Affecting Change Quickly with Nexus Global Advisors’ Eric Lowitt

June 17, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to Green is Good, and today we’re so excited to have Eric Lowitt on with us. He’s the Managing Director of Nexus Global Advisors and the author of the new groundbreaking book The Collaboration Economy. Welcome to Green is Good, Eric Lowitt. ERIC LOWITT: John, good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so happy to have you. You do so many great things, and we have a lot to cover. But before we get into it, Eric, you have just a fascinating biography and journey. I want you to share with our listeners today a little bit about how you became over at Nexus Global Advisors, and why you’ve written the books you’ve written. Talk a little bit about your journey first. ERIC LOWITT: Absolutely. You know, if somebody had told me 20 years ago I’d be running an advisory firm and up end being an author and a speaker, I would have looked at them like, “Whoa, what planet are you on?” A little bit of my background. When I was in my junior year of high school, I remember sitting in my Spanish language class. I looked to my left and my right thinking about my college applications, and thought, “Man, every one of us has the same exact background. What’s going to make me different?” I have a photographic memory. I thought, “How do I use it?” So, I started to teach myself Japanese. It seemed like something so completely out of the blue and completely different, and that started off a journey that’s led me here. When I was in college, I moved out to Kyoto in Japan and spent two years living with host families, studying Japanese, moving up to Tokyo to try to work with a couple of investment banks. That didn’t work out. I moved back to New York where I grew up and spent the next four years in management consulting with Accenture, went to Wharton for my M.B.A., went to Fidelity Investments for about five years afterwards, back to Accenture where I got tapped to help to build a sustainability consulting program and sustainability research program. This was 2006. I remember asking one of my bosses at the time, “Hey, man, this is terrific! I’m excited to lead a sustainability consulting practice and a sustainability research program. Just one tiny question: What the heck is sustainability?” And so I’ve been on the journey ever since to try to answer that question. I left Accenture in 2009 to start to do the research for and eventually write my first book, The Future of Value, which came out in 2011. Since then, I’ve been giving talks around the world, advising CEOs of small and large companies alike, all of which led to new questions and new research that led to my new book, The Collaboration Economy. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, it all started with you just wanting to learn how to speak Japanese. I love it. Life’s a journey, man, and that’s a great one. Talk a little bit about the first book. Let’s start at the first book, The Future of Value. Talk a little bit about what you covered there, why you decided to cover those topics, and what was the result after that book got published. ERIC LOWITT: Yeah, The Future of Value on the face, one could say, there are a thousand green books out there. Why The Future of Value? The reason why was because I needed a book that would be able to show companies once and for all two things. One was what is the financial business case in terms of being able to go to your CFO for embracing sustainability? How do you make money on this stuff? But then the second piece was hey, I’m a strategy guy. How do I connect sustainability to strategy, so while you’re selling sustainability to your CFO from a financial return perspective, you can also sell sustainability to your CEO as the means to differentiate your company from your peers. That’s what The Future of Value is all about. It’s about how to create a company that’s strong today and even stronger tomorrow for competitive advantage that, at the risk of sounding as if I’m making a pun, is truly sustainable in today’s hypercompetitive marketplace. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you wrote that, and then that evolved into you thinking about and writing The Collaboration Economy. What was the genesis of that, and what are the takeaways from The Collaboration Economy that you want our listeners to hear about? ERIC LOWITT: Through the beginning of 2012, I had a chance to tour Europe to give a series of talks on The Future of Value, and a number of people kept asking me two similar questions. One was if you’ve had a company that’s achieved sustainability, how does that help our world achieve sustainability? And the second question was how do we effect great change quickly? Both questions seem to be getting at the same thing, which is there’s a bigger world out there than one single company achieving sustainability. How do we make that bigger world a reality? So, I dug into a new set of research, interviewed about 35 CEOs, about 110 Boards of Directors, and a number of other really senior folks in the public, private, and civil sectors to answer that question. How do you effect great change quickly? The result was no surprise. Start by saying, “Look, whether we’re a person, a company, a government, we can’t effect great change when it comes to mitigating climate change, whether it gets to ensuring we’ve got food, water, energy for not only 7.5 billion people today, but 9.5 billion people in 40 years.” The only way you can make great change happen quickly is to get public, private, and civil sector collaboration at massive scale with shared investment and shared benefits. That’s the genesis and the core secret within The Collaboration Economy book. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And when did that book come out? ERIC LOWITT: It came out on Earth Day, actually, April 22nd this year, so just two weeks ago. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Awesome. How’s it been going so far? ERIC LOWITT: Yeah, it’s been going really, really well. I’ve been blown away by the folks here in the States, in Canada, and in Europe, in particular, reaching out, saying some very nice words of congratulations, but more importantly, inviting me to come out and give talks. I’ve been recently invited to go talk to a number of members of the EU Parliament, as an example. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. So, who should be reading this, Eric? Who should be reading this book? Is this for CEOs, CFOs, CSOs, or just the population at large? ERIC LOWITT: I think it’s general. It really should be the population at large because the question I get from some of my friends who know what I do is, “Hey, I’m a single person, just one person. What do I do to effect great change?” What I purposefully did in this book, and my 80-year-old dad just proved it over the weekend, is I tried to write this book in a way that A) was not insomnia-curing and B) wasn’t consulting jargon, you know, 16-syllable words laid into the book. Instead, I wanted to make it easily accessible to general readers as well as CEOs across the board. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Cool. For our listeners who just joined us, we’re on with Eric Lowitt. He’s the Managing Director of Nexus Global Advisors. He’s also an author, and he’s just written The Collaboration Economy. You can check him out at Ericlowitt.com or Nexusglobaladvisors.com. Eric, you talk a little bit about in The Collaboration Economy the essence of becoming a collaborative leader. What does it really mean to become a collaborative leader, and how does one become such? ERIC LOWITT: So, I’ve come to this conclusion, informed by conversations with 20-25 different CEOs who said similar different things. For the first time in capitalism’s history, companies are no longer capable of controlling, and now only influencing their own corporate destinies. A very simple example to prove that, then I’ll get to what it means to be a collaborative leader because it will make sense. If Coca-Cola doesn’t have water, it doesn’t have product, it goes out of business. Period. But it doesn’t control water; nobody controls water. So, that means Coca-Cola can no longer control its own destiny. It has to work with stakeholders to get access to the water it needs to make its products. So Muhtar Kent, the CEO for Coca-Cola, one of the most progressive visionaries I’ve had the privilege of learning about and getting to know a little bit, understands that the only way to effect great and lasting change through Coca-Cola or via Coca-Cola is by having what I call a collaboration mindset. That is, first, embracing this idea that you can’t do it alone. Second is you can only influence your own corporate destiny. And third is you have to be able to see your position and the change you can effect in your position, not in terms of how does it best improve my ego, but rather how does it best enhance my professional long-term legacy. A collaborative leader thinks in terms of legacy, not ego; in terms of my role is a privilege and not my earned right. He or she thinks in decades, not minutes or hours. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it. Hey, you know, you’ve interviewed and written about so many fascinating people during your journey and during the writing of both of these great books. Share one of your favorite stories with our listeners from The Collaboration Economy. ERIC LOWITT: Sure. So, there’s a company in Norway called Grieg’s Shipping Group. Everybody is familiar with Maersk and Costco and these big shippers. Grieg is a big shipping group, and one of the things that Grieg Shipping Group is trying to figure out, and I applaud them every day for this, is that we’re so familiar with these big, huge ships that move cars and cargo, tankers and boulders, and when they’re on the water, meticulously cared for. At the end of their useful life, instantly the name of the company is stripped from the boat. They’re sold to middlemen and end up on beaches in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is in the news these days because of the garment factory building collapse that killed 700 people. Also in Bangladesh, there are beaches with hundreds of these rusting tanker ships that have been deconstructed by hand by migrant workers without rights. People have lots lives, limbs, eyesight, and so on and so forth. Grieg Shipping Group, a for-profit company, created a second company called Grieg Green to effectively buy all of these old used ships from its competitors, and properly and responsibly recycle these ships so that the environment isn’t harmed, people are properly treated in dignified ways from a worker perspective, and local economies can benefit as a result. This is a great story of a company saying, “Enough with the bad condition. We’re going to effect great change, and the only way we can do that is working with people on the ground, engineers, partners, government agencies and the like, to effect great and lasting change.” Grieg Shipping Group, great story. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. I love it. That makes so much sense, and The Collaboration Economy is filled with many, many, many of great stories just like that one. ERIC LOWITT: It absolutely is. In fact, I tried to bring a number of these, what people would think or things much bigger than we can imagine, these types of stories to life. Companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever and GE, companies that touch our lives every day. So, people can read this book and say, “Hey, you know what? These are normal people just like I am. I can effect great change too, whether it’s jumping on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn and using my social media network to start to effect great change just by making people aware of the massive challenges we face and the little things we can do that can make a big difference.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, I asked you earlier about who should be reading this, and I’m going to take it one step further. You said basically generally everybody. Does someone have to have a sustainability or an environmental or tree-hugging background to really get a lot out of and enjoy your book, or it could be just someone who’s really just starting to get interested and take baby steps toward sustainability or wanting to leave the world a better place than they found? ERIC LOWITT: Absolutely, it’s definitely the latter. Because when I introduced myself as a person, one thing I didn’t say is that I’m just like all of your other listeners. I’m a normal guy. I don’t have superhuman powers. I can’t do this alone. I don’t have a sustainability technical background. Rather, I write from a common sense background. And common sense, to me, says, “If you see something wrong in the world, try to fix it. If you can’t do it alone, get colleagues to help you.” That’s why I wrote the book. It’s not for technical backgrounds; it’s rather for general consumption. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And it’s so true. Collaboration is really where it’s at nowadays. We don’t live in a world where you can just go act unilaterally anymore. You have to act really in concert, otherwise nothing great gets done. I love what you’re doing. We’re down to, unfortunately, the last two minutes. What’s on the horizon for Eric Lowitt? Is there another book? What are you going to do next? ERIC LOWITT: Man, I want a vacation. No, I’ve got books three, four, and five. The third, fourth, and fifth book are already on the drawing table, and I’m spending more and more of my time in two pursuits. One is giving these type of talks around the world, and two is through my advisory firm, Nexus Global Advisors. I work with CEOs of some very large companies and some smaller ones as well to just really figure out non-disruptive, capital-efficient, non-costly type changes they can make to A) become sustainable in their own business and then B) effect great and lasting change through the ideas and thinking of the collaboration economy. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, shameless plug. If people want to hire you for Nexus Global Advisors work, they just go to your site, Nexusglobaladvisors.com? ERIC LOWITT: It is a bit of a shameless plug, but yes, Nexusglobaladvisors.com. And what I mean by nexus, just real quick to make it personal for our listeners. I believe that great effective change happens quickly at the nexus of public, private, and civil sector collaboration. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, that’s great. So, for our listeners out there that want to learn more about Eric, you can go to www.ericlowitt.com or, of course, buy his books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, all of the great book outlets, The Future of Value and The Collaboration Economy. These are two important books, and we can all learn a lot about them. Eric, you’re always invited back on Green is Good to talk about your books now and the books you’re going to be writing in the future. You are a sustainability superstar, Eric Lowitt, and truly living proof that green is good. ERIC LOWITT: Thank you, John. I appreciate the opportunity to be on your show today.