Gregory Unruh: An interview by Bob Morris

Unruh, GregoryGregory Unruh is a thought leader dedicated to sustainability innovation for business and the world. An Associate Professor of Sustainability at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, he is a noted writer, speaker and educator in the areas of corporate social responsibility, environmental management and innovation management.

Before Thunderbird, Unruh was the IE Alumni Professor of Corporate Sustainability at the top ranked IE Business School in Madrid. He also served on the faculty of Columbia University through Jeffrey Sach’s Earth Institute and at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, where he was interim director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy. Prior to his academic career, he spent eight years as an environmental consultant in California and northern Mexico.

Unruh is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review including his recent articles The Biosphere Rules, Growing Green: Three Smart Paths to Developing Sustainable Products and Winning in the Green Frenzy. He is the author of two books including the Amazon best-selling Earth, Inc.: Using Nature’s Rules to Build Sustainable Profits and Being Global: How to Think, Act, and Lead in a Transformed World, a work co-authored with Ángel Cabrera, president of Thunderbird, and endorsed by President Bill Clinton.

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Morris: Who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Unruh: Bill Pete. I read his book Wump World (similar vein to the Lorax) when I was in 3rd grade and became motivated to solve the sustainability question.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Unruh: I have both a hard science background and post graduate studies in the social sciences. All the perspectives are critical if you are going to understand and address global issues.

Morris: Please share your thoughts about this observation by Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Unruh: Actually, run away from those that think they have found it. Science is about constantly questioning existing dogmas. Nothing ever is finally proven, everything is a working hypothesis subject to revision in light of new information or ideas.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: [begin italics] organizational judgment [end italics]. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s directs control.” What do you think?

Unruh: That is a premise of my work training management professions. All professions are about judgment. You learn multiple disciplinary perspectives, all of which inform you deliberations, but none of which can give the final answer. All professionals, doctors, lawyers and managers, have to triangulate among the different views of a problem and develop a solution that is most likely to achieve the hoped for outcomes.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Being Global. When and why did you and Ángel decide to write it in collaboration?

Unruh: We had been meeting and working with a really unique set of people through events like the World Economic Forum and the UN Global Compact and began to see patterns emerge that lead us to believe that people successful in a global context share similar characteristics. They were also inspiring.

Take for example Paul Meyer, co-founder of the mobile health services company Voxiva. While born in New York, Meyer grew up in California, Tunisia, Egypt, and Washington as he followed his mother who ran World Bank relief programs in 50 countries. After college he worked for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and landed a White House job that took him to South Asia, Bangladesh, South Africa, Uganda, and Tunisia. These experiences led him to found a series of organizations that used information technology to foster social and economic development.

People like Paul Meyer were drawn by life experience into being global, but we wondered if that meant only those that are born global can be global? What we learned, however, is that global leaders are not just born, but can be made. Global leaders become who they are by cultivating particular ways of looking at the world, ways of thinking about problems and opportunities and acting with integrity in pursuit of solutions.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Unruh: Angel initially envisioned the book as an edited volume that would bring together our colleagues to create a definitive academic reference on global leadership. However, as we worked with Harvard Business Review Press, we began to rethink the audience. While the fundamental structure of the book stayed the same, it evolved into an approachable guidebook for professionals wanting to develop the skills to succeed in a global world.

Morris: Please explain your lengthy and intense interest in international relations.

Unruh: I actually came to international studies later in life. I was always curious about different countries, but my passion was the earth and environmental sciences. However, as I began working as a consultant with companies opening maquiladora plants in Northern Mexico the ecological realities forced me to become more global in my outlook. The environment doesn’t recognize national borders or cultural & language barriers, so to succeed in tackling global environmental problems you needed to master the skills of international relations. So I quit my job and got on a plane to Europe where I studied international affairs in Spain, France and Germany.

Morris: Who has had the greatest influence on your thinking about international relations? Please explain.

Unruh: I was fortunate to have a great mentor for my doctoral studies, Fletcher School professor William Moomaw. I felt a kindred spirit with him because, like me, he was a scientist by training only in environmental chemistry. He had also been drawn into policy and international relations by the nature of the sustainability problems he was tacking, such as the depletion of stratospheric ozone and climate change. So I learned how to merge science and diplomacy in service of the global environment and greater human wellbeing.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a global leader’s mindset?

Unruh: Global mindset can be defined as the ability to perceive and decode behaviors in multiple cultural contexts. It is a capacity to connect with people from other cultures on an intellectual as well as emotional level. Culture dictates the way we dress, the food we eat, the language we speak, and the stories we tell. Global mindset is thus the capacity to appreciate the differences among cultures and bridge the interfaces between them. Leaders who possess a global mindset are able to view situations from a variety of perspectives, develop trusting relationships with individuals from different contexts, and identify promising routes to successful collaboration.

Morris: Is that a mindset that [begin italics] anyone [end italics] can develop at any level and in any area of an organization’s operations?

Unruh: Developing a global mindset does not come free, however. It is something that has to be actively pursued. While some backgrounds and personality traits can predispose certain lucky people, a global mindset needs to be constantly developed through intentional study, first-hand experience, and assembling networks of friends and contacts in different parts of the world. Doing so fosters an ability to connect with people from different cultural backgrounds, a skill that proves invaluable when pursuing global business opportunities.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of global entrepreneurship?

Unruh: Global leaders become global entrepreneurs by using their global understanding and connections to identify international opportunities and turn them into new value-creating enterprises.

While “entrepreneurship” usually means the creation of a new business, global leaders do more than this. “Intrapreneurial” value creation obviously happens within established companies every day. And global entrepreneurs recognize that it’s not just businesses that create new value. Some of the most exciting initiatives today are coming from the non-profit world.

Morris: In Chapter 3, you and Ángel explain how best to create new value through in three areas. Please explain. First, through divergence

Unruh: global entrepreneurs tap differences among countries in order to access distinct comparative advantages. Many IKEA products, for example, are designed in Sweden but assembled in China using African cotton and Polish plywood. Finally, global entrepreneurs access networks and create value by building platforms that allow global exchange. Hong Kong-based Global Sources, for example, uses a standard trading platform to facilitate value-creating exchange between suppliers in Asia and clients around the world.

Morris: Next, through convergence

Unruh: by tapping into commonalities between markets and cultures. This approach is used by organizations trying to bring a standard brand promise to diverse cultures, like global brands Nike or McDonald’s. In a similar vein, companies like Intel bring broadly applicable technological solutions to diverse communities.

Morris: Finally, through [begin italics] networks of connectivity [end italics]

Unruh: Global entrepreneurs even consider language a shared culture and a platform to build and leverage.

Morris: Please explain what you and Ángel mean by “global citizenship.”

Unruh: More than 2,400 years ago, the philosopher Socrates claimed, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” The idea is an old one, but today’s global leaders recognize that the message is even more relevant. They understand that the prosperity of one individual, one firm or one nation is bound up with the prosperity of others. Where current practice undermines shared prosperity, global leaders work to change it.

Take for example Alan Boeckmann, who as CEO of the construction giant Fluor Corporation, led his industry colleagues at the World Economic Forum to create the Partnering Against Corruption Initiative. PACI is built on the understanding that there is both a demand and supply side in the corruption equation and that business controls the supply. Through industry collaboration, PACI creates anti-corruption cartels to shut off the flow of illicit payments and bribes in order to change the way business is done in corrupt markets.

Global leaders recognize that international companies play a part in shaping values. Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM, describes his company as a “globally integrated enterprise” in which work gravitates to where it can be done best regardless of geographic location. In order to coordinate its global operation, IBM promotes a platform of core values and standards that hold across geographies. A practice that is considered offensive or unacceptable in one location will be banned globally. While they may look globally to drive down costs, global citizens level up when it comes to values. The idea that one’s responsibilities transcend geography or political borders is at the heart of global citizenship.

Global citizens are also moved by a desire to make a positive contribution through their work. Some even pursue a social mission as part of their business. When Voxiva founder Paul Meyer graduated from Yale, his peers saw a trade off. Take a corporate job and make your fortune or join a non-profit and make your contribution. Meyer, whom we met in a previous post, rejected the choice. He didn’t want to have to choose between “McKinsey or the Peace Corps.” He wanted to do both, an impulse that lead to the creation of Voxiva – a for-profit company that delivers interactive mobile health services, which has a social impact.

Morris: What are the greatest barriers to reaching sustainability?

Unruh: Our parochial viewpoints. We think we are “Americans” or ‘Italians” or “Ugandans” or “Bangladeshis” but those are only subjective differences we humans create over our history and reinforce through our socialization processes. We are really “Earthlings” with fates that are tied with every other species on this celestial rock. If people ever get this in their heads, there wont be a sustainability problem.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Being Global and is eager to transform his or her company’s culture into one within which decision-makers develop a global mindset and function as global citizen entrepreneurs. Where to begin?

Unruh: With him or herself. CEOs should take the initial steps we discuss in the book and then, through their example, encourage and empower employees to do the same.

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Greg Unruh cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website:


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