From Corporation to Conservation

Carter Roberts, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, spoke to students about his transition from the business world into non-profit.

Carter Roberts, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, led the movement to engage corporate America in environment protection and fostered the growing trend toward sustainable business practices. In a dialogue moderated by Professor Allen S. Grossman, he discussed the “transformational partnership” approach to corporate engagement on the environment and his call-to-action for the next generation of business leaders.

Roberts graduated from HBS in 1988 and he shared how he thought about his initial career post-MBA. He recalled that at that time, the hottest speaker event was that of Michael Milliken (known for creating the junk bond market) and that only two to three students in his class were interested in the topic of a career in the social sector. Having always had a great love for the outdoors, Roberts looked at organizations such as The Nature Conservancy but found that they tended to recruit scientists and lawyers and that his background was not particularly valued at the time.

Instead, Roberts joined P&G and then moved to Gillette. It was only when there was an opening in the Nature Conservancy in a role that was interesting, that Roberts moved over. Thereafter, he was recruited into the WWF. At WWF, he has worked tirelessly to help multinational corporations recognize that improving their operations’ long-term environmental impacts can be as beneficial to earnings as it is to the environment.

Speaking on how he has used his HBS background and skills in non-profit work, Roberts said, “I was this young, Harvard MBA-coming into an organization of scientists. I didn’t listen to people and just tried to shake things up. That was a disaster.” In the process, he learned a lot about the role of a leader. “In the nonprofit, this is more about inspiring people rather than mandating things.” Moreover he shared the importance of establishing the right measures in a non-profit organization in order to track change. For example, “it is really hard to measure if you are saving the Amazon” and spoke of his work at the Nature Conservancy where he had tried to make too many changes, too quickly. On hindsight, he says, “you have to take an organization through a process of change-it is an art form.”

Roberts emphasized the importance of engaging businesses in creating sustainable environment change. He stressed his belief that big corporations are the largest forces changing our ecosystems today and described in detail the large chain of causes and effects that takes place globally across different industries. For instance, when one thinks of rainforest protection for the Amazon, one needs to recognize that the Amazon is being converted for cultivation of soy crops, which in turn are being exported to China to feed cows there, which ultimately link to the need to feed a large and affluent population in China. So in essence, people seeking to impact the Amazon need to work their way upstream to effect change. A similar chain is seen in agricultural commodities, fisheries and the timber industries.

At the same time, Roberts also emphasized that corporations are also increasingly likely to work with environmental protection groups to create sustainable practices. He cited examples of recent actions or announcements by companies such as GE, Walmart and HSBC and the importance of these actions in creating legitimacy for these companies.

He believes that businesses that can navigate this complex environment, espouse and act on these values will ultimately gain market share. He also spoke of the great potential in emerging markets around eco-services.

Ultimately, Roberts stressed the importance of the leader as a person and how that is a key driving force for engaging businesses in non-profit causes. In his opinion, “people are obsessed with the legacy that they will leave behind as individuals. They want to leave something behind that will make the world a better place. Leaders are more than just businessmen/women; they are real people.” This is the premise underlying Roberts’ approach to business leaders and how he engages the most influential business individuals such as Hank Paulson. On the latter individual, he said that Hank will not do anything that hurts the bottom line of his business at Goldman Sachs but that said, he is an individual genuinely concerned about the environment and has moved the entire business organization forward on that.

Contrasting his approach at the WWF to advocacy groups such as Greenpeace, Roberts said that his method of engagement is far gentler and centered on influencing key leaders of corporations. On Greenpeace, he said, “there is a role for hard hitting advocacy groups; it’s just not part of what we do.” Instead, he emphasizes, “My own approach is to look for solutions and try to bring people together.”

Learn more:
The World Wildlife Fund
Sustainability at Harvard: