Novelist, Sustainability Expert and Executive Director of the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value, Roger Saillant
Roger Saillant has recently been appointed to the newly created position of Executive Director of The Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at Case Western Reserve University. Previously, he served in senior executive positions at The Ford Motor Company, Visteon Corporation, and, most recently, Plug Power where he was the CEO for more than seven years. In each of those positions, his behavior could be characterized as both challenging others to learn and grow while delivering strong results to the bottom line and the community. He is deeply committed to promoting improvements in the way businesses are agents of change in the world both socially and environmentally. He has led organizations as large as 10,000 people and has been responsible for operations in 19 countries. He presently serves on several NGO boards and the boards of two start-up companies in the energy field and teaches climate change at the Marlboro Graduate School in Brattleboro, Vermont. He is a strong advocate for sustainability and speaks frequently on various environmental topics. He co-authored his first novel, Vapor Trails, in 2009 (available on Amazon.com).
What a pleasure it was to meet and to talk to Roger Saillant. It would have been easy for me to talk to him for hours. He brought such new insight and possibility into my week and I trust that he will bring the same to you!
DR: Tell me about the journey that has brought you to where you are today and the kind of work that you are doing.
RS: I believe that everything that has happened to me is perfect with regard to delivering me to this point.
I have been very lucky to have had some hardships that, while they may not compare to the worst hardships you can have, they were pretty tough. They prepared me that you are more likely to be successful by being optimistic and by being engaging and by being truthful, then you are at being some of the other choices that you could make. I learned that lesson early on and it has really served me well in business.
I operate my businesses - my business involvements - with the idea that to the best of my ability, I would tell the truth and with the belief that people want to grow, to learn and to develop. I believe that people want to be part of a community and that they want to belong to, something that is greater than they are. Those beliefs led to the organizations that I was involved with performing exceptionally well. I was able to therefore distinguish myself because of the way people responded to that. In a way you could say that I got carried on their shoulders. That allowed me to have more influence.
Where I am today is that I am still trying to catalyze the best in people. Right now I have an opportunity to help people think more clearly about themselves in relationship to the entire biosphere. I think that is important and timely work. I hope that my personal philosophy, the one that has gotten me this far, will help me to help others get further and go beyond.
DR: I wish that there was more of you and your philosophy in "the workplace" especially in the corporate arena where the environment can seem so hostile. It would be great if more people were treated in ways that encouraged them to do their best.
What do you think about the current climate in corporate America?
RS: When people feel more and more threatened or more and more challenged in some way, they cling more desperately to that which they think got them to where they are. So the frantic-ness that we see in business often translates into "they just try harder" and in doing so they dig themselves into a deeper trench. Part of what we see is this need to keep trying harder and harder and harder...
I had a friend who died when he was 49 years old of stomach cancer. His name was Jeff Quick. He was a very good engineer at Ford Motor Company. His doctor called me one morning and said to me that I needed to get down and see Jeff and tell him that it is okay to die because he felt that Jeff was driven to stay alive for me.
I went down to his hospital room, and when I went into his room, as an engineer, he was adjusting his oxygen, he was adjusting his stomach pump and he was adjusting his delivery of morphine. He was the perfect engineer and you can imagine him as this animal on this little piece of land where the water is rising and rising and rising and he is constantly trying to find the only dry spot. I looked at him and said:
"Jeff, it's okay."
He looked at me and at that point he quit adjusting the dials and just faded away. He died within seven minutes.
My point is that I think that corporations are a lot like that. They are trying all of the things that they know to control and yet there are forces at work that are threatening them and they don't know how to step out of making the adjustments that have always worked in the past, in order to confront these sort of changing circumstances.
Right now we have ten percent unemployment in the United States, depending on where you are. We could get full employment if everybody started having a thirty hour work week. Europe has adopted that stance and why not? What keeps people from seeing that the quality of our individual lives would improve if we had more time with our families, if we had more time to work in our communities, if we had more time to reflect rather than trying to figure out how to have more time to work? Businesses are operating inside of this paradigm - that there is such a thing as a forty hour work week...
DR: Are you also talking about the fact that if people worked a thirty hour work week than there would be work for more people?
The globe-trotting story of an oil company senior executive named Mason Burnside who can no longer reconcile his financial success with the wake of destruction he's left behind. Like a jumbo jet flying overhead that leaves a contrail we, too, leave consequences in our wake as we travel the world, sometimes without knowing it. And whether those consequences turn out to be helpful or ultimately disastrous depends upon the wisdom of the choices we make along the way.
RS: Well, exactly.
If we suddenly went from a forty hour work week to a thirty hour work week, there would still be something like forty hours of work available. So, for every four people who are no longer working a full forty hour work week, you would have enough work for a fifth to be employed. If we were to think like that and begin to operate like that, sure the economist wouldn't like it because it would affect another paradigm that has to do with efficiency and productivity, but we are ignoring how inefficient our lives are and how unproductive our lives are when we are overworked.
I am talking about the way we define what work is and what the purpose of work is in the first place. We need to step back as a culture and take a look at those paradigms. I don't look at corporations as evil. I look at the frantic behavior as desperately holding on to certain kinds of paradigms that we are unwilling to challenge.
DR: Plus, if I could just add the point that I think that people's lives are better when other people's lives are better. I am better off if my neighbor is doing better. If my friends are doing well then that comes back to me in the form of more happiness and more satisfaction. I think that is a big part of this whole thing too.
RS: Healthy community begets healthy people. Unhealthy community begets unhealthy people.
DR: For sure.
You mentioned that you have gone through some hardships. I happen to think that going through hardships causes or allows for a certain amount of insight and compassion that we may not otherwise be able to access. Would you mind sharing one of the hardships that you have endured?
RS: First I would just like to say that some people that go through hardships end up in prisons...
DR: Well that is true...
RS: It is a process. To make steel strong and tougher and better you take it to a temperature where it is almost melting and then you bring it down slowly. That is the kind of thing you are talking about when you are referring to hardships that work. When you can take it to that point, without transforming it to another state entirely, you end up with something better.
I'd say probably the single most defining statement of hardship was being raised in different foster homes and being deprived of a childhood. I saw a lot of unsuccessful behavior - people with chips on their shoulders, people who did criminal things and ending up in jail – and I was lucky.
When I was four I was judged as having a very low IQ so they put me in a farm home where I could learn how to curry horses and clean stables and things like that, and maybe somewhere in the pyramid (toward the bottom end), I could have a productive life within that kind of domain. The selection criteria for that particular foster home was based upon what people thought were my prospects which were pretty brutal. I was described at three and half, according to my records, as being "dull, unappealing and lacking in intelligence".
DR: Hmm...and why do you think you survived all of that to end up where you are as opposed to someone who demonstrates "unsuccessful behavior"?
RS: A lot of work. I had to work. I started with real meaningful farm chores. The parents that I had at that time were in their sixties. There were other foster children from time to time and we worked. They got money for having us and we worked. The work established a routine in my head. When you are a kid, instead of playing softball in the summer or going to a swimming place or going on vacation...I can remember just looking at the size of a cornfield and knowing that I was going to be working with my foster father and my foster brother and we were going to hoe every row of corn. That was pretty daunting but there is a rhythm to hoeing and so that work, you go into your mind and I think it allowed me to heal.
I was very lucky after first grade because back then they used to have a thing for the children that they considered "retarded". They put us in a part of the classroom (I went to one room school houses until I was in sixth grade) and somehow or other I was able, in a fairly short period of time, to excel.
So the aid society took me out and tested me again. Something happened when they tested me. Here I am at about seven years old and the aid worker came to my mother, Mrs. McClellan, and said:
"Roger is definitely college timber."
I had no idea what college or "timber" was but I decided that I was going to find out what this college thing was and I was going to go. So education and reading and all of that became really important to me. I mixed it in with my work routine.
DR: That is fascinating. I did not expect for that to be your answer.
RS: Well what did you expect my answer to be?
DR: I don't know but not that, especially the part about the hoeing and how that provided you with healing and freedom.
RS: It was hard work and it was away from recreation and fun and I had all of this anger inside of me because all of these other kids got to do these other things...
I don't want you to think that I was some sort of little knight. I would come to school after my summer and the teacher would say:
"We are going to talk about what we did for the summer."
I had to make up a story and so I learned to tell stories so that my stories would sound as interesting as the kids who went to Yellowstone Park or the Jersey Shore or fishing trips at the lake.
DR: What is the thing that fascinates you the most about your life right now?
RS: When I am doing the right thing I feel like an instrument that is resonating and that harmony makes me feel good and so I have really learned how to tune into my internal gyroscope and align it in a way that I can stay on that note so that my work resonates with me and gives me health and gives me happiness and gives me a feeling of joy. So, what about that? Usually its about trying to think about the world in a hundred and fifty years and at the same time practice in a world that is a hundred and fifty years away from that, in such a way that that north star begins to capture the imagination of others. It's like building cathedrals...
When you think about the middle ages when people built cathedrals, when they laid the foundation, for the most part, they knew that they were not going to live to see the completed cathedral but they knew that laying those blocks, those stones as carefully as possible was necessary if in fact there was going to be a cathedral at the end. They were devoted to that. Maybe they did that because they were related to God. I just relate it to being the right thing to do.
DR: Do you consider yourself to be a courageous person?
RS: I would have to think about that for a second. Courageous? That sounds like somebody who is willing to walk across a lawn while somebody else is shooting at them. I don't think I am that. I don't feel particularly courageous. I am committed. How about that? That's a "C" Word.
DR: So is Conformist and you seem to me to be a non- conformist in a world where conforming is rewarded.
RS: Well I am definitely a non-conformist. I do what I do. I have met and had conversations with a couple of Presidents and Senators and people like that. One of the things that people say to me is:
"You do that as though you are not in awe and as though you are not nervous."
I just do it because I feel like I am in touch with myself enough to know that –
So what if that person has a big title? It is difficult for me to really be in awe of someone therefore, it is difficult for me to think that certain things take courage.
In some instances I may appear to conform because that is exactly what I want to be doing. In other cases I don't care because it is not the right thing to do. I have many, many instances where I have not done the thing that was expected because it just wasn't the right thing to do.
DR: So you are saying that knowing who you are and being confident in that is the thing that has allowed you to do some of the things that you do and make the differences that you have been able to make and not courage so much?
RS: It's like saying:
"What is the higher truth here?"
If I am resonating on some path, that is what I need to be doing. If there is something on my road, I am not really interested in going around it. I am just going to keep on going forward. To me that is just like a rule.
DR: Where does that come from?
RS: Probably comes from about thirty seven years of therapy.
Don't think I came through my childhood without some stuff that needed serious work!
The aid society where they put me, when I got to be seventeen and they were ready to put me out on my own, they sent me to a psychotherapist. After six or seven sessions he broke them off and said:
"You are a very smart guy and smart enough that you could get all "A's" at Harvard but you have a real need in your life to have a career that is going to give you a lot of money because you are going to need a lot of therapy".
Lo and behold, he was right.
DR: What are you most proud of?
RS: The first self actualization of everything that I believed in coming together, happened in Mexico between 1985 and 1989. If I were to say when I came of age, it was about exactly then.
DR: What happened then?
RS: Without having ever been in a manufacturing plant, without ever having understanding about how plants operate and having never lived in a foreign country, I volunteered to go down and start a manufacturing operation for Ford in Chihuahua Chihuahua.
When I was growing up we didn't even have a car or a truck. We did our farming with horses. We were subsistence farming so I had a real appreciation for people without. I could relate. I went to Mexico and I spent about five days talking to the Mexicans with some of my ex-pats before we even broke ground, trying to understand how they felt about Americans and trying to understand better what we felt about Mexicans. What could we build together that would be greater than what anybody could expect? What were their deepest and fondest dreams? What did they want this plant to be?
I left in about three years when we had about 4,000 people working for us. It was a highly productive plant that was set up to educate people with a sixth grade education so that they could get a college degree. It had the best quality of the products we put out inside the Ford system. It was being copied by people from all over. Ford expected the plant to be unionized. It was not because, when I met with the union leader he said
"Why would I unionize your plant? Your plant is what I want all of the other plants to become".
We built a culture that was spectacular! People could see their vision in that culture. They could see moving to local control and management and, on and on and on.
So, if I were to identify a distinguishing moment for me that gave me the confidence to practice that kind of thing up until now it would be that. That was a chance to take people who had been ignored, down trodden, beaten, displaced, disadvantaged and otherwise discounted as human beings, and give them an opportunity to get systems in place so that they could self-actualize. They all knew that they would not become rich but they knew that they could become healthy and it resonated with them and it was really powerful.
Economists did a case study on that plant ten fifteen years ago - about what had happened there. That plant was nominated, after the first year opening, for a President's Award for which you have to be in existence for five years. Only one plant in the entire country gets to win that. The first year we were nominated and we won.
DR: You have a sense of peace that comes with your purpose. I am a ranter. I rant so I appreciate the way that you are just actively making tangible differences instead of just screaming and complaining about the way things are. I admire that.
RS: Thank you. Thank you for being interested.
DR: You're welcome.
A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
RS: I don't expect to be remembered at all. I don't have to be remembered tomorrow.
My ideal is that the people who practice whatever they do, would be practicing closer to a very rewarding, good and healthy path, than they would have otherwise been practicing. And they don't need attribution. That doesn't figure for me. I think that egos and time constants are very insidious and poisonous and a big part of the problem.
We are taught to get credit for all that we do. The fact is that there is almost nothing that we do that isn't because of something that somebody else did in front of us. It's like hoeing the row of corn. You could not have hoed that row of corn if it hadn't been planted, and you could not have planted it unless someone had prepared the land...
The Fowler Center for Sustainable Value
The Fowler Center For Sustainable Value advances extraordinary business innovation and social entrepreneurship by discovering how the social and global issues of our day can become bona-fide business opportunities. The Fowler Center practices, researches, and teaches whole-system design methods for advancing the 'how-to' of sustainability and works with businesses, organizations, industries, and economic regions to discover the power and promise of sustainability as an innovation engine for doing good and doing well.
The Fowler Center is led by:
Executive Director Roger Saillant, PhD
Faculty Director David Cooperrider, PhD
Faculty Adviser Ron Fry, PhD
Consultant Chris Laszlo, PhD, of Sustainable Value Partners