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Bob Langert: ...how to open doors by being strategic

Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: We are so excited to welcome our guest, Bob Langert to this episode. He offers an interesting perspective on a variety of issues that affect all of us. Bob is the former Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability at McDonald's. In that job, he found enormous rewards in doing good in a corporate setting.

Jan: Bob also discovered that sometimes a company’s strongest critics can help find solutions that are good for both the company and society. He presented a TED Talk about that a few months ago, which has already had nearly a million views. Bob is also the author of the book, The Battle to Do Good: Inside McDonald’s Sustainability Journey. Bob, thank you so much for joining us.

Bob: I'm excited to be with you.

Jan: Tell us more about your background and why you decided to write the book.

Bob: I worked for McDonald's for 33 years, most of it was in charge of a whole new thing called, Corporate Social Responsibility. It's gone through a big evolution over the last three decades. I just thought the journey of a big brand and a big company like McDonald's, which is well-known by many people. A lot of people love it, a lot of people don't like McDonald's. It has its fair share of critics. Here I was on the inside of this company, working to do good. I was given a job to actually do good for the world through our business. How many people get a job like that?

Jan: Yeah, not many.

Bob: I just totally enjoyed it. I thought the journey of what we did, especially as you said in your introduction, here I'm thinking, “I'm going to have to work with all the critics of society.” That's kind of the definition of the job. McDonald's was criticized for too much waste and garbage, making people fat, destroying the Amazon rainforest, mistreating animals, these were all the charges. My job was to figure out how to do that. The only way to do it is to work with people that, maybe, don't think you're doing the right thing, they're critics. I thought bringing people to the inside of that story, telling it honestly and openly, which is rarely done in this world. That's why I wanted to write the book.

Laura: What was your mission for the company when you first started working in sustainability?

Bob: That's a good question. It's started with the idea of staying out of trouble. Big companies, like McDonald's, were a target. McDonald's was invented in 1955. We were always the darling of every neighborhood. People loved Ronald McDonald. People loved the owner/operators that ran the restaurants. Then all of a sudden, the late 80's, we got criticized for the polystyrene clamshell. If you remember that, it was a sign of a wasteful society. Ronald McDonald was twisted into a cover story in New York Magazine, a story, remember Ronald McToxic? We had nobody in the company that knew how to deal with environmentally friendly packaging.

They just chose me. I always wonder why they chose me. It started out of trying to figure out how to deal with these issues that were coming at us that we didn't know how to do. It started out as a reactive type of effort. But it was so much fun to dig into a big issue, like waste or animal welfare, and then figure out who to work with. Who can I trust? What are the experts I can work with that actually turn around a perception of creating too much waste to being responsible for that? Or animal treatment, who can I work with on animal treatment to actually come up with ways to improve the lives of the animals? Even though at the beginning it was very reactive, it was still very rewarding to come up with solutions.

Jan: How do you get the people, and the groups who are critical of what a big corporation is doing? How do you reach out the olive branch and get them to work with you to find solutions that improve the situation?

Bob: What I learned quickly on is that a lot of the non-governmental organizations, NGOs, and the academics that have worked in this area, you think they're against companies. They have a stereotype of being radicals and they're out to get you, they're out to sue you. As a matter of fact, the first group we worked with was the Environmental Defense Fund. This was back in 1989, 1990. Their founding motto of the organization was, "Sue the Bastards." Here they are, they had a lot of expertise in waste management. They came to us, in this case, and said, "Hey, we'd like to actually work with you, lower our voices, and collaborate on solutions." which we ended up doing and it worked.

The activists and the experts out there, they know a lot of things that people like me in the corporate world, we don't know. I never knew that if you switch to a brown bag versus a white bag, a brown unbleached bag which doesn't use any bleach, that's way better for the environment. By the way, it's cheaper to make, you save money. They said, "Why don't you reduce the napkin by one inch? We never thought of that. Okay, one inch. What's the big deal? It saves 3 million pounds a year by making that one small change. We couldn't have done it without these outside experts. They have to be willing to acknowledge that McDonald's needs to be in business. That's probably the only criteria that we had, they can't be out to destroy us.

I still remember Greenpeace. That's one of my favorite stories. I never thought I'd ever work with Greenpeace to help save the Amazon. My image of Greenpeace was, somewhat, that they're radical. They're not really. They climbed fences, they paint graffiti, they hang banners from corporate facilities. They're not a group that I'm going to work with. But lo and behold, they ended up protesting against us about using too much soy in the Amazon and destroying the rainforest. They showed up, dressed up as chickens, because soy goes into chicken feed exported to Europe in the UK. They chained themselves to the tables and chairs.

They released a report called, "Eating Up the Amazon." I quickly found out that their report was actually genuine, it was a truthful report. It was a problem. Rather than deny the issue, I said, "I'll give them a call." I was expecting rejection because they were demanding we do X, Y and Z, which were very unreasonable. But I called them up. Our team at McDonald's, we agreed to get together. Before you know it, we're in a room at Heathrow Airport, four of them, four of us from McDonald's, arm in arm. Yeah, there was some lack of trust, maybe for the first hour of the meeting. Before you know it, we're all trying to save the Amazon.

Believe it or not, we ended up recruiting other retailers and our suppliers. In three months’ time, a moratorium was announced that, less than ever since, on cutting down trees for soy farming in the Amazon. That's what I work for, that's what's so enriching. That's when you realize that these critics and adversaries, they can be your allies. So many of them become friends. I just found so much in common with them versus finding things that we were different about.

Laura: You've even said that you would love to have some people from the NGOs that you've worked with, be your next-door neighbor. I thought that was just so fascinating and just an admirable trait. You have all these people who think that their enemies are people they don't want to get to know and here you are saying you'd like to have them as your friends. How have you been able to grow these very unlikely relationships?

Bob: I think it starts with the idea of presuming innocence in the people that are out there. Why not just assume that they want to do good. For instance, I want them to have an image of me at McDonald's. I don't want them to be thinking I'm just a money-thirsty, profit-hungry robot, corporate suit, working for McDonald's. That's kind of a stereotype that they have. They should shed that. They should be open to working with a corporation, just like I, and we, in corporate America should be open to at least assuming that they have good intentions. Believe it or not, I've worked with dozens of organizations, some of them known to be quite tough to work with. Almost every time, it's a better situation, it's good people. Why not trust them, treat them with respect, understand where they're coming from?

My favorite story of that is animal welfare. I remember we had animal activist, Peter Singer was one of them. Here he is, he's basically the founder of animal rights. He wrote the book called, Animal Liberation. Some consider it the modern treaties on animal welfare. I was quite intimidated by the idea of meeting with him. I say, "I'll meet with him. He's the enemy. He's smart. Let's see what I can learn from him." I'm being open. I read his book, I can't say that I agreed with it. I'm not a vegan, I'm not turning vegan soon. But I was open to meeting with him.

Peter Singer, along with Henry Spira, who headed up Animal Rights International, he couldn't have two opposing views of life. McDonald's probably buys more meat than anybody in food service. I liked him a lot. They're really smart, they're funny, they listen, they had great conversation. They actually gave me good ideas on how to start an animal welfare program. They pointed me towards Dr. Temple Grandin. Probably one of the greatest things we ever did was working with her. We could talk about her if you'd like, in a second. Again, if you're open, you respect the other side, and you're open to the possibilities, I say 9 times out of 10, you end up in a better situation.

Jan: Tell us more about working with Temple Grandin.

Bob: For the audience that doesn't know Dr. Temple Grandin, she is a very well-known animal scientist. When I first met her back in the late 90's, I hadn't heard about her back then, I quickly learned that she's like a legend. Over the last 20 years, she's only solidified her position. She's a very special human being. She's probably the most passionate person I've ever seen work on an issue, like animal welfare. But yet, she respects the people in the meat industry. She's autistic, so she's quite a spokesperson for autism. I traveled a lot with her and work with her. I see the power of one person, one woman, how she could, through her positive energy, influence McDonald's. My job was to match her up with our suppliers and implement her animal welfare audit system. She could think and act like an animal could. She would go to these animal facilities, I go with her, she would get on all fours, she kind of knew how they moved and behaved.

I remember on our first trip together at a slaughterhouse, I'd never been to one before. All the animals were being zapped with these electric prods in the eye. It sounds barbaric. For me, I'm a layman, I'm not a scientist. All the people that were handling the animals had these electric prods and they're zapping them left and right, left and right. Temple's jumping up and down, "You can't do this. There's better ways to handle the animals. We can use flags, we can use their natural behavior, we can design the crowds better, etc." She was a force of one, that with her own will and her own passion, she was able to change animal welfare and make it a really important part of our meat suppliers, beyond McDonald's. We did this work together for five or seven years. Fantastic person.

Again, that's just an example of bringing in people into your business that maybe wouldn't otherwise bring in. You give them the keys, you open the doors, you're open to changes. There's so many changes that you can make in a business that are good for society, and actually either are breaking even or they're better for the company as well. That's what I became passionate about, this intersection of doing good for society, and you could actually grow the business. We started our conversation with being reactive or trying to stay out of trouble. What I learned over the years is that doing this good work, it only makes you stronger, more resilient, a better brand, you can save money sometimes. Your customers appreciate it, they come in the door more often. I made a business case for working with critics, working with society, is strong for business.

Laura: What advice do you have for people who struggle with going into defense mode immediately when they're meeting with a critic?

Bob: Prepare. Prepare for the idea that you're not there necessarily to agree. Then all of a sudden, the walls come down. If you don't have to have that pressure of agreeing, just listen. Listen, listen. I would say the listening skill is the number one. The number two would be start out with a big reservoir of respect of the other person's position. You do not have to agree with it, you don't have to buy into it. But why not listen to it? Dig in, learn where they come from. They might have the same attitude about yourself. Wouldn't you want to be treated that way as well, that you want to be heard, you want to be listened to?

Jan: I'm wondering how you changed as a person in these years that you worked for McDonald's as Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability?

Bob: That's a deep question there.

Jan: Yeah, that's why I ask it.

Bob: I would hope the answer would be, I always saw the good side of most things. Some of my critics, both within the company or my friends would say, "You're too Pollyanna-ish sometimes. Too rah-rah." But that's just the way I was, especially over time. I just saw so much success by being hopeful, optimistic, and seeing the good in others, that I was a big proponent of that. A lot of my teams, sometimes, would get frustrated. Doing this work is sometimes, you take two steps backwards, you take three steps forward. There is back and forth, in terms of progress.

I guess I learned to have these three qualities that actually go back to Temple Grandin. When I worked with Temple, she had these qualities of passion, persistence, and patience. I think that's what I began to think of myself, to be good at what I did in my job and as a human being, you need to balance all three of those things. When you think of each one of those attributes, they're almost counter to the other one. You want to be passionate, but you want to be patient. But then you got to be persistent and move the needle all the time. I think I did a pretty good job of trying to balance that all out, as things can be schizophrenic at times. I think that's what you need to make a difference in the world.

Laura: People really admire that you never really cared whether or not you got recognition or credit for your work. You just worked on doing the right thing. How did that develop in you?

Bob: I always viewed myself as apolitical, that's really important to me. In today's world, where everything's polarized and people are taking sides, I often wonder why that is. You can't find a person more passionate about different issues, but I don't want to label. I don't want to label people. I don't want to label them, what party they're from, what your beliefs are. But hey, let's talk about an issue. I always wanted to do what I thought was best. It can be complicated, sometimes, to weigh what the best is for the company and what's best for society. I try to be objective about that. I wasn't out, necessarily, to make friends. In order to get things done, you did have to be somebody that you want to be with, I want people to enjoy working with me. There's a balance of being an advocate for what you thought the right thing to do was. But sometimes I had to butt heads against the very people that I considered friends, both internal to the company and external. I think those people respected that I took that stand and it didn't take away from our relationship.

Jan: What do you think was your toughest challenge? And also, what was your proudest accomplishment when working with McDonald's?

Bob: I think my toughest challenge was when there was an issue with the workers that picked tomatoes for McDonald's, it was called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers down in southern Florida. They developed a campaign against McDonald's, they had to get paid a penny a pound more for a bushel that they would pick. I went down there, I saw how they worked, I did what they did, I saw how they lived, I saw how little they got paid. I came back convinced that some way, somehow, McDonald's should figure out a way to pay these workers more. Not directly because McDonald's is not the supplier, but through our suppliers, be able to do that.

We just had so much resistance from our suppliers and our supply chain management. I just remember I was the only person in the room saying, "No, let's not do this." Quite often, we went around the room with 15 people and I'd be the one saying, "No, let's pay them more." Everybody else said, "It's a slippery slope. We can't be opening our door to all these critics and it's our supplier’s business to pay the workers," which is all true. I ended up going against the head of supply chain who gave a recommendation to our CEO. I didn't like his recommendations, so I came up with a different one and the CEO ended up approving that. That caused some discord. Long story short, that was a very difficult process for me.

It ends up that that person that I butted heads against became a best friend four years later. We kind of came back together because he became a big sustainability fan within the McDonald's system

You had a second half to your question, didn't you?

Jan: What is your proudest accomplishment?

Bob: At a macro level, it's making transformative change. I think I already told you the three things I'm most proud of. The reason I'm proud of helping the Amazon stay the Amazon, getting animal welfare in the network of suppliers, reducing waste within McDonald's. Those are probably my three biggest things, they were transformative. The whole industry changed packaging, the whole industry adopted animal welfare systems. The Greenpeace effort involved saving the Amazon, they're very holistic. When you can work on something that transformative, it is extraordinarily enriching. It just makes you feel so good.

Laura: There are a lot of people who don't think highly of McDonald's and who don't understand the good efforts you guys are putting towards sustainability and animal welfare and a lot of other really important areas. How have you dealt with issues that McDonald's has been wrongly blamed for that you know they're doing right?

Bob: I've always tried to be open and honest. That's what I do in my book, The Battle to Do Good. I recognize the criticism that we have. There are many things about the journey that I didn't like about what we did. It's a very honest portrayal. Sometimes we were very slow to adopt changes. At the end, I really think more people need to be more open-minded about efforts within corporations, not just McDonald's. We're not all evil. What ends up on the front pages of the newspapers are the failures, for sure. Companies go wrong, there's a lack of ethics, and companies make mistakes. We see it every day around us.

My goodness, did I have my fair share. When I introduced my book, the very first book fair I went to, the woman who came up to me, the first woman ever to come up to me. She looked at my book title, she looked at me, she was stern, she turned evil. She says, "McDonald's sustainability? No way." She walked away full of anger before I could even say a word. I know what you're talking about, it frustrates me. It's like, "Why can't you be open to understanding what companies do? No company is perfect."

I really think companies need to do a better job of sharing these stories, but they're afraid to. Even at my time with McDonald's, you start tooting your own horn. I mean, you're not perfect. They'll cut you somewhere else. They'll criticize you, "You're opening up Pandora's Box." A lot of companies really don't talk about the good things they do.

I think the whole movement of sustainability within corporations is probably the biggest movement in the last 20 years. Almost every Fortune 500 company has a corporate sustainability staff. They have officers, they have reports, they have goals, they have measures, they have accountability. I bet your audience listening to this is saying, "What? They really do? I never hear about all that stuff." Well, they do. They don't talk about it because they get beat up all the time. It doesn't really fit into the marketing communications plans for most companies. I think it's an area of great opportunity.

If there's a company that knows consumers better than any company, I think McDonald's because everybody goes to McDonald's. We study the consumer extensively. We had a hard time finding consumers that didn't care about the environment, didn't care about animal treatment. They care. They expect companies to do good and they're willing to do business with companies that do good.

Jan: What lessons do you think other companies can learn from the way McDonald's has handled its challenges?

Bob: Number one, be proactive, to be strategic. If you're not looking at, I say sustainability in quotes and your effects on society, if you don't look at that as a business opportunity, you're in the wrong camp. You need to look at it as an opportunity to grow the business. You need to develop a strategy. Get on your front foot, don't be defensive. Secondly, you need to open your doors. By definition, if you're going to work with society, you need to bring them in. Bring in the critics, especially the critics that want to help you out. Work together, be open to change. That would be my two pieces of advice. Get strategic, open your doors.

Laura: Bob, as you know, our show is called Nobody Told Me! At the end of each episode, we always ask our guests, “What is your nobody told me lesson?” What is it that you wish someone had told you about getting along with your adversaries or maybe getting past preconceived notions that you wish that they had at the beginning of your career?

Bob: I wish there was the whole discipline on jobs of corporate social responsibility when I came out of college, I came out of college in 1978. The idea that you could actually do good in a job, through your core business, there wasn't such a thing. I wish somebody had told me that this would become a profession. Today, there's sustainability degrees, almost in every big school out there in the world. People are coming out of school trained on sustainability. These are opportunities that I didn't have that young people today have.

I wish somebody had told me much earlier on, and maybe quicker and faster, that by working with your critics, instead of giving them the stiff arm, the more you invite them in early on, this is why I say, don't get to the crisis mode. I think that's the one fault that businesses have, they wait until everything becomes a crisis. It's in the news, the lawyers are involved, politicians are involved. I would have to say, you're a little bit too late then. Then you're going to do things that are either wishy-washy, they're not meaningful, or they're too costly. Do things early on when you know things are starting to percolate. Work with the critics when you have the time and science on your side. You can do things that are reasonable for your business and they're good for society at the same time.

Jan: Bob, how can people connect with you on social media and the internet?

Bob: I'm active on LinkedIn, @BobLangert. Same with Twitter. My website is boblangert.com. You can leave me a note there. Let's help change the world. One of the best things a consumer can do, is to do business with those that are making a difference.

Laura: This has just been a fascinating interview. We really want to thank you for all of the wisdom that you imparted. Honestly, your TED Talk is one of the best I've seen, we really highly recommend that.

Bob: That's nice of you to say that.

Laura: I think it's fabulous.

Jan: I think Laura has seen every TED Talk.

Laura: I was going to say. I'm a pretty active subscriber on their YouTube channel. Our thanks to Bob Langert, whose book is called, The Battle to Do Good: Inside McDonald’s Sustainability Journey. Again, you have to check out his TED Talk. His website is boblangert.com.

Jan: I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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