TEM Stories: Fluent in influence
“A different language is a different vision of life.”
– Federico Fellini
In India, many moons ago, I came across a young lad in Old Delhi who asked me in clipped English whether I wanted a shoeshine. I had arrived in the capital on my way to teach at a private boarding school in the Himalayas and had been learning Hindi, so I was keen to practice my conversational skills. We got talking and it turns out young Raju knew 8 languages: Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Punjabi, English, German, Hebrew and Spanish. I spent half a day with him and watched him ply his trade to tourists. With his deft language skills and the twinkle in his eye he was the best tout in the tourist precinct.
Raju learned those skills to survive and his memory has stayed with me and unbeknownst to him, he has become an inspiration that has driven me. And that is because I recognise how hard it is to learn another language, and how useful it can be to use it in a professional capacity.
My “mother tongue” is environment. As a child I read about nature, we went camping every holiday, watched David Attenborough docos and on the back of the door of our toilet my mother had placed the words of the speech Chief Seattle gave to the US President in 1854, one of the most profound environmental statements ever made about the value of the natural world. I studied Environment at the old Rusden campus in Melbourne and graduated the year of the Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development. A career in the field of environment beckoned but I was naturally attracted to the business world. Bringing those two endeavours together has been a 30-year journey.
In late 1999, the world’s leaders gathered at the UN in New York to sign the world community up to the Millennium Development Goals. It was a timebound, measurable, laudable blueprint that required billions of dollars of capital. The finance and investment sector were critical to engage if we were to have any chance of catalysing the investment required. However, in my assessment, the problem was that the providers of capital were not at the table.
At the time, the environmental fraternity were mutually supporting each other in the “environmental country club” but were very disconnected from the “finance and investment country club”. There was very little interchange. The languages that were spoken were different. I realised then I needed to learn the language of finance if I was to broaden the impact I could have in my career. Mind you, the canapes and cocktails were better in the swanky world of finance.
So, over the next few years I read the Fin Review daily, went to work at a bank as a sustainability advisor and managed a small fund for the City of Melbourne. At the bank, my role was to interview the top 100 executives and identify where sustainability impacted their business line. It forced me to swat up each night before meetings but as it turns out, once you cut through the hubris, it wasn’t actually a difficult language to learn (Arabic and Urdu would be infinitely harder).
However, I came to recognise that finance wasn’t the only key sustainability dimension that I needed to be across to have the conversations with ‘disbelievers’. There was government policy and clean technology and community and social licence and carbon markets. Throw in a bit of psychology too. So, I determined I had to learn those languages too.
I needed to be fluent enough to be able to influence, educate, motivate and guide decision makers in the language they understood. Malcolm Gladwell’s dictum in his book Outliers, is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become truly accomplished in any pursuit. Lucky I talk a lot. I found that when you can connect on someone’s level, in their language, a relationship can form and trust can develop. The professional connections that I have developed helped me see things from perspectives I would not have appreciated. They’ve also provided an opportunity to teach others a little bit of my vernacular too. There is an optical illusion where the word ‘learn’ can be written in a certain way and then inverted to become ‘teach’.
Today as CEO of TEM, I get the opportunity to engage diverse audiences on why carbon offsetting is an integral part of any carbon neutral or decarbonisation strategy, how you manage risks in procurement and what the genuine impact is in communities where the climate finance flows. I believe that carbon offsetting, by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, is a critical part of the solution to taking climate action, but I also recognise, for many it is a whole new language.
So the learning and teaching doesn’t stop, and the languages evolve. And although at this challenging time we don’t get to indulge in fun networking over canapes and cocktails, I believe it is up to each of us to educate ourselves, teach others and continue to hone our language skills if we are to have the best chance to influence key decision makers in business and government to seize the moment to decarbonise and meet the goals of the world community.
Raju is counting on us.