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Interview with Dan Geiger, Executive Director of USGBC-NCC

3p Contributor | Thursday January 20th, 2011 | 0 Comments

Presidio MBA Candidate Piper Kujac interviews US Green Building Council’s Dan Geiger about Sustainability and Business

3p: You went to Haas for an MBA a while back.  What has been most useful from your business education in your career thus far?

Dan Geiger: The most useful things I learned were developing a stronger intellectual framework and the analytical skills to understand and adapt to our rapidly changing world.  Having come out of the non-profit world and working for social change, I value understanding how the “bottom line” shapes our strategies and decisions, and why that is so important.

In addition, learning the basics of business finance, marketing, accounting, organizational behavior, and competitive strategy were very valuable.  My favorite class was Entrepreneurship, which provided an opportunity to bring together almost everything I learned about creating and running a business, by developing a business plan for a start-up.  I’m proud to say that my group’s project was the first at Haas to do a social venture business plan for a non-profit organization.

The experience cultivated insights into both what to think about and how to think.

3p: What are some lessons you’ve learned in the field, which may have been missing from your MBA program? Any that pertain to sustainable business management?

DG: I think the critical skills most difficult to learn in an MBA program are – to put it simply – “people skills.”  Developing and managing stakeholders and a team are crucial to building a successful organization.

Leadership is also a key skill that is often learned on the job.  This includes how it can be best exercised in multiple ways, in different contexts.  If you’re going to be an executive, a major part of your responsibility is to provide leadership, which involves developing a vision with your team, and leading its development and implementation.

Regarding sustainability business management, one has to be open to the new business paradigms that are emerging.  One has to be able to deeply understand the challenges we face, and to imagine powerful solutions and new ways of doing things.  One also has to be ready to recognize when things don’t work, and be ready to learn and change in this rapidly evolving sector.

3p: One of the golden questions at Presidio Graduate School is: What is the difference between a sustainability leader and any other leader?  Have you found qualities, which distinguish sustainability leaders from others?

DG: The outstanding Sustainability Leaders I know are distinguished by an ability to inspire and mobilize support for a compelling vision that taps into peoples’ passion for doing good.  They have the ability to think holistically, to make connections between social, environmental, technical, business, policy and cultural factors and trends, and to think beyond existing business models and ways of doing things to create a venture that is truly focused on the triple bottom-line.

This is no trivial matter – many companies talk about the triple bottom-line, but it’s hard to do.  Usually the social equity part of the triple bottom-line framework is toughest to tackle.  The issues are complex, and deeply rooted in our history, institutional structures, and culture.  One gains a far richer understanding of the problems we’re trying to solve if you’ve worked with or lived as a low-income person or others different from yourself.  At a minimum you have to literally change your point of view to truly understand another person’s or groups’ problems.  Oftentimes, business leaders assume that their way of understanding the world applies to all segments of society, and that’s rarely the case.  A change in mindset is required to change the way one thinks.

3p: How has your experience with USGBC shaped your ideas about what makes a “sustainable leader”?

DG: USGBC-NCC is a membership organization with a very wide range of stakeholders.  This is one of the most complex industries in the world, and our membership reflects an amazing diversity of professions and industry sectors.  It’s also changing rapidly – it’s almost as though every year we need to re-invent ourselves in some way.  I think the sustainability movement as a whole is like this, so adaptability, and being focused on both what you can and can’t do is important.  One needs to never assume.  Stay alert and constantly innovate.

Leading an organization like USGBC requires an ability to articulate a vision, motivate a diverse community, and empower all the stakeholders to make our vision and mission a reality.  I’ve learned a lot about building a culture of collaboration.

3p: As executive director of the most active Chapter of the USGBC, what gets you excited to come to work each day?

DG: I often say I have the best job in the world.  What we do is so powerful – greening the built environment involves all the issues I’ve cared about over the years: the health of the planet and its people, social equity, and the integration of business principles with a social mission.

The incredible diversity and constant evolution of green building is astounding.  Rarely does a day go by when I don’t learn something fascinating.  I love to learn and grow.  In this job, I get to do that every day – I learn about cutting-edge technology and practices in everything from engineering, architecture, design, building, green tech, social equity, public policy, working with people … the list goes on and on.

What really stands out to me is the deeply felt passion combined with brilliant vision and technical expertise among our members.  Green building is not just a job, but a vocation, and I’ve never worked with so many business people who share that understanding.  Our people care – about the planet, about others, about the future.  It’s a privilege to have an opportunity to work with such people, and contribute my time and talents to our mission.

3p: How has the Chapter evolved during your experience there, and where do you see it going in the future?

DG: When I started in 2007, the Chapter was primarily an all-volunteer organization.  You could say I’m employee #1.  A lot of work was being accomplished by volunteers.

Since then, it’s grown and changed dramatically, parallel to the growth of green building and USGBC overall.  Our membership has more than tripled; membership has expanded well beyond the traditional architect, engineer, contractor and product manufactures to now include lawyers, insurance companies, trades, clean tech, and many others; we have 5 branches vs. 2 when I started; we have a professional staff of 7; and our board of directors has evolved from what’s called a “working board” (volunteers doing the work) to a strategic and leadership board.

Northern California is now home to some of the strongest green building ordinances in the country, and 7% of LEED projects in the U.S. are in our region.  It’s not surprising that Northern California has emerged as one of the leading chapters in the country, given the progressive, innovative, and entrepreneurial culture of the region.

We’re very well established as the leading green building organization in the area.  Our goals moving forward are to define the future; educate and empower influencers, decision makers, and implementers; and re-frame public discourse beyond green building towards a holistic view of sustainable communities for all.   We work at this in a variety of ways, and I see no letting up in passion, commitment, and momentum in this direction.  The potential is almost limitless.

Piper is an architectural designer focused on all things sustainable and is a 2nd year MBA student at Presidio Graduate School.  Inspired by an assignment in Sustainable Leadership and Management Class, she began interviewing sustainability leaders far and wide, and we’ll be sharing their stories right here on Triple Pundit.  If you’d like to nominate a sustainability leader for an exclusive 3P interview, send us a note here: piper@triplepundit.com


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