Leading For Good

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

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

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
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