted Economic Development Board, eventually shuttered — but helped bring us a Singaporean team member, Jacqueline Lim. She now works on business models, alongside Lorraine Smith (who leads on Carbon Productivity) in New York and two Richards in London: Richard Johnson (who also coordinates our Project Breakthrough work) and Richard Roberts, who came to us from Leaders’ Quest and is leading on our Breakthrough Cities program with Innovate UK, the country’s top innovation agency.

Once again, we are building bridges, this time between national government, city administrations, R&D centers and innovative small and medium-sized enterprises. We shift focus as we go: in Nottingham we focused on air quality, in Newcastle on healthier aging, in London on decarbonizing the built environment.

If you dared lift the roof of our hive, you might catch sight of our EA, Gayle Olivier, who hails from Botswana, or maybe members of our board. Alongside Paul Bunje and Volans co-founders Geoff Lye and Sam Lakha, we recently recruited Kavita Prakash-Mani to our board. She leads WWF International’s global practices on markets and on food.

Beemageddon buzzkill

Which brings me right back to that sting in the tail, Lucy. WWF have been warning for ages that pollinators — from bees to bats to butterflies — are dying out. The reasons are complex, including climate change, disease and neonicotinoid insecticides. But with around 35 percent of the crops produced in any given year relying on animal pollinators, "Beemageddon" looks like a cataclysmic headache in the making.

As CDP’s Paul Simpson finished that slightly baffled introduction of the Volans team, he did mention our reputation for being "grit in the corporate oyster." For me, that’s a crucial element of my role — challenging top teams, speaking truth to power. No one ever really teaches you to do that: You learn as you go.

And the work doesn’t always bear fruit. Some years ago, for example, I was with members of the top team of a major German multinational. Among other things, they make neonicotinoid insecticides. Coincidentally, this turned out to be the same day that "bee die-in" protests were being staged in parts of Europe.

I duly raised the issue, but was slapped down by the chairman. The science supported his company’s case, he insisted. False fact. The truth was that the science didn’t support the company then — and it most certainly doesn’t now. Indeed, the U.K. is planning a near-total ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides.

So you win some and you lose some. But with our new executive director, Louise Kjellerup Roper, readying Volans for the next 10 years, we all know we must get much better at whatever it is that we do. For me, that means upping my game in articulating both the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow’s capitalism in today’s boardrooms and C-suites.

As part of my self-avowed aversion to labels, I long have avoided wearing badges. Even the U.N.’s lovely Sustainable Development Goals badge, of which I now have quite a collection. But where others wear badges, or black dresses, to signal their agendas, I continue to use my playful job title. It’s work in progress — and, despite appearances, deadly serious. If we get this even halfway right, the fruit of our collective labor could be our most valuable gift to future generations.

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