Thought Leadership Can Emerge in the Most Unexpected Places (Like Vegas)

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Thought leadership, MGM, sustainability, renewables, clean energy, smart cities, Leon Kaye
MGM’s expansive solar array was a long journey of collaboration and thought leadership.

When we think of “sustainability” at a high level, the usual suspects are communities and companies based in cities such as San Francisco, Portland and Brooklyn. As we glean information both from conventional news sites and blogs focusing on environmental awareness and activism, it is easy to believe that leadership on sustainable development is only happening in a few select, progressive regions.

But the stubborn fact is that innovation and the scaling-up of more sustainable business solutions are sprouting up all across the U.S. And one such city is Las Vegas, known more for its entertainment, gaming industry and debauchery than mundane activities like conservation and clean technology.

What is creating excitement is that the ideas related to sustainable development within this rapidly growing city of 600,000 are not necessary staying in Vegas. Sin City is becoming recognized as an emerging hub for thought leadership when it comes to new and creative solutions related to responsible and sustainable business. To learn more, TriplePundit spoke by telephone with Cindy Ortega, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer of MGM Resorts International, while she was working from her Las Vegas office.

Before we even discussed the impact that MGM and Las Vegas have had on corporate responsibility and sustainable business, we discussed the concept of thought leadership. After all, many professionals describe themselves as “thought leaders,” and people understandably prefer that term over “expert” or “authority.” So we asked Ortega what that term even means in the first place. As she put it, such a definition has three critical components.

“First, thought leadership must be defined by an important question or an important problem,” Ortega told us. “Whatever the person is an expert in, the concept must be meaningful on a large scale for society. I think that a person who can solve a problem like algebra, for example, is a smart person — but that same person, to really be a thought leader, has got to be be able to solve a bigger and more complicated equation.”

One instance in which MGM is applying thought leadership within its Las Vegas operations is its work on water scarcity. It is no secret that Las Vegas has long confronted a growing water crisis. Most hospitality companies, however, have had a fairly tepid response (as in, reuse your towels and linens) to this problem, which stretches far beyond parched Nevada and California. MGM took its commitment to water conservation a step further by developing a plan to reduce its dependence on nearby Lake Mead while converting more lawns to artificial turf or drought-resistant landscaping — saving millions of gallons of water annually.

Second, Ortega insisted that thought leaders have shown proven results rather than limiting themselves to what many would agree is the most educated and reasoned opinion. “Look, to say he or she is an educated person is, deservedly, a way to describe someone who is really smart about something. But a thought leader is one who works well with others to create road maps and solutions that can be implemented,” she said. “And in taking action, thought leaders build a track record of proven results. I may have a great idea about a global warming problem, but unless I have that track record, I don’t think I would qualify as a climate change thought leader.”

Take the case of MGM’s massive solar array atop its Mandalay Bay resort. The gut reaction would be that, naturally, with all of the company’s rooftops in southern Nevada, MGM should just slap solar panels on all of its properties, use less conventional energy and then be done with it. But it is not that simple. Most companies may have the vision, but not the capacity, to embark on such a project. To that end, MGM partnered with NRG Energy, which funded, built, and now owns and operates the installation. MGM had some experience with the construction of a co-generation plant at its huge City Center complex on the Strip and has several LEED certifications under its belt. But its quest to become a sustainable company is proving to be a long journey — and it needs the cooperation of companies such as NRG, and the buy-in of municipal leaders, to turn its vision into action.

Finally, Ortega explained that thought leadership needs to extend far beyond one’s cubicle or corner office. It is one thing to have a role in transforming the operations of a company, but can that idea scale and apply to other industries and sectors?

“Even if MGM were able to solve the solar problem in Las Vegas, and even though we navigated through the minefields that prevented projects like the one in Mandalay Bay from succeeding, here’s the fact: Had we kept it to ourselves, that would have eliminated any idea that we could describe ourselves as thought leaders. You have to work outside your immediate sphere. That means you and your ideas must have impact and influence others, whether they are individuals or entire companies.” – Cindy Ortega of MGM

So, we have made a stronger case that thought leadership in sustainability is brewing in Las Vegas. Nevertheless, we asked Ortega how she addresses that uncomfortable situation when she is asked if sustainable business and Sin City can really be mentioned in the same sentence.

“The leaders in his community have long been cognizant of sustainability, especially when it comes to water,” Ortega replied. “What I see from a community standpoint are visionaries such as Tom Perrigo [Las Vegas’ chief sustainability officer]. This city is doing some amazing things, from our current mayor to our company’s CEO and his wife.” Ortega continued listing other examples, such as a Brookings Institute study espousing how net-metering benefits all consumers to the local newspaper’s aggressive push to make Nevada a more business-friendly environment for the solar power industry.

The result is that MGM, and the greater Las Vegas area, are in a unique position to become a leading laboratory for new clean-energy and smart-cities technologies. One advantage MGM has over companies of similar size is that much of its business is operated within a small area of about five or so square miles.

Contrast MGM’s presence with Walmart, which has long touted its investment in renewables and work over the past decade to make its operations leaner and greener. But Walmart’s over 5,000 stores, in addition to its corporate offices and distribution centers, are spread across the country. Even the best information-technology and monitoring systems cannot address the challenge of gauging what works for the world’s largest retailer — and ascertain what does not work well or even fails.

But MGM’s concentrated presence in Las Vegas presents not only a huge opportunity for the company, but for its business partners as well. Ortega pointed out its work with Panasonic, with which the company is developing new technology products to cope with food waste. Such cooperation is mutually beneficial, as Panasonic can hold more meetings on MGM properties while MGM can buy more Panasonic products. But those ideas and technologies can spread to restaurants and hotels outside of Vegas, not only boosting Panasonic’s business, but also solving an environmental problem across the U.S. MGM is also building a similar relationship with Honeywell — which, if successful, could help more businesses and consumers make buildings smarter and more energy efficient.

What this all boils down to is that true thought leadership brings people and organizations together. The result is a movement greater than the sum of its parts, one far more impactful than if all of these parts were only contributing on an individual basis. And if companies and incomes are going to continue to grow while mitigating our effect on the planet and its people, then more of us who talk about sustainability need to observe, learn from and work with the likes of MGM. Such cooperation growing out of thought leadership is what is needed if we as a society are going to turn talk, of which there is plenty, into action — of which more is still sorely needed.

Image credit: MGM Resorts International

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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