Guest post from Christoph Lueneburger:
Every leader who has ever wondered what kind of difference they could truly make in the world should hear the story of Mark Tercek, a hotshot Goldman Sachs banker who decided to become “a force for good.” Today Mark serves as President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, a non-governmental organization that has more than a million members and works in over 35 countries to protect ecologically important lands and waters.
Mark was always bold. After earning an MBA at Harvard, he saw most of his classmates gravitating to Wall Street and other corporate training grounds. Mark went to Japan. “Going to Japan seemed like a really good idea,” he recalls. “How could it be a bad idea?” He took a job as an English teacher and began serious study of martial arts.
After a time, he found himself traveling back and forth between Japan and New York in the employ of Goldman Sachs. One New York assignment was as head of the transportation practice. “I was going to decline that job; it sounded so boring. My friends were all doing sexier things like technology, communications, or financial services.” But he took the assignment and it worked for him in large part because he saw opportunity where others did not. “I concluded I could be successful by aggressively sharing credit with others on any success I had. And I discovered there was no penalty for sharing credit.” In fact, the rewards were substantial. “We had a tiny transportation team – just a few people. Yet at one point, we had a very big business because we had all these products specialists and regional people wanting to work on our deals.”
When Mark became a Goldman Sachs partner, he considered what might be next for him. “The transportation orange didn’t have much more juice. I was getting bored.” On Thanksgiving 1996, Mark’s bosses asked if he would consider leading the firm’s real estate effort. “I almost fell out of my chair. The opportunity was big: supervise eighty people, a $100 million business, with a much higher profile than transportation. I didn’t even bother asking for advice. I just took it. I was pumped. I was really a leader and would learn more stuff! It was fantastic.”
Mark thrived in the new role. But while he was off with his wife and kids on what he calls “geeky” vacations exploring nature, Mark began to wonder if he had tapped out his trajectory as a banker. A new idea edged into his thought process. “I had an interest in the environment. And I was interested in business being a force for good.” He decided to move in that direction. Assuming he could not pursue this new course at Goldman, Mark prepared to leave. But Hank Paulson, then the CEO of Goldman Sachs (and soon to be US Secretary of the Treasury), had another idea. “He said, ‘Don’t quit. We need leaders like you.’ It was really Hank who had the idea that I lead the firm’s environmental effort. I thought it was kind of a weird idea, but he talked me into it.”
Mark stayed on, developing strategies that made both business and environmental sense – a new concept in the halls of Goldman. “I was fearless, which was the most important ingredient. I had nothing to lose because I was otherwise going to quit. And I realized that my clout in that job came from people remembering I had been a pretty successful commercial guy. It was fun for me, and of course, I got a world-class introduction to the environmental space.”
Mark learned a lot, fast. One day a headhunter called asking if he could suggest any candidates to lead The Nature Conservancy. Mark said: “Yeah. Me.” Not everyone felt the same. Mark heard that while his desire to make a difference was admirable, a banker leading TNC was never going to happen. Clearly, the onus would be on him to win the role. “So I prepared, like you would expect a diligent banker to prepare. I mean, I prepared like crazy.” In the interview, Mark made a compelling case that understanding deals, companies, and markets would be vital to the success of NGOs in the 21st century. It was a long, hard slog to convince TNC. But it was something Mark wanted badly. When the call finally came with the job offer, Mark was so excited, he backed his car into a tree (it lived).
Just months after he joined the Conservancy in 2008, the financial crisis hit. Mark had been through downturns on Wall Street and he applied all that he had learned at TNC. “We were by far the first environmental NGO to move. We became a highly prioritized, more focused, leaner organization. Then we grew. It was tough, but I think it turned out to be a great entry for me because it validated my leadership at a difficult time.”
Mark Tercek’s story offers a lens to help all leaders see their own potential in a new light. Mark had the courage to ask heretical questions and make irreverent choices that sidestepped commonly held assumptions. Just as important, he was insightful, distilling patterns from their complexity across his breadth of experience. Finally, Mark took time to think big, then persevered until he had scaled his big idea into a job fully worthy of his heart as well as his mind.
About the author:In his new book A Culture of Purpose: How to Choose the Right People and Make the Right People Choose You author Christoph Lueneburger tells the stories of great leaders who view sustainability not as a challenge but as a solution, capable of inspiring people and forging winning cultures. Sharing his exclusive, in-depth dialogues with chief sustainability officers, CEOs, and board chairmen, Lueneburger reveals what leaders actually do to make sustainability work at the places where it works best, including Chrysler, Unilever, TNT, Walmart, and Bloomberg.