Tips From The Top: One On One With M. Sanjayan

I spoke to M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, about his journey and best advice

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CROPPED_Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO Conservation International, August 1, 2018. CI CEO M. Sanjayan's portrait taken August 1, 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya.

CROPPED_Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO Conservation International, August 1, 2018. CI CEO M. Sanjayan's portrait taken August 1, 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya. OFFICIAL SELECT.

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

M.: My family and I are fortunate to have a cabin in Montana as a well as a home just outside Washington, DC. I make sure to start my day in both places by sitting on the porch with my daughter, Ava, who just turned two. I drink my coffee while she drinks her milk, and we spend a moment taking in the nature around us. 

In Montana, of course, the view is about as beautiful as you would expect, but I want Ava to know there is plenty of nature right here in DC, too. We have massive oak trees, and I saw an eagle a while ago. Eagles have amazing vision, and this one was actually clutching a fish in her talons. My hope is that those kinds of moments will help Ava to know that nature can create a sense of wonder, no matter where she is. 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

M.: When I was in graduate school at UC Santa Cruz, my dream was to study cheetahs. I had dreams of wandering around these vast African savannas, watching these magnificent creatures sprint across the landscape. Instead, I ended up in California’s Central Valley, digging for gophers. 

If you’ve ever been to the Central Valley, you know it’s a lot of small farming communities and not a lot of people who look like me. I ended up getting an Australian shepherd and a pickup truck just to fit in. And I spent the next three years driving to people’s farms and asking them if I could catch gophers on their land. 

The Central Valley isn’t the kind of place you would expect an environmentalist to go, and it’s certainly not where I had expected to be doing my PhD research. But in the end, that work taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned about conservation – which is that we’ve been doing it all wrong. 

I love nature as much as the next environmentalist, but the fact is that just loving nature isn’t enough to get most people to protect it. The people in California’s Central Valley knew nature just as well as I did, but it wasn’t because they wanted to protect animals. It’s because they depended on it. They loved nature not for its wildlife, but for its use. And if we’re going to stop the extinction crisis and fight climate change, environmentalists need to engage them just as much as we engage the tree huggers.  

Now, as a CEO, I’ve had the chance to take that lesson and apply it to the work that we’re doing around the world. My first question about a potential project isn’t just “what do we need to save?” – it’s “what are we trying to change?”

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

M.: I don’t think you can be an effective leader without having a clear sense of your values. I’ve learned over the years that someone can learn a new skill fairly easily, but it’s pretty difficult for them to pick up a new set of values. That’s why, if you’re leading an organization, you need to really know the values that are important to your mission, to look for those values when you’re making hiring decisions, and to instill those values across all of your different teams.  

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

M.: First, believe in your vision. The best leaders are comfortable with who they are and confident in what they’re working towards. 

Second, tell your story. When everyone on the team knows the destination and how you intend to get there, it’s a lot easier to keep people motivated during tough and uncertain times.

And third, focus on relationships. For all the time that leaders spend making the big calls, they spend even more time developing relationships between people. Relentless teamwork and cooperation are the two key elements that determine how quickly organizations reach their goal. 

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

M.: As leaders, we need to understand that we’re the coaches rather than the star players. Some of the best moments in basketball, for example, are when you see a player throw a no-look pass or set up a teammate for an open shot. Those kinds of plays are beautiful to watch, and they only come by constantly practicing and developing relationships. 

To that end, I’ve really embraced General Stanley McChrystal’s concept that we should think of an organization as a team of teams. The relationships between people on individual teams and those between teams are often more important than the ones between people and their managements. The best thing I can do as a leader is foster and develop those relationships so that the beautiful plays become possible. 

Adam: What are your best lessons on leading a nonprofit organization and best lessons for leaders of nonprofits?

M.: At the end of the day, we are all products of our own experiences, and those experiences shape how we see the world. When you’re leading a mission-driven organization, you have a unique obligation to make sure that your team’s experiences reflect the people and the causes that you’re trying to serve. 

I say this in part from my own personal experience. As a kid born in Sri Lanka and raised in West Africa, I spent my entire childhood in the types of places where conservation organizations work. But I never imagined as a child that I could work in conservation, much less lead an organization like Conservation International. 

Of course, the fact that we’re speaking right now means we’ve made some progress, but, frankly, it’s nowhere near enough. I think we need to take a hard look and ask ourselves why that is. 

A few years ago, I was on an interview committee with a clear standout candidate, one who also happened to be the only Black person we interviewed. He was full of ideas, but because he didn’t talk about things like fly fishing, or birding, or the last wild places, the other interviewers dismissed him for not being a good “fit.” We hired him in the end, possibly because I repeatedly intervened on his behalf. 

When we focus on culturally loaded concepts like fit, when we prioritize academic training over traditional knowledge, or when we consider resume items instead of lived experiences, we’re missing out on valuable perspectives that can’t be trained. We end up hurting both our organizations and the missions that we’re trying to advance. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

M.: One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever received is that leaders constantly need to ask for feedback from the people around them. As a CEO, I need to understand what I can be doing differently and what I can be doing better so that I can keep my organization dynamic in the face of challenges like this pandemic. If I’m not relentless in the search for that information, then my leadership – and, potentially, my organization – will become stagnant. 

Adam: What should everyone understand about the climate crisis and about conservation?

M.: One of the clear things that we should all take away from this year is the fact that climate change is not just some abstract there. Whether it’s wildfires or hurricanes or floods, climate change is something that we can see on many of our doorsteps. 

But while climate change may already be here, it’s not too late for us to do something about it. We can still prevent it from getting worse – if we rise to the urgency of this moment. 

The most important thing we need to do is transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. But that in itself is not enough. If we want a stable climate, we also need to remove some of the carbon that we’ve already emitted. 

This is where conservation comes in. Tropical forests, wetlands, prairies – all of these places naturally absorb carbon, and they do so far more effectively than any technology we’ve built. That means the second most important thing we can do for the climate is protect nature, and the third is to restore the natural habitats that we’ve previously destroyed. 

Adam: What should everyone do to pay it forward?

M.: Environmentalists are constantly debating whether our advocacy should focus on individual behavioral changes or larger systemic shifts, but the truth is that we need both. Whether we’re talking about governments or businesses or individuals, we all have a role to play in putting the planet on a more sustainable path.  

Governments obviously need to support a just and rapid transition to renewable energy sources. They also need to change the policy incentives that currently promote the destruction of nature. And they need to work with other governments to scale up these efforts on a global scale. 

Businesses, on the other hand, need to change how they think about nature and sustainability. What needs to happen in practice can depend on business and the sector, but it often involves making supply chains more sustainable or changing accounting practices to better represent the value that nature provides. 

Of course, individual people have a role to play in accelerating these transitions. We need to support the companies and candidates that are advancing efforts to protect nature and slow climate change. It may be tempting to think we’re individually too small to make a difference, but our cumulative choices are what create the pressure behind those larger shifts.    

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

M.: I know that challenges like climate change can sound daunting and overwhelming, but we can’t afford to give into despair. Frankly, we don’t have enough time. Science tells us that this is the critical decade for nature and humanity. What we do now will fundamentally determine what happens to our climate, our communities, and our children. 

Given how much we still have to do and how much time we have left to do it, we can’t allow ourselves to be pessimistic or let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Those tendences all too often lead to inertia, despite the fact that we have everything we need to take action. We have the science that tells us what we need to do. We have the ingenuity to see what we can accomplish. And we have the public support to get it all done.  

All that’s left is for us to choose the path that we are going to take. And when the choices are between despair and action, I’m going to choose action every time.

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