In Your Words: Rocky Mountain Institute’s Ned Harvey on Leadership

This post originally published on the BSR Blog [].

Ned Harvey is the chief operating officer and vice president of finance at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), an independent, entrepreneurial, nonprofit think-and-do tank.

What does redefining leadership for sustainability mean to you?

From my perspective, redefining leadership for sustainability is about starting to lead through sustainability instead of managing to sustainability. Leaders who lead through sustainability get truly engaged in the issues to see how their organization can flourish, outcompete, and satisfy customers in ways never envisioned before by using sustainability as a true strategy.

For the most part, sustainability today represents just one of many “management” metrics that business and political leaders report on or set internal objectives around. Working sustainability into the many constraints that bind their decision making and strategic activities can be a challenge.

Who has demonstrated this kind of “leadership through sustainability” to date?

Lee Scott at Walmart is perhaps the best example. Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi and all the folks at Frito Lay’s Net Zero Casa Grande plant also come to mind. I’d also include Walt Rakowski and the leadership team at Prologis, who over the past five years have led the way developing commercial and industrial rooftop solar.

In your opinion, what are the most significant sustainable business trends of the last decade?

Currently I am most excited about the degree to which we are seeing relatively large-scale solar systems (500kw to 10MW) appear on the rooftops of commercial and industrial buildings in the heart of cities across the United States. While this is a new and growing trend with a tenuous future, it is also a bright spot in the journey to a more reliable, secure, and low-carbon electrical system.

I am also excited to see some of the changes in consumer behavior related to cars. A decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined people forgoing their cars for car shares, nor could I imagine a smartphone/web-enabled network of commuters looking to share a ride to the same spot in town. These changes are all thanks to advancements in real-time communication technologies, crowd sourcing, and peer-to-peer networks.

When it comes to promising opportunities for sustainable business now and in the next five years, where are you placing your bets?

At RMI, we do our best to make smart bets. We dive in and aim ourselves in a direction that starts with a wide scope, filled with both known and unknowns, and then narrow the scope as more information is filtered through our analysis.

One area we are exploring is the big opportunity around building and industrial efficiency. The products and technologies are largely in place to make dramatic improvements in building efficiency. The good news is that we’re starting to see the stars align with respect to financing mechanisms and regulatory regimes, so it’s likely an interesting opportunity for new and entrepreneurial business models.

The same is true for both efficiency and renewable generation in the utility space, but the opportunities may be more isolated and will take patience to develop. I’d also look to urban mobility solutions as a very interesting development, since people will always need to get around in cities, but seem increasingly willing to consider alternates to their personal car–especially when these alternatives are more convenient or cost-effective, or may provide a unique social experience.