Our blog posts to date have covered individuals who own their own company or work at the highest levels. This interview is one of our favorite stories as it originates with someone who might best be described as “aspiring to the C-Suite.” Jed is a terrific example of what one orchestra conductor calls “leading from any chair.”
More broadly, this story illustrates the role middle management can play in successfully weaving sustainability into the fabric of modern businesses. While there are many excellent examples of charismatic, iconic leaders who bleed green and lead from the front, they remain a minority (albeit a growing minority) across the business landscape today.
So if sustainability is to become the norm, leaders must emerge from within, not just from above. These new, mid-tier leaders must have a deep seated vision, dogged patience, and an extraordinary ability to work through and with others. In the particular case of Cabot Creamery, this approach shows terrific promise for evolving the historic dairy farmer cooperative into a sustainability-driven enterprise poised for future success.
From Director of Marketing to Director of Sustainability
In 2007, Jed Davis was Director of Marketing for Cabot Creamery Cooperative, best known as makers of “The World’s Best Cheddar.” Cabot, which dates back to 1919, is owned cooperatively by 1,200 dairy farm families in New England and upstate New York.
That summer, David Hill, Cabot’s SVP Sales, had returned from a sales call where he was asked, “What is your Sustainability Program?” This sounded very different from the oft-asked, “Are you sustainable?” Cabot routinely interpreted the latter as an opportunity to discuss the many benefits of cooperatives, including working landscape, strong rural communities and providing award-winning dairy products.
Roberta MacDonald, Cabot’s SVP Marketing, tasked Jed with developing a Sustainability Program. Jed brought some perspective as Cabot’s longtime liaison to organizations such as Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, but this presented an exciting, new learning curve. Roberta and senior staff endorsed seeking outside counsel as well and Cabot turned to Mark McElroy from the Vermont-based Center for Sustainable Organizations for guidance.
Work on fully developing a Cabot Sustainability Program continued. By February of 2008, Jed went to Roberta to let her know he was spending 50-75% of his time on sustainability issues. By March, it was 100%. In early April, Roberta brought the situation to Rich Stammer, Cabot’s CEO. He approved of creating a new, full-time position called Director of Sustainability. Roberta supported Jed taking the role, but all agreed it meant Jed needed to leave Marketing, feeling that sustainability and “spin” needed to be comfortably separated.
Jed took a long view of his work. He had in mind a five-year plan to make Cabot a sustainability leader. Importantly, he knew he could not do it alone, nor could he become the “sustainability police.” So he began to make the case internally, listen to the naysayers, create quantitative and qualitative measures, and developing a support network for himself that both informed and inspired.
Make the case internally
It seemed to Jed that Cabot’s business approach, on a day-to-day basis, was quite consistent with the principles of sustainability, perhaps in large part due to its cooperative heritage. Still, the concept of Sustainability was not well-understood within the organization and was new to the radar screens of the CEO and the senior management team. As a result, what Jed had in a title, he lacked in specific direction and commitment. Jed needed to build support.
One of the key, original allies ended up being the farmers themselves, in the form of the cooperative’s Board of Directors. Each voting member of the cooperative’s board is a farmer himself or herself. Collectively they voted to support and fund a project with the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences to create a sustainability scorecard for use on dairy farms.
What the board articulated very well was that they felt underserved to engage in conversation with their key stakeholders – from neighbors to local and regional officials and beyond. Intuitively they understood that in many ways, farmers are the original leaders in stewardship, but they lacked the vocabulary of Sustainability to have that conversation effectively.
They also recognized that to have a fruitful conversation about Sustainability, they needed to have measurements that spoke to their economic and social impacts, as well as their environmental impacts. Since farming is an occupation for less than 2% of the population, the farmers on the board were seeking a way to thoughtfully answer a question they were hearing more and more often: “Why is your dairy farm important to our community?”
Jed began working closely with Manomet in crafting a scorecard, based largely on prior work Manomet had done in the forestry industry. Very shortly it became obvious that this project had implications far beyond just Cabot and, in fact, on the scale of the entire dairy industry.
A year into the scorecard project – now called the Vital Capital Index for Dairy Agriculture – the leading, national dairy industry trade group, Dairy Management Inc., agreed to take on and fund the project while continuing to work closely with Cabot, especially on beta-testing the concept with farmers. Elevating the project to a national standard reflected positively on Cabot’s pioneering work, while also advancing national efforts towards a more sustainable dairy industry.
Listen to the naysayers
At the same time, Jed knew he had to engage the senior management team. Rich Stammer, Cabot’s CEO, was thoughtful about Sustainability but was looking for proof. Rich is an extremely intelligent leader, but hardly one who would be confused for one of the more iconic, green leaders. Cabot’s CFO, Ed Townley, admitted that at the time, he thought sustainability “was a crock.” Jim Pratt and Ed Pcolar, SVP and VP of Operations, respectively, were focused squarely on the financial bottom line; much less on the social, economic or environmental bottom lines. Jed began to work with each of these key allies.
At a pivotal meeting with senior staff, Jed and Mark McElroy were presenting the nuts and bolts of proposed Cabot sustainability metrics using context-based sustainability. CEO Rich Stammer, whose doctoral degree is in agricultural economics, challenged an assumption about using per capita as an allocation method. As the meeting broke, Jed’s heart sunk, only to rebound moments later as Rich came back into the room, clearly thinking deeply about the problem. He asked Mark and Jed to rework the calculations to provide allocation, instead, by some measure of added value. The resulting approach – a denominator that reflects contributions to economic value – was later dubbed The DeStamminator and has become a hallmark of Cabot’s efforts to advance context-based sustainability.
Create quantitative and qualitative measures
Jed also worked closely with Ed Townley, the CFO, to make sure that the sustainability metrics under development properly incorporated financial realities of the business. Ed himself proactively sought confirmation externally by asking key retail customers, “What are you doing with respect to sustainability? Do you have expectations of your suppliers?” Their answers led him to understand that sustainability was much more of a priority in our supply chain than he previously imagined.
In terms of organizational structure, Jed’s position was embedded in the Operations Team, reporting to Jim Pratt, SVP Operations. Here Jed’s focus turned to engaging key members of the Operations Team. Initially, Jed arranged meetings with key managers and supervisors and “interviewed” them as if for a story about Cabot and its sustainability practices for a fictitious magazine, Sustainable Dairy. The results were amazing. Stories emerged that revealed true pockets of innovation within the organization at one extreme, and at the other extreme, as Jed noted, “I felt like maybe I was speaking Italian” based on the glassed-over expressions that met him.
From this exercise, Jed had a better idea of who was ready to go, as well as who needed help starting the engine. For those in motion already, the focus turned to sharing best practices across the company. Amazingly, it proved over time that others, once their “engines” were fired up, have become among the most progressive managers in terms of piloting sustainability efforts.
With tremendous support from Ed Pcolar, VP Operations, a creamery Green Team was created. This inter-disciplinary, cross-functional team was set up to meet monthly and identify projects that fell within the realm of sustainability in Operations.
Environmental bottom line topics like solid waste and energy quickly emerged from within the group and soon projects in both areas were yielding bottom-line results to the tune of six-figures. Senior management took note, even highlighting some of the efforts at that year’s annual meeting of the cooperative, so that the farmers could hear the progress. The Green Team became emboldened by its own success. Importantly, Jed doesn’t lead the Green Team but serves only as an advisor/cheerleader. The team is led by one of its members.
Jed used these allies to build the case within Cabot that there was an extraordinary opportunity to adapt the way Cabot does business – to use Sustainability as a lens through which any and every employee can review their work and impacts and from that observation, choose a path of continuous improvement. Properly executed, this approach yields something for everyone, from employee satisfaction, to bottom line gains, to environmental impact reductions.
Create a support network
At the same time as Jed built unlikely allies, listened to the naysayers, and used independent quantitative and qualitative measurements to make his case, he developed a support network that sustained him and leveraged the work of Cabot.
Two key groups emerged
The first was a yearlong fellowship through the Sustainability Institute called the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellowship Program. Jed was chosen as one of 20 fellows from across the globe who met in person four times over the year for one week apiece. The program, based on the work of former Dartmouth professor Dana Meadows, co-author of the seminal Limits to Growth in 1972, focused on visioning, reflective conversation, and thinking in systems. Cabot supported Jed in this fellowship, an experience that had a monumental impact on his development as a sustainability change agent.
Jed also sought to network with other sustainability officers. A casual network, nominally called the Northeast Dairy Sustainability Collaborative, was created with Cabot and Jed’s counterparts from Ben & Jerry’s and Stonyfield. It was a unique opportunity to have three dairy brands with different product categories (cheese, ice cream, and yogurt) but similar sustainability aspirations and social intentions work together. The Sustainable Food Lab, an organization to which all three belong, facilitates two to three meetings a year for the group.
Leadership without authority
What I found powerful about Jed’s story is how he is exerting leadership without being in charge. Rather, he is imbuing in others a desire to change the way Cabot does business– by educating, showing competitive data, driving internal statistics, and holding up a mirror to the organization. Some individuals at Cabot are driven by the cost or competitive advantages. Many have also been influenced by the sense of doing the right thing. Jed would say the instinct to do the right thing has always been a deep-seated value of Cabot: a sort of Cabot karma.
Because of this, what Jed brings to Cabot is a natural fit. That being said, here is one guy with a lot of ideas, some eloquent language, and a healthy measure of elbow grease that has made a tremendous difference. One can truly lead from any chair.
 The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, September, 2000.
9 October 2012 – Ellen Meyer Shorb