Creating the Next Generation of Business Leaders

By Erin Meezan, CSO, Interface, Inc.

Last week, on the 10th Anniversary of the formation of the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL), the organization hosted an energizing conference focused on The Future of Education In Business Sustainability. I was honored to participate on a panel of business leaders including Johnson & Johnson, Interface, Coca-Cola and others, and offer perspective on what skills and experiences are required for future business leaders.

The pivotal point of discussion surrounded how business schools should prepare students for sustainable business management. Should curriculum focus on creating graduates with strong foundational business skills combined with an understanding of how to implement sustainable business practices, such as supply chain management? Or, should schools aim to form ethically-minded, collaborative business leaders who have the capacity to lead the organizational change necessary to solve the world’s greatest challenges? The former approach seems wholly inadequate for creating the next generation of business leaders. But sadly, it’s what most business school programs are focused on creating.

As the Chief Sustainability Officer for Interface, a global carpet tile manufacturer with sustainability at its core, I’ve seen the skills and capabilities needed in our business evolve dramatically over the last ten years. When Interface first began its transition toward a more sustainable business model, we needed business leaders with strong business knowledge who were willing to “learn sustainability.” They needed to know how to implement ideas like zero-waste and closed-loop thinking in our factories. But we never would have started to transform our business if our founder, Ray Anderson, had not recognized that the way we were running Interface, divorced from the consequences of our decisions and their impacts on people and planet, was ethically wrong. He called it a “spear in the chest moment” when he realized our business was fundamentally flawed, and so he set a new vision for Interface. Interface has made great progress to reduce its environmental impacts, and we’ve done it with a fantastic set of business leaders who “learned sustainability.” But as we look toward the future and start creating, promoting and finding the next generation of Interface business leaders, we need something different.

Last summer, Interface’s new leadership team, building on Ray’s legacy, set a new mission for the business – engineer a “climate take back.” In response to the threat of global climate change, we’ve committed to run our business in a way that creates a climate fit for life. And we hope to inspire other businesses to follow our lead. This means, simply, we have to move beyond the mindset of just reducing our carbon emissions – we need to focus on removing carbon from the atmosphere. We’re creating a map for how we as manufacturers can achieve this goal. We’ll focus on how we can source materials, run our operations and create products that remove carbon from the atmosphere. When I think about hiring the next generation of business leaders at Interface to help us lead this revolutionary approach, I think about those ethically-minded, collaborative leaders who can go way beyond implementing sustainable business practices, to designing solutions in our business that help change the world. And I hope that I will be able to find and hire them.

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