Conversations on leadership offer practical insights

What does “environmental leadership” even mean?

The question buzzed around my partially-frozen brain as I watched the scenery whiz by on I-40.

While the rest of our classmates were enjoying the final day of winter break and tromping through the just-beginning-to-melt layer of snow that had blanketed Durham over the weekend, my fellow Nicholas Scholars and I were on our way to Raleigh shortly after dawn. We were scheduled to participate in a series of “Triangle Leadership Conversations” – discussions with business, nonprofit and government leaders in the Raleigh-Durham area about how they became leaders in their field.

Ready to find out what environmental leadership is all about. Photo credit: Sherri Nevius

I hoped our conversations throughout the day would shed some light for me personally on how environmental leadership could shine through in a day-to-day office (or school) setting. The examples of impactful leadership in the field that readily came to mind – Secretary of State John Kerry helping to pass a global UN climate deal, for instance, or Leonardo DiCaprio self-financing a free-download documentary on climate change – didn’t seem especially attainable.

But I needn’t have worried. The leaders we met throughout the day all offered simple, practical insights on how they had navigated to positions of prominence in their respective organizations without losing touch with their personal commitments to the environment.

Here are a few of the best pearls of wisdom we received from each of the four Triangle-area environmental leaders we met:

Live your values.

Counter Culture Coffee co-founder Brett Smith demonstrates the technique for “cupping” coffee. Photo credit: Sherri Nevius

Brett Smith, who founded Counter Culture Coffee in 1995, says his company sometimes turns down restaurants, grocery stores or distributors who want to stock Counter Culture’s premium coffee. Why would a for-profit business reject potential customers?

Counter Culture Coffee, Smith explains, was founded on the principles of a “triple bottom line,” meaning all business decisions must consider their economic, social and environmental consequences. That includes the social and environmental impacts of other businesses who sell the coffee to consumers.

In the long run, it’s better for Counter Culture to turn down a few dollars from a would-be distributor in order to stay true to the socially and environmentally responsible ethos that has helped to make their product so successful.

Set priorities.

Bill Ross fits a meeting with the Nicholas Scholars into his busy schedule as Interim Secretary for the NC Dept. of Environmental Quality. Photo credit: Sherri Nevius

Bill Ross, former Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and current Interim Secretary under Gov. Cooper, knows better than most how hard it is to overcome political divisions and be productive in an environmental agency. But during his last term as Secretary, he found a way to cut through the gridlock and make real change.

It’s all a matter of priorities: Secretary Ross says to pick 2 or 3 projects that have a viable chance of success and chip away at them every week. By narrowing your workload and focusing on incremental progress, your likelihood of making an impact goes way up.

In 2002, Secretary Ross used this priority-setting strategy to get the Clean Smokestacks Act passed, which made North Carolina a leader in controlling air pollution from coal plants.

Go “all in.”

Not every project is glamorous. But every project has the potential to teach you something, and you have the ability to make an impact in every project you undertake.

That was the message from Paula Alexander of Burt’s Bees, who rose through the ranks from being a brand manager to director of sustainable business. By going “all in” on every assignment that lands on your plate, you not only gain valuable skills and insight into the industry, but you’re more likely to get noticed and tapped for bigger, sexier projects.

In Paula’s case, her ability to pilot Burt’s Bees’ sustainability initiatives wouldn’t be the same without the intimate knowledge of the products and operations she gained as a brand manager at Burt’s.

Engaging discussion in Burt’s Bees’ Durham headquarters. Photo credit: Sherri Nevius

Build Relationships.

Our day ended at the Chapel Hill office of The Conservation Fund, where N.C. State Director Bill Holman stressed the importance of human connections in achieving his environmental goals.

In a career that has spanned state government (both as a lobbyist and an agency leader), academia and the nonprofit world, Holman says that personal relationships are the only constant. At The Conservation Fund, Holman has called on his contact list to develop partnerships with local governments in pushing for state park infrastructure. He firmly believes that collaboration and coalitions, built on trusting professional relationships, are key to creating change.

By the end of the day, the mystery around environmental leadership had begun to melt away like the snow on Durham’s sidewalks.

Live your values. Set priorities. Go all in. Build relationships. These are all things I intend to do – things we all can do – to lead the forward into an uncertain new chapter.