Managing Director Marina Grossi: Finding Courage to Make Decisions in a Complex Situation

Sometimes, disrupting conventional leadership practices requires a certain amount of creativity in organizational design and strategy. It is not always enough to have the right personality to become a brave leader. Innovation in educational training and public policy can set an organization apart from others.

Formed in 1997, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) pushes for that very type of innovation and network needed for creating a sustainable future in business and government through mobilizing the global business community in creative ways. The WBCSD distinguishes itself through the initiative of its members to drive “Triple Bottom Line” practices in company operations.  BCSD Brazil is part of the WBCSD Global Network and represents 70 major business groups. Margareta Barchan sat down with the Managing Director, Marina Grossi, in Rio de Janeiro. Here is an excerpt from their interview:

Margareta Barchan: How is Brazil doing when it comes to sustainability?

Marina Grossi: The Brazilian economy is in a very bad situation. In spite of this, we have showed some progress on sustainability issues. At COP 21, for instance, we demonstrated ambition in our contribution to reduce the GHG emissions. Traditional leaders are still the main problem. They talk a lot but don’t do much. But we are in a different world, and leaders today have to be different from the past. Sustainability is really important now. You have to do something about it and become an agent of change.

Barchan: How would you describe courageous leadership?

Grossi: You have to believe in something that is already related to part of your life. It is not black and white however. You need to make choices in a very complex situation where there is not one right decision. If what you do is on the right track and there is a real need for what you are doing, people will understand you.

I had a chance to do this. WBCSD built partnerships with the city of Rio and with the municipality for RIO+20. We wanted to show something concrete. Everyone thought I was crazy. They warned me that it would “hurt my image”. Instead of doing what the government wanted, I flipped it by examining what they were doing, and pressuring them to think about what was the right thing to do. I think we have to be part of the solution.

We gathered different CEOs from middle-sized companies concerned with sustainability and asked them: “Can you leverage a network you are part of and we will do all planning. It will be great for the media to get good examples of sustainable business practices.” I took up the idea, but it wasn’t without some obstacles. It was actually a nightmare because there are so many egos and that is the hardest part of my work. Ego made people show something to the government and to their staff before Rio +20 happened, because they wanted to claim recognition for their work preemptively. It was really tough!

We talked to 12 companies and asked them: “What is linked to your core business?” We decided to focus on agricultural cultivation. We discovered so much in this process. Most of the people came from the Hero area and they are used to plantations. This is really familiar to them and they have many animals, chicken, dogs, so it was really connected to their reality. We created some cultivation plots and planted organic crops. We wanted to have something more sustainable. But all they needed was a window because if you don’t have a window you don’t get fresh air. You have to get fresh air to get rid of diseases and for wastewater management. It became a health project instead!

We were not prepared for this and we did not have a good model. It also surprised us. We did a lot of capacity building. We started with the men, as we were told that they have a weak self-esteem. They were expecting the government to take care of them; they had not before perceived their work as valuable. Here it was different, as they had to do things they were not used to.  

A huge legacy came out of this project. It was a form of leadership building. We tried to be very transparent and told everyone what we were up to. The companies also discovered good things that improved their business model. In the case of Votorantim, a cement company, we asked them to build a training course in how to build a house in three months. After completing the course, they would be able to sell their products to the participants. They had a big package, 20 kg of cement. Often the users had to ask someone to help them carry the packages uphill. If it rained, it all washed away and then became very expensive. They realized they should have a package of 5 kg to make it possible for one person to carry it up. Also, when it rains, it does not all go away. It turned out to be good also for the business.

Thanks to the project, the partners and municipality understood that things have to be done in a Carioca (the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro) way of living, but also in a sustainable manner. Because of this, the Mayor of Rio won an award and the Federal Government could see a link to the return due to this project. A lot of this connects to what we were able to do. We are just the intermediaries; it is a win for the whole society.  

Barchan: Has it changed the perception among the member companies regarding what WBCSD can do for them and also about how they envision their roles?

Grossi: Yes I think so, but we have not been able to define a policy that connects companies to each other, to make sustainability a real sector norm. Sometimes they come to us and say that they like it but are not ready yet. Gradually we will see a shift.

Barchan: Can you see a shift in how the companies connect to sustainability now?

Grossi: The big banks came to us to learn more about sustainability. The association of financial institutions was afraid of how the effort would be seen by society. We just finished development in 45 economic sectors, but they need to take the next step. Companies are more confident now than before. We provide more tools and know the specific needs for their operations and they can see the possibilities for their sector. They regard this combination as bullet-proof. It is more about how rather than getting general awareness.

The social impact is the most difficult area, and it goes for the whole of Brazil as it does for other developing countries. It is the developing countries‘ dilemma that they may have rich natural resources but at the same time have very weak social capital, and recurring problems with corruption and inequality.

Sanitation is still perceived as a big problem and we are starting to really mobilize people. Still , sanitation is perceived as a problem that only governments are responsible for tackling but that is not true. It is also the private sector’s responsibility. Often, Brazilians still don’t see how sanitation issues affect their lives if they are not directly impacted. We did some research and found that Brazil was ranked 112 out of 200 countries, in relation to health and educational advancement.

Barchan: Did you use the initiative to start the research about sanitation?

Grossi: Yes I started the research for sanitation and it was on the front page of the newspapers. It was already known but we were able to show the full picture with figures. We wanted to galvanize interest mainly from private companies. We asked ourselves what constituted a viable and sustainable partnership between the health and private sector.

Barchan: Can you give an example?

Grossi: I work both with the CEO and the departments. One example is in terms of sustainability purchasing. We put together different departments to have a common language. It was not easy but it was successful, to connect silos in a company. The other example is with the CEOs. The initiative was to put together a group of CEOs that could ask and learn from each other about the challenges and difficulties in implementing sustainability into their respective organizations. The outcome was amazing as they realized that they have to pay more attention externally due to the crisis in climate change and diversity.

We also developed several policy proposals for the Federal government. We wanted to help make these proposals really meaningful. One suggestion was to get one representative from science and one from business as a way to democratize the decisions and discussions. They would be sitting at the same table as the ministers and have all the information. It will be a very transparent process.

Barchan: What you have provided to Brazil is transparency in the business sector. Will you be able to reach your vision in the near future?

Grossi: You can’t see the end outcome yet today, but we are on the right track. I am sure we will achieve our vision. And society has a big role to play on this, we are in a world where information is available in real time, and that helps to pressure governments and companies for more transparency.

Marina Grossi, Managing Director of WBCSD Brazil.

Marina Grossi, Managing Director of WBCSD Brazil.

To check out more of WBCSD's research here