Ray Anderson: Behind the Scenes Chat

Ray Anderson: Behind the Scenes Chat
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Ray Anderson: Behind the Scenes Chat

I wanted to share this behind-the-scenes, intimate chat with Ray Anderson.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned the “Greenest CEO in America” had lost his battle with liver cancer this year.  He was a personal hero of mine, whose writing and speaking impacted my life and career in a profound way.

I felt honored to interview Ray on May 15, 2009.  He called on his personal cell from his home in Atlanta… and how I avoided the temptation to ring him up at home, just to chat, for the next 3 years I’ll never know.  It was an exercise of will power, I assure you!

Later in May, I had the great fortune to see him speak in Des Moines, Iowa.  I shared dinner with Ray and several prominent sustainability leaders from the state that night… and my chair was next to his.  I was grinning from ear to ear!  He was probably wishing he could eat in peace, with all the questions I had for him.  The experience was what I image heaven to be like for sustainability nerds like myself.

I look at Ray Anderson’s decision to launch Mission Zero at Interface, Inc. as the single most pivotal moment in corporate sustainability.  I wouldn’t be where I am today had he not taken that bold step, against all odds.

During our phone call, I asked him what the experience was like for him, personally.  Not just the company role he played, but how did he feel when he had to influence a now-public company he no longer controlled to adopt something no company had ever done before – or knew how to do.  This is what he said:

If the Audio plug-in doesn’t work for your browser, I apologize.  You can also play the short MP3 (2 minutes) by clicking AndersonQA_5_15_09.

Notice his response:

“In the beginning, there was great skepticism.  It took consistent and persistent effort on my part… and it’s one mind at a time.  That’s the way it happens, that’s the way transformation happens.  You can’t dictate it from the top – nobody can, and make it really stick.”

Persistent.  Consistent.  One mind at a time – for it to really stick.

When I heard this, I was not the ex-CEO of my company.  I was working 3 part-time jobs.  There was no company.  There was just me and the people I wished understood my passion for sustainability.

My parents, my sister, community decision-makers I was trying to work with, and large companies I felt could make a difference.

One relationship at a time.  I committed to reaching out.  Staying on message – not changing who I was and what I stood for.  But changing the way I approached each of them with my message.

Was it worth expanding my toolbox to include, not just environmental facts and figures, but the art and science of persuasive speech?  What not to say.  What to say.

I learned to read what stage of influence they were in.  To consider their eco-personality type and level of commitment.  And I was very forgiving with myself while I learned.

I kept getting better, and today I work for one of those companies running their sustainability program.  Our non-profit is the hub for sustainable living in Greater Des Moines.  And I love spending time with my parents and sister.  Their own environmental journeys surprise even me, and I couldn’t be more proud.

For it to really stick.  Yes, it was worth it.  When I think of not only the time, but the frustration that I have saved.  It was well worth it.



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

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