Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek Advances Sustainable Capitalism

Advises MBAs to Keep Themselves on the Steepest Learning Curves
Mark Tercek - CEO of The Nature Conservancy

Mark Tercek - CEO of The Nature Conservancy

Few understand the importance of the combination of economic growth and responsible environmental policy—the advancement of sustainable capitalism—better than Mark Tercek (HBS ’84), CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and a former Partner at Goldman Sachs.

Through TNC, Tercek strives to impact corporate and national environmental policy by partnering, somewhat controversially, directly with corporations whose very existence depends on extracting and using resources the environmental organizations are charged with protecting.  In fact, Tercek unapologetically defends such collaboration, noting that TNC’s work with companies like Coca-Cola, Monsanto, and DuPont has the potential to change mindsets and shift behaviors at a macro level.

This was one of the main themes discussed by Tercek when he returned to HBS to speak with students, faculty, and community members at an event co-hosted by the Business and Environment Initiative and student Energy & Environment Club on February 15th.  In his talk, Tercek described how he ended up running TNC, why he chose to make the switch from his job at Goldman Sachs and what he aims to accomplish through his work with TNC.

Tercek has lived the dream of many HBS students.  He secured a high-profile job in the private sector after graduation, rose through the ranks to a leadership role, and then applied his business skills and frameworks to the non-profit world in an attempt to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Before he ever came to TNC, Tercek was a successful banker at Goldman Sachs.  With the perspective he gained at Goldman, Tercek had considered leaving his “prestigious and seductive role” to run a non-profit, but he was convinced by his boss, Goldman’s then-CEO Hank Paulson ’70, to run the firm’s environmental efforts.

Though he had a “keen personal interest” in the area, he lacked expertise.  To develop a strategy, Tercek noted that he and Paulson required all parts of the business to establish environmental strategies that had both “commercial value for the firm” and “environmental outcomes for society.”  By keeping these two priorities as his focus, Tercek developed a framework that has since been mimicked by other banks and corporations.

After three years running Goldman’s Environmental Strategy Group and Center for Environmental Markets, Tercek made the shift into the non-profit world in July 2008 when he accepted the CEO role at TNC.

For Tercek, the position provided an opportunity to increase collaboration between the non-profit space and the private sector, an essential marriage in his view: “The non-profit world would benefit from more private sector engagement, and the for-profit world would benefit from more collaboration with the non-profit world.  These two worlds should come together.”

Though the transition from a for-profit to a non-profit can be jarring, Tercek found that his new employer was more similar to his previous one than he might have expected.

Like Goldman, TNC was trying to make “big, important things happen.”  Both organizations had “well-educated, passionate, hard-charging people who were ambitious and wanted to make a big impact.”  Third, both were large organizations with rich histories.  Tercek noted that TNC recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, has an annual budget of ~$500mm, employs 4,000 people including 600 scientists, and has 1mm members.

Tercek also argued that there need not be a tradeoff between economic growth and responsible environmental policy.  He described his current work with a company with a massive eco-footprint as particularly high impact in addressing environmental challenges.

Tercek’s hope is that the work will demonstrate that you can have “the economic outcome you’re seeking for your business or your economic development for your country, and also the good environmental outcomes that you also need for that economic well-being.

“For [a country] to succeed and prosper, it needs to avoid damaging its ecosystem, but it also needs to exploit its mineral resources.  We want to do both.”

After his remarks, Tercek fielded a number of questions from the audience, opining on climate change initiatives, differences in incentive structures in for-profit and non-profit organizations, fund-raising, and how he spends his time as CEO.

Students came to the talk for a variety of reasons.  Lee Hodder (OG), who spent six years in the oil and gas industry before coming to HBS, said he was “very interested in the idea of ‘sustainable capitalism’ and how, as future business leaders, a key success factor in addressing global issues could be how effectively we collaborate and engage with a broader spectrum of stakeholders.”

For HBS students who have an interest in working in the non-profit or environmental space, Tercek shared some advice with The Harbus.

He encouraged students to “keep yourself on the steepest learning curve you can,” avoiding flatness, boredom, and complacency.  Second, given the convergence of the for- and not-for-profit worlds, if you have an interest in someday making the switch, you have to pay close attention to the space from the beginning of your career.  In other words, get involved right away, “in the way that makes best sense,” whether through young professional societies or service on small non-profit boards.  “If you ever have in mind a career switch, you can’t just click your fingers and do it.”

Those interested in sustainability should consider attending an upcoming conversation with Carter Roberts, President of the World Wildlife Fund, on March 5th.  The event is co-sponsored by the Business and Environment Initiative and student Energy & Environment Club.  Oh, and for those who were wondering—yes, TNC hires MBAs!

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