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Two Steps Forward

Why aren't there more Ray Andersons?

What was it that made Ray Anderson who he was? Where are his cohorts, disciples, and evangelists within the C-suites who are picking up where Anderson left off?

Long before Ray Anderson, the founder and chairman of Interface, passed away, one year ago this week, I'd been thinking about the above question. For years, speaking at business schools and corporate events, I'd often ask, "Can you name the head of a publicly traded, industrial company who has embedded sustainability into the company's DNA; who has a vision that a company could become not just sustainable, but restorative; and who is out there talking about this widely and forcefully — and not just at sustainability gatherings?”

Typically, several hands would go up, or someone would simply shout out, "Ray Anderson!"

"Great," I'd say. "Now, name another."

Always: silence.

It was, at some level, a rhetorical question. Anderson was one of a kind: a humble, genteel, Southern industrialist who in the mid 1990s experienced an epiphany about his carpet company's environmental impact, then spent the rest of his life transforming that company into an exemplar of sustainable business. He was a brilliant marketer who saw the value of sustainability to sell carpet, but also a visionary who saw the potential to transform commerce. He was an extraordinary man, beautifully eulogized by his friend and mentor, Paul Hawken. 

So, no: There will never be another Ray Anderson. He was a unique individual with a unique circumstance at a unique time.

Still, Anderson embodied the truly enlightened business leader who understood the value of sustainability practices — to increase sales, cut costs, foster innovation, delight employees, engage customers, and build an enviable reputation for his company, even one whose products were based on materials as unnatural as nylon and vinyl. He saw the potential to change the voice of business in the sustainability conversation. He was not an incrementalist.

In that light, where are the others — Anderson’s cohorts, disciples, protégés, and evangelists within the C-suites of other large companies? Who today is the enlightened CEO picking up where Anderson left off?

Over the past month, and informally before then, I spoke with several of those who worked with Anderson — as Interface employees, on the “Dream Team” of sustainability advisors he put together in the 1990s, and others. I wanted to know what it means to be a "Ray Anderson," and who else might deserve that moniker.

My quest was, admittedly, quixotic. It is nearly impossible to take the full measure of a man — his character, warts and all — let alone to do so in the relatively short time I spent on the exercise. I, like many others, knew and admired Anderson, but only a piece of him: his public persona, punctuated by a handful of personal encounters. Even those who worked closely with him don't profess to truly "get" the man.

I'm not sure I came away with definitive answers about why there aren't more "Ray Andersons," or what it even means to be one, but the dozen or so conversations and e-mail exchanges I’ve had over the past few weeks provided a window of perspective. Based on those conversations, I identified six characteristics that begin to paint a portrait of sustainability leadership among corporate leaders. In no particular order:

1. An entrepreneur’s vision. Anderson was his company’s founder, which likely was a key to his mission. We’ve seen other founders whose companies pushed the envelope on sustainability — Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg, Seventh Generation’s Jeffrey Hollender, Method’s Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan — but none of these built billion-dollar industrial enterprises.

Founder or not, Anderson held a vision of what his company could be and represent, regardless of what others saw or thought. “I was the guy that told him that a good number of his team had thought he'd lost his mind,” says Jim Hartzfeld, Associate Vice President, Sustainable Business, at Interface, who began there in 1993, a year before Anderson’s sustainability epiphany. Anderson’s response, says Hartzfeld: “Well, actually, that's my job — to go around the bend and see what's on the other side, what people can't see yet.”

Of course, successful entrepreneurs combine vision with execution. “Ray had the capacity to look ahead and envision a world in balance, getting things in the right direction, closing the loop,” says John Picard, an architect, entrepreneur, and sustainability consultant, who was a member of the Dream Team. “And then he could go back and he could fixate on 9,000 tasks and go critical on those until he reached his milestone. He was just unstoppable; there was nothing that was going to get in his way.”

2. A passion for learning. Anderson combined an engineer’s problem-solving capability with a hunger for learning more. “He was always, throughout his entire life and career, learning and reading and talking to people,” says Hartzfeld. “He was constantly learning in real time, translating into a better way to do something. One of his daughters once told me that when she was growing up, they'd always go to the beach for vacation. Ray hated the beach, but everybody else loved it so he went. Ray would take stacks of books. ‘We'd come home from vacation tanner,’ she told me. ‘Daddy always came back smarter.’”                            

“He was such a quick learner,” says Picard. “Ray caught up with me in a matter of months and quickly went past us all into a place where I just think he used his company as a rocket or an accelerant to get done what no other normal human could do.”

“He had a serious, scholarly side,” recalls biologist Janine Benyus, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8, an innovation consultancy, another Dream Team member. “He was always reading. His talks were kind of pedantic — the professor telling you things. What Ray would do was call the authors of every one of these books he had read and get us all together.”

“He was a trained Georgia Tech engineer,” says Hartzfeld. “He would wear you out analytically and logically, but he thought as hard and as deep and as powerfully with the intuitive side as he did the logic side.”

3. Missionary zeal. Anderson truly believed he had a mission: to influence a dirty industry — carpet manufacturing — and in the process, to influence all manufacturing.

“Ray thought sustainability was the best way he could sell carpet,” says Benyus. “I don’t think there was any doubt in anybody’s mind that Ray Anderson was selling carpet. What he found was a way to be the über-salesman for his company while transforming his industry.”

Benyus attributes some of this to Anderson’s Christian beliefs. “He was a religious guy — not overtly; he wasn’t a Bible-thumper, but he had strong moral convictions. This mission was part of his morality. It wasn’t just about selling carpet. It wasn’t just about transforming industry. I think it really was about redemption.”

Redemption came up several times in my conversations. Woven into Anderson’s story was his realization that he was, by virtue of his company’s activities, “a plunderer of the earth.” As he once put it:

For theft of our children’s future to be a crime, there must be a clear demonstrable alternative to the take-make-waste industrial system that so dominates our civilization. And industry is the major culprit, stealing our children’s future, by digging up the earth and converting it to products that quickly become waste in a landfill or an incinerator. In short, digging up the earth and converting it to pollution.

His reflections as plunderer and thief weren't just part of his shtick, says Benyus. “You were always waiting to scratch and find out that it was only skin deep, just a good story. It wasn’t. He really had this sort of guilt, and there was some sort of redemption going on with him doing what he was doing. He believed that selling more carpet was transforming industry, and he made you believe that.”

Calculated or not, it was ingenious. “In his mind, if Interface did well — i.e., sold carpet — it could continue to do its job of transforming the industry,” says Benyus. “For their clients, and I spent a lot of time with them, buying Interface carpet was a way you could help. You felt that he was part of something larger, and if you bought the carpet you would be part of something larger, too.”

Environmentalist and human rights activist Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, who sits on Interface's Board of Directors, talks about Anderson “spreading the gospel.” “There was a spiritual component to Ray,” says Dillon-Ridgley, who also served on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, established in the mid 1990s by President Clinton, which Anderson co-chaired. She refers to “Tomorrow’s Child,” the poem written by an Interface employee inspired by Anderson’s vision, which Anderson used to close many of his countless public speeches. “‘Tomorrow's Child’ was such a concrete guide," says Dillon-Ridgley, "not just his personal grandchildren, which is more about legacy and inheritance and not uncommon, but a real bond, a personal connection and obligation to the future.”

I believe it was that missionary zeal that led many of his friends, colleagues, and employees to speak of him in spiritual, almost religious tones.

“I think of Ray’s legacy like that of the first cells to photosynthesize,” says Lindsay James, Interface’s Director of Strategic Sustainability, “the first cells that tapped into the abundant energy of the sun to create chemical energy and the oxygen-rich atmosphere that we depend on today. Like photosynthesis, Ray’s leadership changed everything, redefining the game itself, creating an entire new world of possibilities and pathways that previously were unknowable.”

Not many people speak of their boss like this.

4. Conviction — and control. Ray Anderson stuck to his guns, sometimes at considerable risk to his company. Recalls Picard: “You have no idea how many times Ray would look at me and say, ‘Buddy, I hope we’re doing the right thing. What if this doesn’t work? We can take the company over the edge.’ And yet he wouldn’t waver. He said, ‘We have to go in this direction.’ I would watch these huge new issues arise. At first he was pissed and didn’t want to deal with it and was almost in denial. And all of a sudden he grabbed it and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’ve got to find a way to deal with it.’”

Several people talked about how intensely Anderson controlled his world. “This was a guy with an absolute iron fist,” says Benyus. “He did not suffer fools gladly. He had one of those leadership styles that was really low-key, but which was simmering. People wanted to please him. It wasn’t that he was a pushover or trying to be everyone’s best friend. He wasn’t a softie.”

Some of his displeasure was aimed at his counterparts and colleagues at other companies. “He was frustrated many times over the years when he would try to influence other CEOs,” recalls Hartzfeld. “I remember one meeting in particular — an annual meeting of CEOs, who came and sat in the front of the room; all the minions and the delegates were sitting in the back. Ray got up in the meeting and went and sat with the guys in the back. He said, ‘This is where the action's going on. I'm wasting my time up there.’”

Says Dillon-Ridgley: “He was startled at the levels of resistance, stunned but ever more resolved of the rightness and necessity of his mission.”

5. The willingness to rethink everything. Today, companies are embracing innovation in new ways, looking outside their walls for ideas and engaging in open innovation that entangles them in new kinds of partnerships with a wide range of external players. That wasn't the case in the 1990s, when Anderson created his Eco Dream Team — a dozen or so big brains he brought together or consulted from time to time. They included Benyus, Dillon-Ridgley, Hawken and Picard, along with Rocky Mountain Institute co-founders Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins; architect and designer William McDonough; the writer Daniel Quinn, whose 1992 philosophical novel Ishmael was often cited by Anderson; green building architect Robert Fox; Forum for the Future founder Jonathan Porritt, and others.

It was, by any measure, an extraordinary group of outspoken mavericks and visionaries.

“Who asks for that kind of input?” says Benyus. “Everyone talks about open-source innovation. Most companies bring in McKinsey. He brought in Daniel Quinn. I think he brought in soul advice — the technical advice could have come from someone else. He brought in a conscience. He didn’t bring in yes people — he brought in the crazies, the court jesters who would tell the truth. Everyone else in the room was squirming, because we brought up really hard things.”

It was Anderson's willingness to listen and weigh what the "crazies" had to say that informed much of his vision and big ideas.

6. Relentless storytelling. Anderson would speak to just about any group that invited him. I’ve seen a range of estimates of the number of speeches he gave in the 15 or so years between his sustainability epiphany and his cancer diagnosis. Whatever the number, it was prodigious — an average of more than one a week for well over a decade. “He could have just stayed at home and done what he did, and had his PR people publicize it,” says Benyus. But he chose not to.

Anderson was a master storyteller, and seemed to revel in that role. But it was the personal nature of the story that provided much of the magic: his “plunderer” realization and the resulting ascent he led his company up what he called Mount Sustainability, with its seven faces (eventually, there was an eighth), each of which was a compelling journey unto itself: The challenges they faced on their "ascent," and his resolve to push forward. And how those journeys led to innovation breakthroughs, cost savings, a better company, and a better world.

“You’d watch the audience in the first few rows — they were starstruck,” says Picard. “Ray focused on the Interface story constantly in a way that he just stayed on message — a very, very clear message.”

The message unfolded, from the philosophical to the pragmatic. “Ray always led with the big like humanistic ‘Why's,’” says Hartzfeld. “That we need to do this — why? And then he would talk about how we did things, and eventually he'd get down to the specifics of what we did. Leading with these big beliefs, these big ‘Why’ kinds of questions drew people to him.”

It wasn’t just in speeches. Anderson told stories to everyone he met who would listen. And he never strayed too far from business fundamentals. Says Hartzfeld: “He’d tell how we we're reducing waste and using renewable energy and recycling, and at the end he’d say, ‘We make carpet. Would you like to buy some?’ And people would just say, ‘Yes. What do you got?’”

Call it the alchemy of product and passion. Call it cynical hucksterism. Call it clever marketing. Call it whatever you like. You can’t deny that the stories were good — and effective.

Ray Anderson may be a difficult act to follow, but it's not unreasonable that, after all these years, others would be following in his footsteps, bringing their own unique mix of personality, passion, and pragmatism to the table. But the field of contestants is limited, and often fleeting. Says Benyus: "You had Jeff Immelt jump up there for a minute. You had Lee Scott jump up there for a minute. A few others." But none of them has endured as a sustainability leader — or has aspired to. The names proffered by those I queried represented slim pickings.

"I really believe that there are not many people in the world that would take the risk that Ray took with his whole company, and I think that’s one of the reasons why there aren’t other Ray Andersons," John Picard told me. "Ray made it look easy and acted like no matter what was going on it was going to be okay. So, as I’m talking to you, I’m getting angry because I just don’t see anybody with a backbone. I don’t see anybody with the willingness to give it all up and paddle out and take off on this giant wave and reap the rewards and go for a really long ride and have a view over the island."

One name did come up repeatedly: Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever. For at least the past two years — since launching his company's Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 — Polman has been presenting a bold sustainability vision for his company, one that at times rails against the status quo.

"He may be on track to surpass Ray," says Jeffrey Hollender, the co-founder of Seventh Generation, now a speaker, activist, and consultant. "Unilever's focus on accepting that the way their consumers use their products is part of its sustainability footprint, and that to reduce their negative impact they have to change consumer behavior, is revolutionary."

Hunter Lovins, president and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, has been watching Polman's ascent with relish. "Polman rejects Wall Street's fixation on optimizing short-term profits at the cost of a livable environment, stating, 'Our new business model will decouple growth from environmental impact. We will double in size, but reduce our overall effect on the environment.'" She cites Polman's announcement last October to stop giving quarterly reports to Wall Street, never mind his acknowledgment that Occupy Wall Street is playing a positive role by exposing the inequalities in society.

It is unclear whether Polman — whose career at Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever puts him squarely in the middle of global consumerism — can rise to Anderson's rockstar status, or even aspires to do so. Lovins and many others will be rooting him on and giving him air cover — not to mention terrific word of mouth. Replace Anderson's southern drawl with Polman's Dutch accent and you just might have the next sustainable business star.

The bigger question is why Polman seemingly stands alone, with few other clear runners-up. And that's where answers to my question become even scarcer. The truth is, no one could truly tell me why there aren't more "Ray Andersons."

Oh, people tried. They explained the barriers. (Jeffrey Hollender: "Big egos, greed, the desire to make more money than they know what to do with, absence of a strong sense of ethics that transcend what is merely legal; and inadequate peer set to lead the way, share knowledge and reduce the fear of trying new things.") They explained what it will take to create more "Rays." (Hunter Lovins: "Shareholder activism, Occupy and all forms of citizen activism. But more, it will take us making Paul Polman a success. I am now telling everyone to buy Unilever. Ultimately it will take customers rewarding courage to change elicit more vertebrates in the C-Suite.")

And they're probably right.

But the reality is that in today's corporate world Ray Andersons are likely to remain few and far between.

There is a ray of hope. Anderson left behind a vision of what sustainable leadership looks like, along with the notion that tomorrow's business leaders must think every day about "Tomorrow's Child." I loved the way Lindsay James' described to me what she, one of tomorrow's leaders, is looking for in the next "Ray":

She (or he) will be the one that completely re-imagines business, its role in our world and its potential. Like Ray, she will know a deeper level of truth that the rest of us are blind to, and she will articulate that truth in a compelling way until we can see it, too. In other words, like Ray, she will question the most basic assumptions that drive our complex systems. She’ll be the one that sounds a little crazy to the rest of us, the one that’s gone ‘round the bend and understood what the future holds, and can map that back to what is needed today.

Ray Anderson probably couldn't have said it better himself.

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