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“I’m not a leader, I’m an instigator”

An interview with Erin Sexson, senior vice president of global sustainability for the Innovation Center at U.S. Dairy’s Sustainability Counci

6 min read


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iStockPhoto/Illustration by James daSilva

This is the third in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?” As he writes in his introduction to this series, “There has been some incredible wisdom and teaching shared on topics such as; the definition of leadership, how to lead, and what it takes to develop leaders. But, I have found little on what it is actually like once you get there.”

What do vacuums, DVDs, and dairy have in common?

The answer is Wal-Mart, and more specifically, its interest in understanding the carbon footprint of those three industries. It was that question that lead me join the Innovation Center For U.S. Dairy’s Sustainability Council back in 2008. That is where I first met Erin Sexson, senior vice president of global sustainability for the Center. Erin was just a few years removed from Notre Dame and was charged with leading the industry’s response.

Over the past eight years, this soft-spoken but fiercely determined woman galvanized a disparate group of farmers, manufacturers, academics and NGOs. She leads an effort that has delivered meaningful change that will have a lasting, and positive impact on our environment.

I thought it was important to include Erin in this series because she is an accomplished leader who leads not from authority or position, but rather, by passion and purpose. I hope you enjoy it.


What keeps you up at night?

Well, it did not take long for that fierce determination mentioned above to percolate to the surface. Erin responded passionately to this question, saying that she is “really worried about the state of farming globally.” She went on to explain that the US is losing a significant amount of farmland each year, and she thinks “that’s our rainforest.”

While most of us might take home the banal stressors of the office, Erin “thinks about food security quite a bit, and that agriculture, and feeding people and feeding them well is the backbone of society.” With irony dripping from her words, and with tangible anger in her tone, she went on to share that she just can’t understand how we can “value Facebook’s IPO at $7 billion and we can’t value the roughly 3-4 billion people who can’t eat”. She went silent for a moment and then added, “It just bothers me.”

Where do you find the courage?

She didn’t answer this question specifically, but I sense it is just hardwired into her DNA. “You’re only as good as what you are driving towards. I believe in putting yourself in situations that stretch you.”

She then went on to tell me a story from her high school days. “I had coalesced a group of high school principals to create the high school of the future.”

She laughed because she recognized that this was not the typical high school story. “I just wanted to do the right thing and felt students deserved a better education.”

She did add one other interesting point to this story. She said that one of her greatest take aways from the experience was realizing “you can pick up the phone and talk to whomever you want.” Yep, I’d say that her courage is hardwired.

What have you learned about connecting with people?

Erin mentioned that she has studied “Appreciative Inquiry,” which, to offer an overly simplified definition, is basically asking the questions about what is working versus our default of asking about what is not. But that is Erin.

“I am an optimist, I own it. People sometimes think that I am so optimistic that I am naive. I am not naive, I am just goal oriented.” she laughs. “I just don’t want to live in that pessimistic world.”

She added, “Sometimes being an optimist is viewed as weak, but that is not the case.” She credits both her optimism and her understanding of Appreciative Inquiry with helping her learn how to ask the right questions that motivate others. She uses questions to help people have those “What if” experiences. What if we could solve this? What if we made this change? She helps them to see the future state and understand the potential.

She explains that she also works to create “shiny moments,” which she operationally defined as giving people deliverables that become a “platform to succeed, to win.”

What are some of the surprising burdens of leadership?

Erin’s answer here was very different. She said the burden of leadership is “being looked at as a leader. I am not a leader, I’m an instigator.” She says she doesn’t want accolades, and in fact, those typically come accompanied by “people trying to tear you down.” She then offered that she “really gets fired up watching others take my ideas and go. I love watching the antagonist become the protagonist,” she again chuckled at herself.

Does it hurt when others say negative things about you?

We had an interesting conversation around this question. “It hurts when people are going after things for their own self-interest,” she said. “Wow, I feel sorry for those people because they are small minded and can’t see the bigger issue.”  At first, she said that it hurt her, but as we explored further, I got the sense that it disappointed her — it made her sad for them and disheartened. But, in some way, I think she felt it was caused by her own failing.

The interview continued for a while. But, there was one thing in particular that I found of interest: Her relationship with the Aspen Institute. She is part of their “First Movers Fellowship Program,” a program designed to develop corporate intrapreneurs. The Aspen Institute defines intrapreneurs as “accomplished innovators inside companies who are creating new products, services and management practices.”

If Erin is the embodiment of an intrapreneur, then I think every organization should latch on to this concept and start developing leaders who are self-described instigators and intrapreneurs. Just think of what doing that will mean for the speed of change and progress.


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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief and Linked2Leadership. He serves as a thinking partner, providing clients with the clarity, focus, and tools needed to make good people and product decisions. He helps clients build lasting relationships with their customers, develop leaders who make others feel heard, cared for, valued and respected, and most importantly grow.

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