A Sustainable Leader: Frances Beinecke

In my curriculum, I am constantly asked, “What makes a good leader?” The best answer I’ve heard so far is: “Someone who encourages others to lead.” Frances Beinecke may be the ultimate in this. She is the current president of the Natural Resource Defense Council(NRDC), where she has been working since her first job as an intern in 1973. Her long tenure there is unique, but not really for NRDC where most employees remain for long spans of time because they “are building their careers within a culture led by Frances that gives them the opportunity to keep growing.” Or, in other words, President Beinecke encourages them to take on the issues that are important to them, gather their resources, and lead.

In a conversation with Emily Cousins, a senior writer for NRDC who consulted with Frances Beinecke about my questions, I learned about how Frances practices a consistently high caliber of sustainable management within NRDC. Sustainable management integrates sustainability practices into the operations of an organization to ensure its continued value and service for future generations. At its essence, sustainable management implies that resources are not wasted, people are respected, and operations are done it a way that is both transparent and pride-worthy.

Frances Beinecke currently manages NRDC through a strong vein of sustainability, and has been there for over 30 years. Before becoming president in 2006, she served as the executive director where she helped to double NRDC’s membership and grow the staff to over 400 employees. Prior to this, she was an advocate in the Water & Coastal Program at NRDC where she worked to protect marine ecosystems from offshore oil and gas development and pushed advocacy for sound coastal land use. President Beinecke agreed to answer several questions concerning her work experience as a sustainable manager, and Emily Cousins was kind enough to relay the answers.

Throughout the years, you may have experimented with a variety of management styles at NRDC. Which one has been your favorite or has worked the best for you?

Frances’s approach is the wrap the best experts in the field around her. In doing this, she gives them the respect and freedom to excel in their field and explore their interests. She encourages an entrepreneurial style among her employees and emboldens them to pursue the best opportunities to reach their advocacy goals. NRDC is a large organization, but an underlying message tells employees that if they see an opportunity, go for it, and NRDC will support you. This not only creates an inspiring work environment, it also raises the prominence of the institution to support President Beinecke when she represents the organization to the rest of the world.

Have you ever encountered any obstacles being the leader of a powerful organization as a woman? And do you have any advice for young women who hope to take on executive and director roles within organizations?

Frances is aware that she’s a woman in a largely male dominated milieu. There are not that many woman leaders of environmental organizations, especially in energy policy circles or while doing her rounds in Washington, D.C. She has walked into energy conference and realized that 90% of the attendees were men and 2 percent of the panelists were women. When she represented NRDC in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which is composed of environmental groups and Fortune 500 companies like GE, Alcoa, and Pepsi Co., there were only 3 or 4 women attending each meeting.

The way Frances deals with being a minority is to be an expert on what she speaks on. Her analysis is double-checked and reconfirmed so she has the very best information to present. She can do that because she has the strength of the NRDC institution behind her to give her the most relevant information out there. In this way, she can be an authority on issues that people care about and thereby diffuse any gender issues that may arise.

You have referred to yourself as an “ambassador to the institution from the outside” in getting the word out about what NRDC is doing and when collaborating with other organizations. What is your best strategy so far to get people to take note of environmental issues and getting other people involved? What seems to really stick with people?

The big picture answer is that Frances feels strongly that to get to the solutions we’re seeking it will take a groundswell of support. The way the political landscape is now—polarized, grid-locked—politicians need to hear that people care about the environment and they want the solutions that NRDC is promoting. Frances focuses on connecting the things NRDC is working on with what people already care about.

Environmental advocates have been prone to saying: ‘hey, we’ve got all the facts and this amazing white paper that tells you everything’—but this approach doesn’t really work. Instead, we need to connect what we know about the environment to what people really care about, like health concerns. There are wonderful computer models that can show how climate change is happening, but the effects on people’s health are happening right now, like increased smog and pollution leading to increased asthma(like what Frances’s son-in-law suffers from), respiratory disease, allergies, and cancer.

NRDC tries to focus on concrete examples of climate change impacts and then enlist other messengers to carry that information, like public health officials, doctors, pediatricians, moms like those organized through Moms Rising, and through climate action campaigns with many allies working together to reach audiences where they are and catering to their needs. NRDC tries to go where people are and build community momentum.

Frances is known to say, “climate change is the challenge of our time but environmentalists alone won’t solve it. We need people from all walks of life and society to get involved.” Not just card-carrying environmentalists, but people who care about their children’s health and are tired of seeing their houses disappear in flood over flood, or steel unions who want to construct wind turbines. Communicating across audiences and connecting the dots in a way that people see the connection of climate change to their lives can help everyone work together to move things forward.