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A Personal Interest

Friday, February 1, 2008 - 11:04

Greg Bourne has brought a longstanding passion for nature with the skills learned from a multinational background to his role as head of WWF in Australia. By Jennifer Alexander

WWF-Australia's goal is to bring harmony to man and nature. Greg Bourne, Chief Executive Officer, is a passionate individual who is bringing a hard-nosed reality to the challenges of helping to improve business practices, bottom lines and reputations.

Q: You were a senior executive in an oil company while at BP. What skills have you brought to your WWF role as Chief Executive?

A: When I first saw the role advertised, the thing that attracted me, apart from the obvious importance of environmental sustainability, climate change and energy use, was that WWF is multinational. How multinationals work, for good and bad, was a definite competency set of mine. I was able to bring knowledge of climate change and energy use, the ability to manage business, and I had a pretty large black book of contacts. I like the fact that what we do is exciting, international and important. But it's harder work than I've ever done before.

Q: What makes it harder?

A: From a management point of view, our colleagues are experts in what they do and, just like other businesses, there's a tendancy to a silo mentality; thus, building teamwork has become very important.

Q: Do you mean that small mammal buffs may not see the concerns of ocean specialists?

A: Yes. Someone who specialises in the forest's role may not know much about the implications for the sub-sea world. You see this type of issue in companies that have brands and sub-brands whose marketers can't see that their particular brand is linked to another.

Q: What are you doing to overcome the silo mentality?

A: We have two lots of training: one is finance for non-financial managers to create a common language. Even in a non-government organisation you have to worry about where the money comes from or where it goes and how efficient you are. The other training is on team building and management skills. This training provides fundamental underpinnings to go with the development of our people's technical specialities.

Q: What is WWF's goal?

A: Our prime purpose is to help human beings live in harmony with nature.

Q: Do you feel that WWF's objectives are more difficult to define and achieve than BP's?

A: They are more difficult. We try to define an outcome we wish to create. But take an outcome to improving the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef . What are the key threats? Recreational and commercial overfishing, exploitation from too much tourism, agricultural run-off and climate change are all threats. When has the improved resilience outcome occurred? You won't know whether it's become resilient enough for 50 or 100 years. But you can intervene in the key threatening processes and have marine-protected areas declared. So yes, the outcomes are harder to define but the processes to get there are still the same.

Q: Can you elaborate on WWF's work with business?

A: During the '90s, I worked in Europe and South America with BP. During that time, I'd talked a lot about sustainability and the triple bottom line. When I came back to Australia in early 1999, that conversation had hardly even started. At BP, I was very much into how we in business had to get together with those who were environmental and social actors. Coming to WWF, it was interesting for me to find that I was saying exactly the same thing. WWF's original charter always held it to work with governments and business to find solutions. Our partnerships with businesses are very much ones that say, how can we help you improve your bottom line and at the same time improve your reputation.

Q: In your leadership role with WWF how do you see environmental change occurring?

A: Any environmental gain is first of all a social gain; if people don't want it, whatever it is, it won't happen. I always think that in the process of inventing the "eureka" moment, you're far more likely to annoy people because you're creating a need for change, and people don't like change. To make change - climate change is a classic example - you actually have to have stimulated leadership within political parties, business, community leaders and, at the international level, among the world's political leaders. If they do not lead nothing happens.

WWF is very conscious of first doing the sound scientific and economic analysis of what we advocate. We look at the likely social outcomes, synthesise them all, and work out how to communicate it to help bring people along. So you must look at who are the idea's likely allies and how to build a constituency for that idea to take it further.

Q: Do you believe in targeting particular constituencies?

A: I actually believe this is a concern for sustainability. With longer-term issues, generally you could say the very young are concerned, the older are concerned, while the middle-aged are less concerned, but that's just because they're head down, arse up with family and creating their own wealth. To my mind, it's a matter of linking the different people together.

People say, "Oh well, just teach the young and it will happen". To me that's deferring leadership. When it comes to looking forward at a company-leadership level, businesses must look at how they can build into their processes the ability to stimulate leadership on sustainability even while driving for the best profit or market share.

Q: Your role must take a position on environmental advocacy with regard to people's livelihoods?

A: Obviously, it is not just about the environment, it's about sustainable livelihoods. It comes down to pointing out a common vision that is a sustainable one. We try to think about a developmental activity and say, can we create a net positive in the economic dimension? can we increase the net social benefit? Can we also create a net environmental benefit? To my mind we must work with the social, environmental and economic actors and create a concept of sensible development.

Q: Your interest in the environment is personal, or were there other triggers?

A: My grandparents grew up in the West Australian wheat belt during the Great Depression. Times were tough and the bank foreclosed and all that. We had a "waste not, want not" mentality drilled into us from the crib. We also had a very outdoor life. Was I an environmentalist when I was 15? Absolutely not. But did I love nature? Absolutely, yes.

Working with BP in exploration, our mindset was that we didn't want to let the noxious stuff out because if you can keep it in, you can sell it; but if you let it out, you get fined. My whole working life was designed around making sure that things were controlled within the refinery or plant fence; things outside were for governments to worry about. For me at BP, really it was from around 1990 that I had a strong consciousness of the external world. And for industrial, chemical and petrochemical organisations in particular, the Bhopal disaster in 1984 was the real wake-up call.

Q: You worked for the Thatcher government's policy unit on energy and transport in the late 1980s. What did you learn there?

A: It was like doing a crash PhD in politics. Learning the political processes and the processes of influence was fascinating, although you did see both the best and worst of human behaviour. The thing I learned more than anything else was that politics works within the realm of what society and business want. Equally, businesses and society work within the reality of what politics dictates. Sometimes the politicians are in the ascendancy and sometimes they're not. The good ideas eventually do get through, and sustainability is one of those ideas that was taking root in the 1980s.

Q: You had a success with Earth Hour last year. What of its future?

A: The concept of Earth Hour was that on one night, 31 March 2007, lights would be turned off for one hour in Sydney . The aim was a 5 per cent reduction in Sydney's energy use for that one hour; it turned out to be 10.2 per cent; 2.2 million people turned their lights off. While it was a symbolic act, it wasn't just a one-hour stunt. We were already thinking that Earth Hour would flow from Sydney all the way around the world. Companies who signed up for it committed to find a 5 per cent energy reduction within a year. So it was the start of a process of people becoming more energy efficient. We are doing it again on 29 March 2008 in other Australian cities, and it will happen in cities in Europe, America and maybe in China as well.

Q: What do businesses need to do for sustainability?

A: The key thing for business on sustainability is thinking long term. It's not surprising to me that the companies that have been involved in sustainability and triple bottom line are those with long investment horizons of 30�50 years, typically oil, chemical and infrastructure companies. They are actually a very small part of business in Australia and internationally. So finding the ways in which all businesses can be looking long term becomes important. And the next sector is probably finance.

There's a logical reason why WWF began to work with banks: they have an interest in making sure that their lending doesn't fail them, that they don't end up with a stranded asset because it's no longer wanted by society.

Perhaps more important is the leadership of governments and business. You can be a CEO who says, I'm only interested in my five-year tenure; or you can be interested in looking at what a sustainable Australia means and will look like in 50 years.

Q: Are you encouraged by the things you're seeing?

A: People are beginning to sign up for green power. The big corporates are now beginning to do that, and trying to go carbon neutral. But you also see it at the cafe level, and it's a hard game running the cafe. So when you see people saying they want to go carbon neutral at the cafe level, and sometimes it's just a collection box, that's progress.

Q: What about Australian business's awareness?

A: Unfortunately, I think that European business has stolen quite a march on Australian business in thinking sustainability. Indeed, I believe Chinese, Japanese and South Korean businesses have actually moved ahead. The creation of some of the "noise" around climate change has been very detrimental to Australia and now we've got to catch up. People say that Australia will be able to export our technology to China . I think it will be the other way around. It has been far more important to China to start being more efficient with cement, steel or fossil fuels per capita, because they know that they will be constrained.

Q: Do you see the differences in business overseas?

A: In the UK and continental Europe , you see it's the new way it is. Difficult, yes, but the way it is. Now, under German laws, if you sell a car you have to take it back eventually to recycle it. How you do it is the building of a process, new industries, supply chains and so on; the moment you move into a recycle mentality, you just change the nature of business.

Q: So Australian businesses better catch up?

A: Very much so. I believe that the leadership of any firm, no matter how big, has got to do the reading, the hard work and thinking beyond just their business. It's so easy to run a business just looking inwardly. Usually, it's a foregone conclusion that sooner or later you're going to go out of business because someone else has been thinking outwardly.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

A: Open-door and mentoring. I'm prepared to stick my head out in the world and have a brick thrown at it. Being able to make statements to the world clearly to move things forward is important. We used a phrase at BP that you had to be able to envisage the goals and the challenges ahead, but that there was a gap to their realisation, and that you had to have the courage to live in the gap until you found a way to meet the challenge.

Q: How did you learn to be a manager and leader?

A: I was fortunate to work with a company that had a very strong training and development program. The seminal thing for me was to realise that a thirst for learning is more important than anything else, whether it's learning and reading within or outside your discipline. I think it's very important to live and learn in an outwardly looking way. For me, it's an insight to think that the world starts "out there", and while it eventually comes down to Australia and maybe ends up in Canberra or Sydney or Melbourne, it starts out there. Too many of our managers and business people in Australia think that the world starts here and moves out.

Q: Any powerful learning experiences to share?

A: I've seen many physical disasters that have caused people death. It makes you very conscious of safety, the environment and your role and responsibilities. A phrase I've used for a long time is, "Are you proud of what you're doing today; are you proud of what you're leaving behind?". For me, it's very important.

Q: If you had power for the day to do anything, what would you do to help Australia's environment?

A: Politically and constitutionally we are not well placed to think long term. Whether it is the Governor-General and the governors together with some worthy men and women from diverse backgrounds thinking about Australia's long-term future, or a parliamentary standing committee that has a longer life than parliament, we need something like that in Australia .

I would also find a way to shrink what I call the tyranny of the internal distance. Getting good thinkers in Australia together is more difficult than in London, where 40-million people live in a 40-mile radius. Institutionally, we have to find a way to overcome it.

Q: When you leave WWF, what will success look like?

A: For Australia to be driving forward and taking a leadership role in the world on tackling climate change, water use and conservation, and a move towards finding better social, environmental and economic models to live by.