Leading the charge how Greenpeace is nurturing its future leaders

Written by
Changeboard Team

05 Mar 2015

05 Mar 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Strategic risk-taking

Picture this: 30 of your employees are on a trip. But this is no ordinary trip – they are on board a ship bound for Russia to protest against oil exploration. Four of the shipmates try to board a Russian oil platform. Then, the Russian authorities forcibly take control of the ship. What do you do?

This was the exact leadership challenge faced by executives at international environmental charity Greenpeace in September 2013. The case drew international attention – and the ‘Arctic 30’ were detained for more than three months before being freed in the wake of more than 800 protests worldwide.

For Janet Dalziell, global HR director, encouraging well-judged risk-taking is a key part of the organisation’s talent strategy. “We do things deliberately that can have serious consequences, which requires a particular mindset and behaviour on the part of our leaders,” she explains.

“We recognise that the management behaviours of the future will differ from those of old, and as we grow, we’ve got to ensure the organisation remains strong, vibrant and daring.”

A tipping point for change

The 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, which dramatically collapsed as governments failed to reach an agreement, proved to be a turning point for Greenpeace. “Until that point, we had always counted on the strong support we have in Europe to give us the ability to influence politicians in Europe, so the failure of Copenhagen was a wake-up call, that that approach was no longer effective,” reveals Dalziell.

Greenpeace knew it needed to extend its scope beyond Europe. In an HR context, this meant a shift in focus on how it related to people and talent – including staff, volunteers and supporters.

The outcome was to create a global strategy to build Greenpeace in the countries that will determine the course of the 21st century, and to acknowledge people as the organisation’s greatest resource and treat them accordingly – a partnership approach. This involves changing the way it campaigns to become much more people powered, and creating a pipeline of future leaders to carry the organisation forward.

“Our ultimate aim is to create fundamental change on a global basis, so we know that solutions can only come from global co-operation,” Dalziell says.

Becoming global, flexible and collaborative

Founded in 1971, Greenpeace now operates across more than 40 countries worldwide, with over 2,500 full-time employees and more than 18,000 volunteers – who are vital in helping the organisation mobilise its campaigns.

Change began by reducing the size of the global centre at Greenpeace International and moving resources to key battlegrounds in regions like Asia, Africa, Brazil, Russia and the US.

“We wanted to ‘flip upside down’ how we run global campaigns by empowering national offices, without losing the glue that binds us together globally by working collaboratively,” adds Dalziell.

For example, Greenpeace’s Nordic operation was empowered to lead the Arctic 30 response while coordination and implementation were distributed to Greenpeace teams across the globe.

Dalziell hopes this strategy will enable the organisation to be faster and more responsive to the accelerating pace of change. “Our new model aims to promote greater experimentation, more innovation and creativity for risk, and more global collaboration. By taking and making decisions at the point of impact we will become more dynamic,” she adds.

Plugging the talent pipeline

Although Greenpeace wants projects to be owned ‘in country’, Dalziell acknowledges this poses a question around how it develops the necessary skills to deliver. “In parts of the world where we’re trying to grow, we have to be a lot more thoughtful and deliberate about how we look for talent,” she says.

This means that, while Greenpeace has historically relied on the power of its brand to attract talent in countries where it is known – often by recruiting volunteers (indeed, Dalziell began her own career after being a student activist) – as the organisation expands it needs to focus outward. This involves reaching out to people who started their activist careers elsewhere.

But defining the capabilities the organisation needs can be tough. “We need people who are great mobilisers, are prepared to go against the status quo, are determined to stick at it even when the cause is hopeless. We want people who are prepared to stand up against the mainstream. Yet often, those skills are intangible,” she says.

Unlike many other organisations, ‘top talent’ in Greenpeace is not typically defined as “the brightest graduates” so for Dalziell, an open mindset is essential.

A global context

Once employed, Dalziell says people usually stay “for years”, which she puts down to their connection with the charity’s overall mission. But the federal enterprise structure of Greenpeace means each of the 27 national and regional offices operates independently. Dalziell and her team are now working on standardising role grades across the globe so it’s easier for talent to move internally.

Part of this includes “transactional HR stuff” such as ensuring visas, pensions and payment structures are working well, but once these “HR basics” have been tackled in a global context, Dalziell hopes this will allow the HR team to “get serious” about its long-term talent management strategy.

Embedding leadership skills

The organisation is cognizant that relying on “the same organic processes” to deliver leaders will not be sufficient for the future, so attention in recent months has largely focused on leadership development. “Our senior leaders realised there was no sustainable pipeline of future talent,” says Dalziell. “But we have gone past the size where you can rely on the talented individuals sticking out and coming to the notice of the right people.”

To address this, a common competency framework has been introduced “so we’re all talking the same language about skills”. For leadership in Greenpeace, this comprises five key characteristics: energy, energise, edge, execute and expertise, which Greenpeace will use to benchmark talent.

This new framework has allowed Greenpeace to examine its current leadership operation and Dalziell says that people are hugely positive about the programme. She credits this in part to developing the model in conjunction with the current senior leadership team to ensure everyone bought into it.

“We realised we needed to invest in the leadership of the future by changing some of the old ingrained ways of behaving to support the new way of working,” says Dalziell. “For example, we want our leaders to spend time empowering others rather than leading the charge. It’s a change in behaviour that’s long overdue.”

Encouraging risk through self-awareness

Dalziell is also clear on the importance of risk, yet with so many organisations in today’s business climate focused on minimising it, nurturing the behaviours to encourage it is a complex challenge.

“When you think of the risks involved in taking a ship into Russia, it’s really serious. As a leader, you have to mitigate risks, which requires a certain skill set, such as a willingness to take on the decision making and responsibility for it. We know we want and need to continue to take these risks, but it’s not easy – we’re dealing with people’s freedom and lives.”

So what, specifically, are the behaviours required from this type of leader? “It’s about resilience and self-awareness. You need to be simultaneously strong enough to take a risk without being paralysed by its potential consequences.”

Equally, while Dalziell wants leaders to be passionate about the cause, their ability to appreciate different perspectives is paramount, particularly as Greenpeace expands. “You can’t get wrapped up in emotion, or your need to stick to your guns. We need people who can stay true to the purpose of taking the risk. We’ll never err on the side of absolute safety, so you must be comfortable with that,” she says.

When it comes to balancing dynamism, flexibility and risk-taking with implementing a professional global structure, Dalziell says HR has a tricky task. “It comes down to good leadership.People are motivated by doing something active towards the mission, but they don’t want to be caught up in bureaucracy.”

She believes HR can often have “unhelpful baggage” associated with it, so strategic focus is paramount. “You have to speak to leaders on the level they’re operating at. Don’t expect just because you can see the value you can bring that others will see it immediately. It takes lots of approaches. We’re only at the beginning, but if we get leadership right now it will give us so much scope for the future.”