Milestones give someone a lot to think about, so when Conservation International celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2007, it put me in a reflective mood.
We’d accomplished a lot over the years, protecting more than 200 million acres of biodiversity hot spots and building the strongest species-focused science enterprise in the world. But if we were to push together all these acres, they’d amount to only a roughly 30-mile strip of land, which is basically the width of that perforated line marking our equator — and that’s really tiny.
At that same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control’s Fourth Assessment Report called climate change an “unequivocal” threat to humanity’s stability; extinction rates were accelerating; dry regions were becoming more arid; and global fisheries were collapsing. As significant as our successes were, they paled in comparison to what humanity and our Earth faced — and continues to face. A recent Geophysical Research Letters study found that the Arctic permafrost contains 32 million gallons of mercury, which is projected to adversely affect our global air, food, water and soil supplies as the Earth warms and the permafrost unthaws, releasing the neurotoxin.
These imminent threats made me realize then that Earth’s ecological outlook was so severe that humanity’s very survival was at stake. Nature would survive the stresses one way or another — but people, families and communities would not. Our focus needed to shift from saving species for species’ sake to protecting nature for humanity’s well-being. Our arrows were pointed in the wrong direction. People need nature to survive, not the other way around, which meant that our organization’s focus — and mission — needed to change.
How to make a sustainable mission shift.
In response to the urgency, CI changed its mission with the hope that our efforts would become central and essential for our national, business and community partners. Like any organization, we reached a point when we needed to pivot. Our focus had to evolve in order for us to keep pace with a changing world.
We persevered, and CI recently marked its 30th anniversary. Your business can survive a mission update, too, if you take the following steps:
1. Secure commitments to the new mission.
Our organization changed significantly, which frightened a lot of employees. It also didn’t help that I brought in a new team to heavily focus on human elements such as the health and well-being of communities that depend upon nature. At that time, bringing on economists and agricultural specialists worried our team of biodiversity scientists, and as the change sank in for the staff, I pushed them to think critically and focus on what lay ahead.
I also had to convey that our mission shift was nonnegotiable and that for those helping us execute it, neither was wholeheartedly embracing it. A similar tactic has been used by Zappos, the online retailer known for its successful work culture. For years, the company has made week-old hires “The Offer” of a $2,000 bonus to quit the job. It’s a way of weeding out anyone not committed to the company’s mission.
Offering everyone who isn’t onboard with the shift a buyout isn’t totally feasible, but keeping your team educated and focused on the task at hand is a critical first step. Keep your staff informed about the reasons behind the shift, when it’ll occur and how individuals and departments fit in. That transparency allows employees to assess whether they want to commit for the long haul and allows leadership to help team members prepare.
2. Brace for a backlash.
Our transition was radical for an environmental organization, but it was particularly disruptive for the people at Conservation International. Most had been hired because they’d been protecting biodiversity. Internally, the company’s “rock holders” — the ones unable to let go of CI’s previous mission — thought I was turning CI into a development and humanitarian organization, which resulted in a 20 percent turnover in staff.
Outside, the transformation sparked rumors within the environmental community that CI was no longer interested in protecting nature. Of course, our transition was in no way a radical rejection of protecting nature; instead, it was a reminder to governments and businesses that communities could not thrive without nature.
Businesses should be prepared for backlash when they shift course and be prepared to defend their pivots. Coca-Cola learned this in 1985 when it unveiled “New Coke,” which promised a smoother taste but faced severe blowback from its most loyal customers. The soft drink debuted to a 13 percent approval rating, forcing Coca-Cola to discontinue it within three months.
As Coca-Cola found, change can be jarring, and fundamental shifts can be a tough sell. Prepare to justify the company’s new position with empirical evidence and a road map of where the pivot will lead. Get ahead of potential objections so your team can see the ways a pivot will fortify the organization’s path in the long run.
3. Prioritize partnerships.
Companies can scale in a meaningful way only if they have partners to amplify their good ideas. When we changed our mission, we changed our partnerships in order to pair with organizations that not only understood our goals, but also could better us. We believed that the relationship between natural capital, or what nature provides for free, and production could be understood only if the corporations and foundations that focused on development embraced the idea that nature and human well-being are inseparable.
For companies that have expanded their missions through partnerships, look to Starbucks. When it transitioned from selling beans and coffee equipment to becoming today’s caffeinated powerhouse, it partnered with Apple to collaborate on selling music in its stores. The company was creating a “coffeehouse experience” to become more than a retailer of beans, and it forged a lasting partnership to execute that mission.
Team with partners whose strengths counterbalance your weaknesses and vice versa. That kind of complementary business relationship can help revitalize your company’s mission and provide continual support toward reaching your goals.
Organizational change may start at the top, but it involves every person on the team. Align team members with the organization’s mission and thoroughly communicate the reasons behind the evolution. That will ensure the pivot becomes fundamentally ingrained in company’s culture that employees — and, with luck, the public — will embrace it.