Let’s start with some personal context. I last ate meat in 1990 which would have been about the last time that I spent any money in McDonald’s. I avoid packaged food. I avoid food with fiber removed for something like four years in counting. I pick up a piece of trash per day and McDonald’s is up there a little behind Coca-Cola and Starbucks as the greatest sources of that garbage on the street. I’ve watched the McLibel documentary multiple times. I stopped in a McDonald’s the other day to try my laptop and one of the closest ATMs to my home is in a McDonald’s so I find myself in them periodically. I don’t like the place but I got an email that Bob Langert who is their former head of Corporate Social Responsibility wrote a book on his experiences there over the course of decades. From my perspective on change I see places like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Exxon, Monsanto, to name a few, as the places with the greatest potential. Many protest places like these and in my younger days I certainly did and I consider such actions important but I also believe that they need help. So I read the book and scheduled to meet with Bob. My goal is to understand the man and his experience for opportunity for more change. I took more notes on his book than any other. A lot of them critical. I opted in this conversation to meet the man, not debate or criticize. If you think I should’ve acted otherwise, let me know. My goals as ever are regarding the environment to lower our effects that threaten life and human society and on leadership for people to find meaning, value, importance, purpose, joy, growth and so on in the actions, not just to comply to what other people tell them. So let’s listen to the conversation.
Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Bob Langert. Bob, how are you doing?
Bob: I’m doing great, Josh. Thanks for having me on.
Joshua: Glad to have you here. And I want to give a little background. People by the time they click here they know that you are the head of Corporate Social Responsibility at McDonald’s. You’ve retired I think three or four years ago. Is that right?
Bob: Four years ago almost.
Joshua: And you were there for decades before that leading up to that role?
Bob: Thirty-three years in McDonald’s started heading up a version of social responsibility in the late ‘80s. Yeah.
Joshua: And so I want to frame. I think some people will say, “Why this show that has environment in the title why do they have someone from McDonald’s? And I’ve been doing this for a little over a year and I constantly get people saying to me, “Josh, I know the perfect person to have any podcast. It’s this person who started the sustainability program or this recycling program or this composting program.” And I’m happy for them that they say that to me but it’s as if everyone hears the environment part and no one hears the leadership part and I want to bring leaders from all sorts of different areas. I hope people have gotten that. I’ve said in lots of episodes there’s a lack of effective leadership in my opinion in the area the environment. And so I want to bring people from lots of different areas. And lately I’ve been starting to get attention from companies that come to me and they say, “We hear how you help people share their environmental values and act on them. And we need that in our companies. Could you work with our leaders?” And I’ve been telling people I want to work with the heads, the leaders of places that are at the opposite of the end of the spectrum. So places like Exxon. This is the way I see things. I don’t want to… So Coca-Cola. When I walk around and pick up garbage off the streets like Starbucks and Coca-Cola and Gatorade I see a lot of that. And I went like the heads of these companies and leaders from those areas. And I feel a bit like the dog that chased the car and now I caught the car and I started to talk to these people and I’m starting to see it as a new beginning but I’m bringing people in that are outside my world and I think outside the world of most environmental podcasts. But I think it’s very important. I think the largest changes are available in these areas and you’ve written a book about changes. And so when your book came across my email feed I thought, “This is what I’m looking for. I want to talk to people like this.” And that’s the frame.
And also my background. I haven’t eaten meat since 1990. I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s since soon after that. And so I feel like there might be a bit of attention, I’m not sure, but as a leader I want to connect with people and find out who these people are and what’s going on. So sorry if I talk too long to start this off. But how does that sound to you? Maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourself and why you wrote the book and if you haven’t said this too many times into many other podcasts already.
Bob: Well, thanks for having me on, Josh, and I like your setup. You know I think this is a very complicated subject. I worked for McDonald’s for 33 years and believe me I represented the company publicly as well. So a lot of people didn’t like us. You know we had a lot of missiles and attacks and campaigns and books and movies. I mean fast food nation paints us the kind of the evil side of food. It does not make you feel good which leads to one of the reasons I wrote the book. The way that we were described publicly in a lot of the stereotypes about McDonald’s, what we are, who we are and why we do things. I feel like people never understood it. So I wanted to bring you, the reader, into McDonald’s like in real time. The way I wrote the book it’s not academic, it’s not technical, it’s storytelling. And really what I was trying to do is I’m going to bring you in when Greenpeace attacks us on causing further deforestation in the Amazon because our suppliers are using too much soy and we’re a bad actor there I want you to know what happens, why Greenpeace did what they did. I interviewed fifty-one people on the book, how people within McDonald’s think about it and how we approached the pros and cons, what the conflict points were and what the decisions were. And then you could judge for yourself as to whether McDonald’s did a good thing or a bad thing. All I can tell you is that I wrote the book to kind of show the real world. And I think the journey that we were under was fascinating. Like I would want a lot of people just to read the book for fun and entertainment like what’s it like to be in this mega brand with all these attacks on you.
Now the second purpose in my book though was I thought I struggle to be a leader in the sustainability space. It’s not easy that’s why I call it The Battle to Do Good. Sounds like a negative term sort of but I do it as a positive term every day I went into work I’m like hey, I’m a tennis player so I want to win. I want to attack. I want to beat the other player. I have to think of all the challenges. It’s not easy to win a tennis match. That’s how I look at things in my work at McDonald’s. It’s like “Okay, where to go after sustainable fish? We’re going to try to develop an animal welfare program.” There’s a lot of resistance to all this stuff. There’s been resistance on anything in the corporate world and a change.
Joshua: You men internal resistance?
Bob: Yeah. Internal resistance, supplier resistance. You study leadership. It’s one of the most natural states of the human being. It’s not [unintelligible] change. So yeah. So that’s what I wanted to write about. You tell me and if the readers read my book, you tell me if I achieved [unintelligible]. If you think about McDonald’s a little bit differently, I kind of hope you do, I think when I went to work for 33 years and I started I liked the company, I liked the people and I thought we made some changes that really helped transform certain things in the world.
Joshua: So my mom is from South Dakota and I was reading this book and I was like, “This is a Midwesterner.” This is like a very salt of the earth. It’s like it did not read as a… Like it was clear you had retired from McDonald’s because it didn’t read like a corporate book. And I was kind of curious as I was reading I was thinking, “Why is this guy putting stuff out there?” Because I have to imagine you are going to take a lot of criticism.
Bob: From whom?
Joshua: From people who are not… Well, OK. The book describes a lot of criticism that you guys took along the way from McLibel, from PETA, from EDF but then EDF worked. I mean obviously it tells about how you worked with a lot of these places. I thought the book was… I thought you were writing it a lot for future or current corporate social responsibility people to show this is what we went through because probably most places aren’t going to face the frictions that you did and they’re mostly not operating on the scale that you did. And so I thought the readers were going to be people who were following in your footsteps whether intentional or not that this is like a set of case studies for them to learn from. Because like each chapter ends with how… It’s like when you’re in a situation like this here’s what to do but most people aren’t in corporate social responsibility for large corporations. And I thought you were portraying like this. Look, there’s a lot of companies out there that take a lot of heat for whatever the cause of the situation, people want them to change. And they can learn from you. That’s where I thought was coming from and there’s a trend that I saw in the book that was at the beginning I felt like you were being very reactive and oftentimes someone would come in and say stuff and I mean you’d make early partnerships with individuals and with organizations that worked very well and there were models for the future. But also you would be surprised and caught off guard and by the end of it you’re talking about finding things before the public came to you. And so you’re going from reactive to proactive.
Bob: That’s the arc of the journey, Josh. You captured it perfectly. I started the book I think in 1990 with McDonald’s being a symbol of waste and a symbol of disposable society and reacting to this new societal issue that McDonald’s was never criticized by society before. I mean here you had this great company, for what, over 30 years. It started in 1955. It was Ronald McDonald. Everybody welcomed us into the community. Everybody loved McDonald’s. So here we are in the late 80s all of a sudden we’re attacked and it was really interesting looking back, we’re a Midwestern company, I grew up in Chicago. I’m a Midwestern guy. There’s no doubt about it so you captured that. And we’re like, “Why are these people attacking us? We’re a good company. We have good ethics. We’re good people. They’re wrong, we’re right.”
So that’s the beginning of the journey. We were very reactive. And I tell the story of basically these reactionary instances and then how did we respond. In some ways we responded really well. We found a great partner in the Environmental Defense Fund to figure out how to reduce waste. We ended up getting a White House award. We get attacked on animal welfare left and right. Oh my goodness. I described it in the book but then I would go to the egg laying facilities and find out that PETA’s right. These laying hens are crammed into these cages. It’s horrible. And so then we decided, “You know what? We need to change us too.” Which we did. We ended up making dictates with the suppliers that had to be bigger… Eventually McDonald’s recently went to cage free eggs. So you can see the evolution started out as reactionary and then over time starting probably about 2010 – 2011, finally our management team… I wish we had done it 20 years ago. They started seeing these issues of corporate responsibility and sustainability not as something to fix and stay out of trouble. We started to see it as a whole management team as something, “This could actually help our business. We can grow our business. We can attract more customers.” We developed a business case. We became more proactive and probably the best example is we basically were the main stimulus to create a sustainable beef movement. Nobody was campaigning against McDonald’s to go with sustainable beef. No customers said, “I want a sustainable Big Mac.” But we felt that’s the number one thing. The number one things we can do to match up with our role in society and grow our business was beef, [unintelligible] company beef is a big issue in society. Let’s go after that for the benefit our business and to benefit society.
That’s the journey that I described in the book and I think a lot of companies, I think probably most Fortune 500 companies have a similar journey and that’s what I wanted to bring the reader into. You know I did write the book for the sustainability profession. If you picked a center of who I want to read the book and that’s why I put these hard nut nuggets in there, etc. But I want to reach an audience of the people that listen to your broadcast, the people that maybe don’t understand McDonald’s or don’t even want to understand McDonald’s, I wanted to bring you in and whether you like it or not McDonald’s is universal, it’s mega, it’s big, it serves 70 million people a day, it’s in 120 countries and it employs 1.7 million people. So it’s a huge fabric of society that I wanted a broader range of people to understand.
Joshua: So the role of corporate social responsibility is… Your role, were you the first head of it or…? I mean I forget all… There are a lot of names in the book. You are really this is the inside of you and you talk about the individual relationships but I feel like when you started the role of thinking about the environment or I guess corporate social responsibility was not at McDonald’s and now it’s bigger than it was before. And is it also a place of continually growing importance within McDonald’s and other corporations from the insider view? It sounds like from the outside.
Bob: Yes. I think what happened in the McDonald’s journey is… I described how we were reactive but we had a culture. Our culture was good culture. We always believed in doing the right thing. We had people that cared. We made a lot of improvements over time not because of strategy per say but the fact is we want to do some good work. I think over time people began to change new leadership. I mean let’s face it, younger people have these values you know much more than maybe the generation I was in. Although I describe in my book, I grew up in the 60s and I really feel that the whole social revolution in the 60s as… I always considered myself an activist. And so when this job came available to me it’s like holy cow, I have an activist heart. Now I get to be in a big company to force change. So it was just a dream come true for me. But I think over time at McDonald’s people start to see the upside of being a responsible company whereas before companies like McDonald’s and I think there are some the other companies, all they saw was a downside. They saw, “Okay, well, it’s going to cost money, the customers really care, the customer is going to pay more.” You’ve seen all that. So it was filled with this negative imagery or negative consequences. And what shifted was, “Oh, no, we see this as an opportunity, if we can be more green, if we can be more environment and better with the animals, we’re going to be more relevant, we’re going to be cool, we’re going to attract more customers.” And one of the big things in McDonalds, I think people go to McDonald’s every day with the average customer goes there 2.5 times a month. So a lot of our strategy was how can we bring in another visit to a customer and that customer brings a friend. Maybe you’ll come back to McDonald’s after you know learning about it more, to visit it one time a month. That’s going to register a lot of sales for McDonald’s and make us a more successful company. So the evolution was more opportunity, less about risk and staying out of trouble. I remember our chief communication officer often said, “Hey, let’s just be caught doing good.” You don’t want to be too proactive about this stuff because by the way no company is perfect. Any time they [unintelligible] something to do, you definitely can find something we are doing that’s not perfect.
Joshua: I wonder for people who are listening to this podcast who are aspiring leaders in environmental areas because what I want is I believe that the opportunities to take leadership roles are much greater by forging new things. I mean however far you’ve come I think you would agree McDonald’s is not near its potential in sustainability that there’s a lot more that the company could do. And even if it’s not McDonald’s, there’s plenty of companies that that is the case where everyone knows that they have a lot more to reach our potential and I think that the path to influence to make to help companies reach out potential is not a well-worn path that exists because we haven’t been in this situation before and therefore if people listening to this podcast are thinking, “How can I take a leadership role in the environment?”, then the role that you helped begin at McDonald’s is available in many places. And I think that it’s an opportunity to lead. It’s an opportunity to make a difference. But it’s also not on most people’s horizons. I think because everyone thinks when they think environmental Greenpeace and PETA and whatever and actually you’ve worked with them. I haven’t worked with them. So you say PETA. Do they say PETA or PETA?
Joshua: PETA. Okay so now I know. It’s funny how do I know how to pronounce PETA from the guy from McDonald’s. But they don’t think of going to the places where… Like they think of one place they want to work at, one place they want to protest but I think there’s not a middle ground but it’s taking leadership roles in places where people haven’t done it before. And I was reading a book to see like what opportunities are for the next step.
Bob: If you’re going to change the world… I mean if I was you know 18 years old and had this vision of changing the world, I would advocate that that person considers a pathway similar to what I did. I mean where are you going to change the world. Are you going to change it through governments? You know I would hypothesize not. Government’s probably one of the biggest problems and all the things I thought was. You know McDonald’s became almost a de facto regulator because a government is not enforcing the laws in the Amazon. The government’s not enforcing Indonesia palm extraction method. So McDonald’s has to come in with their own ways of having standards to do that. Even animal welfare, believe it or not, there’s not a whole lot of standards for animal welfare. So McDonald’s had to be the one to set up measurements to animal welfare. So you know I would argue that if you’re going to change the world, man, join a big organization, even an organization that you don’t think has a good profile on environment or being socially responsible because you have to change that. Now one of the revelations that came up in my book, took me four years to write, [unintelligible] my heart and soul.
Joshua: I was wondering about the gap between when you retired and when the book came out.
Bob: So I started writing the book almost the day that I retired because I really felt a calling. This was not like…. I felt a calling to share this experience. That’s how deep and emotional it was for me. And one of the things that I started to realize as I was getting into it it was not the easiest process for me to write a book and I began to realize how change happens. A lot of our conversation is about change and that’s what struck me. Almost everything I worked on at McDonald’s was something that was a change. Some of it was a big change and almost all of it was never done before and almost all of it had tons of resistance and almost every change that we made, by the way, change takes three-five-seven years for big change. You got to have a lot of patience to see it all through and persistence and passion. I talk about the three P’s in my book and that’s really kind of how I operate. Passion, persistence, patience – you need that to forge leadership. But also all change takes a lot of time and then you find out that the change you made which was very controversial seven years ago is the norm in the industry seven years later. I find it to be the case with almost everything I did.
So then you realize… Well, I gave you [unintelligible] example already. The egg suppliers were horribly mad at McDonald’s for saying, “Whose McDonald’s to dictate how we should raise laying hens for eggs?” That’s how they felt. McDonald’s had twenty-seven suppliers of eggs. Didn’t it shock you when you read the book that all 27 suppliers said, “We don’t want to do business with you anymore.”? And McDonald’s buys 2 percent of the eggs in the world. They’re getting rid of one of the largest customers they had, probably the largest customer. They said, “We don’t want to do business with you.” That’s how mad they were. Those standards that we implemented were standard for the entire industry five years later such that today we’re talking about cage free. We’re not talking about larger changes. We see how almost everything I can point to that change controversial becomes the norm which gets into leadership. You know I came up with these eight… I identified eight attributes of leadership that I think forge change. I described it in the book and they weren’t on my menu as I was going through… [unintelligible] I wish I knew everything that I know now about it.
Joshua: Isn’t writing a book a tremendous experience? Sorry to interrupt, but I kept missing all these… And I wasn’t missing deadlines. I made the deadline and I was like you know for the last round of substantive edits I was like some things bubbled up that I always knew that they were there but then writing them it really crystallized and I was like, “This is really important.” So I was like I’m going to miss this deadline but I chose to because it’s so important and you learn so much by writing. So sorry, I had to… You just touched on something that is relevant for me in the past couple of weeks or months.
Bob: So that’s my biggest revelation in the book and that’s why the book changed how I wrote it over time. And I want to get into how to make change happen. It’s much more about the how because people could have great ideas about how to change the world but it’s the special person that could take the idea and actually make it happen. So I always talk with the how of sustainability, not the why. So how do you do it? And you do it through people. So I ended up featuring the people in the book much more than I thought I would because at the end of the day yeah, I did a lot of stuff in McDonald’s, I’m a cheerleader, I’m a catalyst, I’m a nudge, I’m a critic inside. I do a lot of different things. But at the end of the day it’s not going anywhere. [unintelligible] the head a supply chain says, “I want sustainable beef in McDonald’s.” You know they had a supply chain that said yes to that laying hen decision, Tom Albrecht, and he saw in front of him that’s going to cost 17 million dollars a year for McDonald’s. He didn’t blink an eye. He said, “You know what? We’re going to do it because it’s the right thing to do.” Those things you know make me very proud to work with people that are willing to make such courageous decisions.
Joshua: And that decision – what year is that? Because I feel like that’s like that was the culmination of a lot of…
Bob: 2001. And that was kind of the beginning of our animal welfare journey back in 2000 and that journey still goes on as you know. [unintelligible] issued another chapter in the hope [unintelligible]. It’s a similar issue and a similar resistance and it’s something that’s currently going on.
Joshua: Some other things I couldn’t believe it was really… I think as a forklift operator or something with the [unintelligible] and it was like these things happen. Before I hit the record button we were talking a bit of the perspective of… I mean if I could change the past I would love to change a lot of things. As far as I can tell I can’t change the past. And as a leader I think I have to look at where you are and where you can go and who you’re with and things like that. And I guess there are a lot of things at McDonald’s. You guys had one set of values and you were caught off guard when people with different sets of values would come your way. But then it was surprising how… Well, I guess a lot of times people come in and say, “You guys are blah-blah-blah.” And you’re like, “What!?” And then you’re looking at it and, “Oh, my God, we are.”
So that’s very honest for you in the book. Some of the stuff is though it’s hard to imagine how could someone… I mean I guess if your deal is you want to be a smiling right face to children and so forth and obesity is often the far… It’s not in anyone’s horizon. Then I guess you’re just not thinking of taking responsibility for upstream and your supply chain because you’re just one buyer from them. You know one of the guests on the show Lorna Davis works with the CEO of Danone so they do a lot of packaged goods and they’re taking responsibility for things upstream and downstream that are outside of their control and yet they take responsibility for it and it sounds great on the one hand. But the fact that they’re doing it now means that they weren’t ever before which means that people weren’t doing it and people get really angry and I think anger has its place but I don’t know how effective it is. Anyway. This is me kind of musing because it brought me to a world that I hadn’t thought of before and if I want to empathize with the people I’m working with…
Bob: Well, that’s one of the evolution in the book, Josh, is what you described the whole supply chain as a huge issue for all of these companies and you do wonder why… Like early on I used the example in the book I mean Nike… I mean Nike didn’t get much of a problem was the way they were producing shoes overseas and they were very defensive at the beginning and so many companies like, “Why didn’t they figure that out sooner?” The same with McDonald’s. I mean it just wasn’t the norm. You know whether like you say you can’t change the past. It just wasn’t the norm to feel like you’re responsible for things that are five steps removed from your supply chain. And that was the McDonald’s experience. I mean we bought meat from a company that simply buys meat from a slaughterhouse. They receive it and make it into patties. For many years that was our mindset. Our supplier is just the supplier that makes the meat patties. And then you learn that over time, no, by the way our customers think that we’re responsible for the whole supply chain from where the cow begins or where the egg begins or where the lettuce was grown. And by the way, customers are right about – we are responsible for that whole supply chain but it wasn’t the things…
Joshua: You say that now.
Bob: But it wasn’t 20 years ago. But that’s how you look at any issue in society that people learn and then you need to… Once you learn it though don’t resist it. Get right into it and react to something that you’re learning. And so I mean even today as I look around, Josh, there all these companies that make mistakes and it’s in the newspaper every day. Don’t you see resistance to it? And in general don’t you see corporate speech in lawyers getting involved? Like they openly say, “That’s what happened to me.” It’s like, “Hey, Peter says the cages are bad.” We agreed. Greenpeace says there’s too much [unintelligible] farming in the Amazon. I call them up and told them we agreed with them. They were shocked. So rather than being campaigning against us we ended up working together. And I tell the story in the book that three months later a whole moratorium was announced because we worked together and got other retailers to sign on, I got Cargill to help us out with the traders. And this is an amazing when you recognize a problem you don’t resist, you work together, you see the other people as human beings.
I took a trip through the… I was going to be where the action is and took a trip with Greenpeace, four people from McDonald’s, four people from Greenpeace. I felt we’re all in one club. Josh, like if you were there and there’s no name tags on us, I’m not sure that you would know who’s from Greenpeace and who’s from McDonald’s and that’s my view of the world. That’s my view of working these things out that we’re all in this together. We’re all kind of equal. We all care. Let’s forge a way to work together and these are some of the battles that turn into a really great fulfillment. You know that I try to describe in the book.
Joshua: I feel like that’s the end point of the book. But in the middle of it there’s over and over again you would say, “How can we do X with the upstream suppliers? That’s outside of our control.” And all over again it’s like, “Oh, it turns out that we can influence them in ways we didn’t expect.” I guess at the end you’re saying, “Now we are leading them and we’re taking leadership roles.” And I guess you want to show that it wasn’t so easily learned and hopefully the next people who are following in your footsteps they can learn from your mistakes and they can right off the bat say, “OK. Maybe we’re a big buyer but there’s many others.” But at the end you’re not saying that but it’s still each time you had to learn that a lot because many times you would say in the book, I can’t remember the details, but you’d say, “People think that we’re in charge of all the stuff and we’re not. Whether it’s this ingredient or that ingredient or the store operators, they’re all franchises and so forth.” But then if you do take responsibility, then you are able to do more than you thought. I guess that’s one of the main points of your book is if your company acts and people are attacking you and you’re saying, “But you have to understand. There’s only so much we can do.” Probably better off to start by saying, “What can we do?”
Bob: What I try to describe… I think you’ve got a right, Josh. First of all, it’s very hard. So when it’s very hard to work on these issues upstream it’s not easy. For McDonald’s to make and try to change the way that mother pigs are raised. There’s again five steps removed, our suppliers and their suppliers and their suppliers, actually don’t work on [unintelligible] or raise, it’s the fifth supply value chain down the road that does it.
So to just say we’re going to change the way pigs are raised may sound simple to a consumer but it’s very difficult. OK, it is hard. And then if you have a mindset that sustainability is just kind of a problem and something to kind of manage risk-wise, you’re not going to work on all these things. What I’m trying to tell you is that yes, McDonald’s sort of had a mindset for a long time so the most companies. So even today and that’s my message for today, McDonald’s finally recognizing a journey that you don’t have to be reactive. How long do you want to sit back and take this stuff and let other people define who you are and let other people define your priorities? Why not take a stand, develop a strategy, work with stakeholders, understand what is most important to your business and most important for society, set ambitions, goals and measurements? And that’s what we did. And I think what McDonald’s picked out if you were to study it today are the right things for the intersection between business and society, helping the business grow, helping society at its highest level, win-win. But there’s still too few companies doing that because it requires a lot of effort and it requires the company to recognize this as an opportunity versus a problem.
Joshua: So there’s a lot of things I want to follow up on. There’s no way I can both keep this podcast short enough that people listen to it and cover all the things I want to. This is what you said earlier. If people want to make a difference, join a big company. And in my mind is like knee jerk like I want to work with big companies but I don’t want… I am sure yes, for many joining big companies is a great path. But to me I think the… Well, I thought when you get into company you start becoming…
Bob: Part of the system.
Joshua: That may be the case but what I was going to say as you start becoming part of that culture and you’re going to see things a certain way and you’ll be blind to seeing things other ways. I’m not saying good or bad. Well, let’s see. I guess it’s difficult for someone to understand something when their paycheck depends on not understanding it. I think that is what Upton Sinclair thinks, so that’s relevant to me. And I haven’t worked for big company a long time.
Bob: [unintelligible] on what you just said there and that’s one of the biggest lessons in this book is if you’re going to be a leader to lead change in a company, it requires something different in terms of leadership. You have to be the person in the room that represents society. You have to be able. I always operated as if McDonald’s welcome, “You can fire me tomorrow.” That’s how I felt. That’s how strongly I felt about what I was trying to push for.
It gave me the freedom not to be a jerk in the company because you’re not going to get anything done being a jerk in a company. You’d have to have teamwork and collaboration at the end of the day I described how I was an activist. And I just fought so hard for these changes and you have to be willing. I tell the story in the book about the apple pickers in Florida and the Coalition [unintelligible] workers campaigning against McDonald’s. They had a very good campaign against McDonald’s for paying the workers a penny a pound and as usual as I investigated it I went down to you know south of Naples where all the tomatoes are picked and I actually picked tomatoes and brought them to the truck and I did it about an hour that and I’m like, “Oh my goodness, that’s what they’re paying these people in their living conditions.” It was horrible.
So I was definitely an advocate in the company that we changed this but I was pretty much the only one. And it takes a lot of courage to stand in a room when you go around a room and say, “You know what? I don’t agree with this. As a company we should not be doing this.” When the supply chain leader writes the CEO saying let’s stick with our current plan and not change anything and I end up writing a letter to the CEO saying, “No. I don’t agree. Here’s my point of view.” I knew it was going to cause a lot of pain and suffering for me and my relationships with supply chain which it did because they thought I betrayed them. That’s not being part of their team but I stood up for that and the company decided to go ahead with this agreeing with the coalition of [unintelligible] workers. So it takes a lot of independents going against the mainstream. Yeah. You cannot be just a shill for the company. What keeps you not being a shill but yet loving the company. I loved the company. I felt very strongly that the more good the company did, it could help the company grow. So I didn’t see a conflict. I felt that that’s our job as leaders of sustainability of the company. We don’t go with the status quo. It is about implementing change. These are things we’re talking about.
Joshua: I want to go to… There’s a trend that I saw in the book. I’m not changing topics of it just because I want to cover a lot of different things. A common trend happened that people would find out that something was happening. It could be clam shells that were polluting, it could be phthalates, I hope I am saying this right, in the plastics or it could be the [unintelligible] or could be the eggs. And let me give some context first. I went to this conference in November called the Summit. The Summit is like they say that sustainability is a very important thing for them. And one of things they did was they provided bottled water that was in bottles that had significantly less plastic in them than your stand-on bottled water. And so they sent out an e-mail maybe last week which is why it’s fresh in my mind that said this is how much plastic we saved. And to me I haven’t used a plastic bottle for probably at least 10 years. And so I don’t compare it to how much they’ve saved. I don’t see that every bottle was an unnecessary use. And by the way, one of the things I went to I went past a water fountain – bone dry. No one’s using the water fountain that wouldn’t use any bottle at all. And I took pictures of this and put it on my blog.
So I would say every bottle that they gave out – that was pollution, not saved pollution. And so a lot of things that you guys wrote about I would say you guys are doing something that people have a problem with and now you’ve changed it and if you compare then to now, there’s been a big improvement. But if I compare it to what I would do, it’s still a lot of waste and that standard…. When you asked earlier what criticism would you take? Well, people have different standards. You could say OK, you’ve changed this but there’s still a long way to go to put it politely I guess.
Bob: Let’s take it into an example, Josh. Let’s debate this a little bit more to figure out the context because I totally understand where you’re coming from. I just had a friend of mine say the same thing to… You’re talking about continuous improvement, you’re not really talking about transformation. So it depends what your values are, doesn’t it?
Bob: So let’s take beef. Beef is full of controversy. Now I would say here’s my case and then you tell me your case, I would say OK, beef, lots of impacts in the world – health, greenhouse gas emissions. By the way, the carbon footprint from McDonald’s about 75 percent comes from supply chain of which almost 80 percent come from livestock. So when I look at that issue I go wow, for McDonald’s to be transformative why want to make it’s number one priority to make beef more sustainable? And by the way if we make beef more sustainable, we’re not just doing it from McDonald’s. We’re buying beef from the industry. It requires an industry that it’s not just a little bit of suppliers that supply McDonald’s. We buy from the industry. So we’re changing the industry.
So if 10 years from now, which is my vision by the way, McDonald’s announced sustainable beef that they would start buying it as an idea back in 2014. So now we’re five more years down the journey and I returned four years ago. But you know if ten years from now the carbon footprint of beef has been reduced by half or 75 percent, I would be just busting with joy. And that is my vision by the way and I would say that that’s transformative. Now another person, my friend who is anti-meat, he said, “Well, you guys should just remove beef on the menu.” And yeah, it’s a big change, isn’t it? So that’s a big change and that makes a big statement.
Joshua: That’s an understatement.
Bob: Yeah, though you know that’s probably I’m projecting on to you what I think you’re thinking. Why not get rid of beef? You know you serve Happy Meals. I thought when McDonald’s changed the Happy Meal that takes soda off the menu. Soda is no longer the default. The default is milk, juice. We reduced the French fries to 100 calories. We said that every meal is going to get a piece of fruit. To me that was like unbelievable that McDonald’s would do this. I mean I was just like this is so awesome because all the experts said what McDonald’s should do, “You are into kids and families. You can’t change adult eating habits but you can change kids.” So I would say hey, that’s pretty good for McDonald’s. But you know other people would say, “Hey, you know it should be, I don’t know, all organic food and you shouldn’t have any toys, they’re just disposable.” So there is always some other state perhaps of nirvana that it’s possible that you’re referring to. So I don’t know. I would say we made some transformative changes. We changed packaging, we changed animal welfare, we changed the Amazon a little bit. We’re trying hard on beef. There’s no doubt that some of the things we did it’s reactionary and incrementalism as well. So it’s a mixture. But you know companies should work on its biggest impacts and I think for McDonald’s for the person that succeeded me, the head of sustainability at McDonald’s today is also head of supply chain Francesca DeBiase is a fantastic leader. And when she talks about what her priorities are for the company and sustainability she says it’s sustainable beef, it’s sustainable beef and it’s sustainable beef because that’s what our people tell us to work on.
Joshua: I acknowledge the challenge here. I mean when you say, “We changed from putting soda in Happy Meals to putting milk and juice in Happy Meals.” my view on juice is that it’s nutritionally basically the same as soda and humans only drank water for most of our existence. So to me I’m like yes, it’s a change. From my view, it does not seem like that much of a change. On the other hand, once you make that change then maybe other changes are possible because I can certainly imagine a McDonald’s of the future that people then would look back at what you said and said, “Yeah, he got us started but we have done so much more. Like there’s no way he could envision those things.” That’s what gets me going. I believe that much bigger changes are possible and that people look at this the way that I don’t know… I can’t think of comparison off my head but they would look at what you did. No offense but it’s small potatoes.
Bob: I agree. You know you got to start you know you got to start a pathway and this beef thing it wouldn’t surprise me that down the road, I’m talking 10 years down the road is like there’s no more hormones injected in there, there’s no more antibiotics put into beef and you know things are you know more organic, etc. I mean but if you try to start at some state of nirvana, very rarely does that happen, Josh. You know you got to start at some point in time that is significant and start the ball rolling.
Joshua: I’m going to transition here to talking more about the environment in general. It seems to be something that you are genuinely… It’s not like you’re faking this and actually you’re not at McDonald’s now so it’s not like… But even then when you think about the environment what does the environment mean to you? I mean interpreting it however it makes sense to you.
Bob: You know that we should all be respectful and responsible and that’s where I begin with almost everything is you know holding everything in deep respect and being very responsible in our actions. And my ethic is very conserving and so I come from more of a conserving viewpoint. Like why should we waste things and we should just be responsible. When I see… And I still see it today. I was driving and I saw about a week ago somebody just threw out a McDonald’s back onto the street while driving a car and all the stuff in the bag went all over the place in the street. I go, “How could somebody do that? Like what makes them take that action to litter like that?”
So now being part of a company you know I think my philosophy was that environment should be… I always said broadly speaking sustainability should have a seat at the table. So that was my philosophy and my work at McDonald’s is not that… The environment is not number one because it’s not going to be number one. You’re in a for profit business but the environment and sustainability should have a seat at the table, that should be part of the mindset of all leaders. This should be part of the decision making process. I was always very happy when we did that so we evaluated things and we ended up doing it so we would always know what the environmental impact of something was. We would look at environmental options and make it better. I think that’s being a good environmentalist is having awareness, having the knowledge and then acting upon it both as an individual and as a company. But I also you know view that sustainability is also being happy and having a fulfilled life.
And so you know I don’t think… I’m very against, believe me, I’ve been in this movement for a long time and when I was first going to all these meetings and I would go to kind of try to learn more about sustainability a lot of people teaching it I always called them doom stators you know the world’s falling apart blah blah blah. You know they throw a lot of guilt at you and then they said, “OK, we need to do something about it.” That always turned me off and I just I think that approach doesn’t work. And I still don’t think it works. You know not that I don’t disagree that there’s these big problems in the world but I don’t think you’re going to get people to move upon unless you’re a positive, optimistic, cheerful, praise the people that do good things. You know take three steps forward while you’re taking two steps backwards. I mean that’s just the way things happen. I’m against Doomsday. And a lot of people in the environmental community I have to say historically are of that ilk. And I think the environmental movement should be much more of hope, optimism, cheer, enthusiasm.
Joshua: So I heard a lot of the… A big wealth of what the environment means to you. You start off to talk about respect and you took a very practical of like what do we actually do. And you’re put off by the doom and gloom as am I and more practical, more effective is to be cheerful and supportive. I am also curious like what to do about it. When you think about the environment what do you think about? Like you don’t like waste, you don’t like people throwing stuff out, that implied to me there’s an undercurrent of what’s worth not wasting or what does the waste mess up. And I’m curious if that’s something interesting as well. Like what do you think of when you think environment? It’s different for everyone.
Bob: Are you speaking on an individual level or…
Joshua: Yeah, you Bob, not McDonald’s. Yeah.
Bob: You know I start out from a viewpoint of saying we should be living on a wonderful Earth that’s full of beauty and I start out with nature and I’d like to see the beauty in the world, not the ugliness of the world. And I’d like to see the forest and the oceans and the lakes. And there’s a segment I’m not sure if you watch CBS Sunday Morning because I do. It’s one of the greatest shows on TV because it’s a very positive issue showing people doing good things and the end of the show is just two minutes of nature and all you are sitting there watching this show. There’s no human beings, there’s no [unintelligible] structures and all you’re doing is observing nature. That’s probably the other place where I start is we’ve got to keep this world the best we can beautiful for everybody in the future. I have six grandkids so I think differently about it today than I did 40 years ago. I worry that my kids maybe will see an earth that is uglier than it has been in the past. So yeah, I think probably nature is a big part of it. So when I see that litter go on the street I view that as a person just taking… It’s like they’re throwing pollution into the earth. It’s like how could you do that?
Your example of water bottle. [unintelligible] at McDonald’s we would work very hard to have the you know pictures of the water in the water containers you know in glasses versus disposables because that’s the mindset you want to have rather than taking you know every little bad action take something that’s taking the Earth to a bad place. So that’s part of how I think about it.
Joshua: You know I have to comment here that I’ve had hundreds of these conversations and I’ve said to many people one of the things I like most about is the answer to this question of what the environment means to people and part of the reason I love it so much is the answers are so different. And when I began I thought everyone is going to have the same answer as mine.
Bob: What’s your answer?
Joshua: The reason I mentioned this yours is actually probably the closest to what I would say myself of all the people I’ve spoken to so far. That to me there’s beauty, an aesthetic beauty that you know… Historically one of the major reasons why I went into physics was to learn about nature. I believe that that beauty was a deeper, deeper levels and I was always finding more and more beauty same with mathematics. That’s an aside but I always thought was beautiful and that litter if I really work out in some philosophical sense I can see the beauty in anything and I can find beauty in litter and pollution but there’s something also that I feel like something hardwired into that like blue skies and a bubbling [unintelligible], green leaves on trees. There’s a beauty there that you don’t have to work at that one like it’s pretty clear like or biting into a ripe piece of fruit that’s really delicious.
And you know not to take away… A lot of other people they grew up on the water and spending time on a boat is something that for them or camping with their grandparents or sometimes it’s some dystopic future that really gets them scared or something like that. You know sometimes it’s a future, sometimes it’s past, sometimes it’s family or friends, sometimes it’s the park with their dogs and of all them yours was like that’s almost like how I describe it. So I couldn’t help but comment on that.
And what I also do with guests is I invite them at their options… I invite you at your option given how you view the world and what it means to you to do something that you haven’t already done to act on that. It’s not to try to fix all the world’s problems. It’s not to save the world. It’s about for you doing something that you value but it can’t be something you’re already doing and it can’t be telling other people telling other people to do something because there’s enough people telling other people what to do. And this is about personal, doing something yourself to act on your values. And then if you decline, that’s fine. If you choose to do it, then to share the experience after you’ve done it.
Bob: I’ll take you up on that. I’m a big believer of leading by example. You know one of the biggest things that struck me in my own personal growth, I heard this phrase kind of early on in my career about the shadow of a leader and I think it’s really, really, really important. People look at leaders and what they do and what behaviors they take and so you know I like to keep expanding so I’ve got to figure that out, Josh. I’ll take it on.
Joshua: Cool. I’ll comment on what you just said that what companies are telling me when they come to me is that, “We try to do something as a company but if our leaders aren’t doing it, then people accuse us of greenwashing.” And so you talk to people in your podcast and have them share change and that’s authentic. And in my experience leading by example isn’t that effective in the environment because I was doing things that I thought would set great examples and people say, “Oh. that’s great. You keep doing that. I’ll do what I do. “I think un-leading by un-example. If you don’t do it, it’s very difficult. People will say, “Well, you are not going to do it. I am not going to do it.” So it’s more like a kind of vetoes things if you don’t do it. But if you do it, you still need a lot of leadership on top of that.
Bob: Yeah I gave a big speech last week at the University of Virginia, Darden School of Business. It was very hectic. I had a lot on my mind and the I had a can of soda. OK, so yes, I had a can of soda in my hand and I had finished it. And it was very easy for me… There was no recycling nearby. So I looked around and I go I’m busy, I got to get to my next thing but you know what. I said to myself, the shadow of the leader. So I asked the person, “Where can I recycle this?” And it took me an extra minute to find it but it made me feel good that I did that because if you didn’t do that, what are all people watching you here’s a person who just gave a speech about being a leader and I’m throwing an aluminum can into that garbage bin. I don’t want to do that. What signal would that say to everybody who is watching me? And I think that happens more than we think with a lot of leaders.
Joshua: And a big reason why I ask people to do this and to share it is so that people listening… I think there’s a lot of the following in the world, “If I act but no one else does, then what I do doesn’t matter.” But if they see that they’re not the only ones doing it especially if leaders are doing things, actually people who do things are becoming leaders because I think if you’re acting in your values and other people aren’t but they share those values you’re becoming a leader.
Bob: Well, also what I’ve learned over time at McDonald’s we said it takes 10 positive things to say to overcome one negative. I just learned last week at the Darden School of Management that it takes five positive actions to overcome one negative action. So negativity is a lot of power unfortunately. Why do political campaigns have all this negativity? Because they work. So we have to outnumber them. I’m all on board. We have to outnumber this because positiveness should win out. We need more of it.
Joshua: So some people what I invite them, a lot of people have something in their minds that like they’ve been meaning for a while to you know “I’ve been meaning for a while to cut X out or to do more of Y.” Some people they haven’t thought of something and we go back and forth a couple of times to help draw out something that they can do. I wonder is there anything that has been on your mind about that, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to do this thing and this might be the opportunity to do it”? Because I’d like to get something in the course of this call.
Bob: Now you’ve really shone me right on the spot.
Joshua: Well, I hope you don’t feel too much on the spot but partly I think that’s valuable for the listeners because the listeners are going to have different values and if they want to do something themselves, I think what they’re going have to act on something from their values so if we have a bit of back and forth, I think that helps the listeners as well because it’s not necessarily the case that they have something on their mind either. So you’re not a small minority on this that a lot of other people that have also been like “I’m not really sure.”
Bob: Well, you know what my mind first goes to what individual action It goes more into what I could do to be part of something. So I mean that’s kind of where my mind goes. I mean sometimes… I’m retired now and you can get comfortable in that space so just read the book you know you’re busy. I got a nice family that I love very much but I am looking for a way to make an impact where I can maybe get involved with something. I’m not sure what it is yet, Josh, I’ll have to look at it but I would want to… I don’t feel many I think more people need to get into this environmental movement of some sort.
Joshua: Sorry to interrupt. I didn’t mention one other thing is that I also asked it be something with a measurable difference. So because a lot people say, “I want to raise my awareness, I want to raise my consciousness, I want to educate and that’s all fine and well and I would not stop people from doing that but I’m looking for something that is…
Bob: So what I’m thinking about is I maybe organize a cleanup somewhere here in my community.
Joshua: Yeah, that would definitely fit all the criteria at my end.
Bob: Get 10 or 20 people. What I want to do is bring other people along too you know… And so yeah that’s how I start thinking. I want to do something like that.
Joshua: Yeah. That would be great because I think that… First of all, you start thinking of people as a resource that you can work with as opposed to something that’s like, “But other people what are they going to think?” or something like that. And personally I love that way of thinking because I think it is all the causes of these environmental issues are our behavior and its people and its leadership. That’s my personal bias. And I feel like you aren’t quite sure yet what you would organize them to clean up and how big it would be or where it would be or when it would be. But I wonder if we could… I always like to make a SMART goal you know specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time based. And I wonder if you could say within a certain period and specify a bit and I don’t want to constrain you too much but I find that that helps people because if you just say, “I am going to do cleanup at some point some time.” it’s easy for that not to happen.
Bob: I’ll do something by June 1 of this year, make a difference with others, they will create less pollution, more beauty in nature. That’s where I start right now.
Joshua: So could we schedule a second conversation shortly after June 1 to hear how it went?
Bob: Yeah. Absolutely.
Joshua: Okay. And I want to make sure you’re not doing this like, “I’m doing this because Josh told me to.” If it is, then I prefer to undo it but… Are you doing it for me, for yourself?
Bob: I’m doing it because you [unintelligible] me on and I won’t agree to do something I don’t want to do. You know I believe in doing things that are authentic to me. So no, what I choose to do now and my lifestyle I want to have fun, I want to have flexibility and most importantly I want to make a difference in the world. So I’m looking for avenues to make a difference. So this sounds like a good one to me.
Joshua: Okay, cool, yeah. I’m glad to hear that because I was a little worried for a second. And actually now we’re approaching an hour. So I’ll wrap up but I’d like to wrap up with two questions. One is is there anything I didn’t think to ask that you would like to bring up or is worth bringing up?
Bob: You covered a lot of ground, Josh, so I’m happy. I’m happy. I’m happy with the interview. Thank you.
Joshua: And is anything you want to say directly to listeners that didn’t come out?
Bob: Perhaps I like to encourage and read my book. I really do. I mean I didn’t write the book for myself you know so I haven’t made a strong pitch for the book yet on your show and I’ll just…
Joshua: Go for it. Yeah.
Bob: I really do think that you’ll learn a lot. At a minimum you will learn a lot. I think you’ll be raising your eyebrows a lot as to what you learn in the book and I think you’ll understand what happens behind big companies and big brands and by the way, a lot of NGOs are in the book and how they think and I think the book can help leaders that are listeners, that are in the organizational space looking for ideas as to how to lead. My book is not technical, it’s not academic. I have these little hard nuggets at the end of each chapter that kind of chit that a little bit but the core of the whole book is telling you stories. And I think the way I learned was through watching others what they did either right or wrong. And I think this book can help you on your leadership journey.
Joshua: Bob Langert, thank you very much.
Bob: You’re welcome.
Bob spoke mostly about corporate change. My goal is to foster personal change among influential people so I was glad to see he’s taken on a personal commitment. With all my issues of avoiding packaging, obesity, avoiding meat, avoiding fossil fuel burning vehicles and so on it felt funny not pursuing those angles. But I only just met the man. And he’s not at McDonald’s now anyway. I’m interested in what change is possible. I’m more interested in learning the territory and I think in the long run will pay off and I got to see a picture reading the book and talking to the men about McDonald’s and their change. I think there’s a lot of potential for greater change. And it sounds like he’s open for that too. Not that he’s there anymore but we’ll see what goes with his personal commitment when we talk again and we’ll see how his personal commitment leads to personal change in himself, if any. And maybe that’ll open some doors into seeing some change in McDonald’s.
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