An open letter to my former colleagues at Interface

An open letter to my former colleagues at Interface

[Editor's note: Jim Hartzfeld will be presenting a "One Great Idea" on "Human Tech" at the 2013 GreenBiz Forum in New York.]

I haven’t had a chance to connect with many of you since my departure to share my gratitude and a few thoughts. Thank you for an unexpected and extraordinary journey! 

Over 19 years ago, I joined you from a traditional marketing and sales job at a big, global chemical company, armed with a shiny new MBA, searching for more creative space. I had my career plan mapped out. Though originally trained as a chemical engineer, I never expected my next job would be leading an R&D group of a carpet tile company working on VOCs, mold and tuft bind.

R&D? Creative space? How did I get here?

Truly, the world works in strange and unexpected ways, whether you call it synchronicity or the hand of the creator. 

I had no idea of the vortex of Ray Anderson and sustainability that would soon burst into our lives, and the remarkable people I would come to cherish at Interface and beyond. (I would encourage you to read Joel Makower’s article on Why Aren’t There More Ray Andersons? for his insights into the man). I had no framework for the scale of aspiration, passion and heretical thinking that would emerge around this “Radical Industrialist.” I never considered that a job could change a person’s life other than providing the money to buy whatever they wanted. 

What Interface has accomplished since Ray’s epiphany can only be described as a series of miracles, at least as defined by the conventional thinking of the times. You made it happen. You made it real. As Ray often quoted Amory Lovins: “If it exists, it must be possible.” While the world has extolled Ray’s vision and Southern charisma, you made him credible. You showed that conservatives and liberals can love this living planet and work like hell together to protect it.

Ray saw a troubling truth invisible to most in business. While truth is truth, most of his friends and peers thought he had “gone round the bend.” Because of you, Ray was able to reach many more who could have perceived him as another savvy businessman turned loony do-gooder. Many of you risked similar ridicule from your peers and families. For that, I will always love you.

Nearly 18 months after his death, many of us from all walks of life continue to carry Ray on our personal journeys — some expected, some not. Each has a unique story of how Ray inspired them.

But a gift from Ray that most of us share is the drive to have the biggest impact we can. It became increasingly clear to me over the last few months that with Interface’s momentum and remarkable people I could have a greater impact spreading Ray’s legacy beyond Interface. For me, that new journey has begun. 

In the time I have had to reflect on Ray’s passing, I realized that over the last few years, when Ray and I had time together, we two engineers rarely discussed technical stuff — “Green Tech.” Instead, we discussed “Human Tech.” Always the pragmatist, these were no airy, philosophical musings for Ray. They addressed very pragmatic questions: How do we get done what we already know we need to do? How can we cut waste and improve efficiency every quarter? How do we explode creativity to implement innovations we can’t yet imagine? How do we engage all 4,000 people of Interface and the other 7 billion minds on the planet, rather than expecting small bands of experts or charismatic heroes to save us? What purpose rests beyond the summit of Mt. Sustainability

Ray changed many of us forever. On August 31, 1994, at about 10:15 a.m., he first showed me the compelling reality of our physical/biological challenges. I began to attack them with the logical tools of the chemical engineer. I now understand that getting anywhere near the summit of Ray’s metaphorical Mt. Sustainability requires as much intuition as calculation, as much introspection as persuasion, more learning than knowing, more collaboration than debate, more humility than hubris and the drive to always challenge conventional thinking, even when it was your own radical idea a decade earlier.

These are the leading indicators for accelerating change. What this really means is that accelerating the sustainability movement and business’s adaption to its new realities is more about people — our interactions with one another and our aspirations — than it is about solar panels, recycling machines and sustainability reports. How do we begin to focus beyond problem solving to creating the conditions conducive to thriving lives?

This is Human Tech leading Green Tech. That’s what will accelerate progress in a world that feels constrained by polarized politics and the laws of diminishing returns. We need to express a new “Moore’s Law” (maybe it should be called “Ray’s Law”) for the exponential growth of learning and collaboration that will push back the exponentially growing damage being done to the biosphere and its inhabitants. This reminds me of the 1920 quote from H. G. Wells, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

As you move forward and continue your climb, remember that "there's always a better way," and "knowing" the answer stunts learning and creativity.

Be willing to take unexpected journeys and seek out the crazies around you.

Recognize that it’s your choice whether to let quarterly Wall Street realities kill your dreams — or to let them provide the necessary discipline to hone new ideas into more valuable innovations for the company, society and the planet.

If you find boundaries, don’t whine about them. Get creative!

Though thousands more are joining the climb every day, the trails are still pretty narrow. I’m sure we will be catching glimpses of each other along the ascent. If so, let’s take time to share what we’ve learned, lift a refreshing beverage in toast — and keep our eye on the summit.

All the Best,

Jim Hartzfeld

Photo of Jim Hartzfeld and Ray Anderson courtesy of Jim Hartzfeld