All Articles Leadership Strategy An unnatural partnership -- big business and environmentalists?

An unnatural partnership — big business and environmentalists?

4 min read



Environmental issues are a constant point of contention for activists and big business. While environmentalists want to preserve and protect nature, businesses leaders are often pressured to think more about the bottom line. Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, implores both sides to look at things differently.

TNC’s mission isn’t unlike that of many other environmental nonprofits. The Arlington, Va.-based organization seeks to “conserve the lands and waters on which life depends.” Where the difference lies, though, is in its approach. While Tercek acknowledges that the environmental movement has accomplished some impressive things, he says there’s a harsh reality it needs to face.

“If you think about all the things we’re trying to protect, they can be measured, and we do measure them, and they’re all in decline,” Tercek says. “Think about it: rainforests, healthy fisheries, ample topsoil, healthy forests, biodiversity itself. We measure these things and, notwithstanding all of our great efforts, they’re all in decline.”

That’s why Tercek and TNC are reaching across the aisle, working alongside companies with less-than-stellar environmental track records. It’s a move that has drawn criticism from other environmental groups, but it’s one that Tercek feels is necessary to move the needle on saving the environment.

“So then you say to me, ‘Well, Mark, why would you work with an organization that in the past has been a big polluter?’ And my answer would be, ‘That’s exactly why,'” Tercek says.

Tercek’s philosophy, which he outlines in “Nature’s Fortune,” is simple enough: business leaders should view preserving natural resources as an investment with measurable, monetary ROI. TNC backs that up with research from its in-house team of 600 scientists.

“We’re showing them it makes business sense to be better environmental citizens,” Tercek says.

That pragmatic, research-based approach seems fitting for Tercek, who left his executive director position at Goldman Sachs to head the organization in 2008. Many of his private-sector insights inform his strategy in the nonprofit world.


“[The Nature Conservancy] reminds me of Goldman Sachs in some ways: global, entrepreneurial, deal-oriented, focused on getting things done by bringing people together interested in innovative solutions,” Tercek says.

That’s why many business world skills — financial efficiency, management, and strategic planning, to name a few — translate so well into nonprofits. In some instances, there’s an even greater need for them there.

“Business people want to think very hard in their competitive fields about planning ahead,” Tercek says. “I think it’s harder in the nonprofit space. We don’t have the same metrics. It’s a bit murkier — what will work and what won’t work — but that doesn’t make it any less important. I think it makes it more important.”

Tercek has learned his fair share of lessons from working in nonprofits, too, particularly in management.

“I thought I was a good manager when I worked at Goldman Sachs,” Tercek says. “In hindsight, it seemed so easy — we had very clear metrics by which to measure people and we had great reward systems.”

What’s different in nonprofits, he says, is that employees are largely mission-driven, forgoing salary opportunities and other incentives to work for an organization in line with their personal beliefs.

“You have to be very thoughtful as a leader or manager about deploying your resources in a way that really allows you to achieve your mission and your workforce finds fulfilling and appealing,” Tercek says.

It’s something that’s easy for managers to overlook, but an important piece of the productivity puzzle nonetheless.

“I sometimes think we leaders get caught up in what we’re doing and the press of business, but we have to remember it’s not so much about us,” Tercek says. “It’s, rather, what can we do to unleash that great team we’ve put together to achieve the greatest impact.”

Alan B. Hart is co-founder and managing partner at Keen Strategy. Keen drives better, faster growth decisions with more confidence for clients. Providing strategic consulting and insights, grounded in break-through methods & software is how we do it. Learn more.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.