Allow yourself to be vulnerable. We had a staff of 300 people at the UN Foundation. When you’re leading a group of people, you have to show them that you, too, are vulnerable — you have your good days and bad days. At the same time, you also have to understand their life circumstances, what they are going through, and meet them where they are. That’s the way you connect with people and build relationships that will see you through even the worst setbacks.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market. I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Parnell.
Executive, advocate, team builder, and optimist, Rick Parnell is leveraging his skills to help the Foundation for Climate Restoration pursue concrete, realistic and scalable climate restoration solutions. Rick came to F4CR after 16 years with the United Nations Foundation, where he designed the Foundation’s partnership model and put together a team of over 300 committed individuals throughout the U.S. and around the world that, under his leadership, mobilized more than $2.2 billion dedicated to helping the UN solve a range of global challenges, including the deterioration of our climate.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
My work with the Foundation for Climate Restoration is, I think, a natural extension of the years I spent with the United Nations Foundation. It felt like a brave new world at the UNF when I joined it in 2001.
Ted Turner, who founded CNN, is a great philanthropist and a great believer in the United Nations as a force for good — he wanted everyone in the world to embrace the UN and everything it stands for. He gave $1-billion to establish the United Nations Foundation as a public charity to support the UN’s causes, and it was he — as chairman of the UNF’s board of directors — who first had the idea of opening it up to the possibility of partnerships. I then had the incredible privilege of working with Ted to leverage his original donation into more than $2-billion in public- and private-sector partnerships. It was a huge learning experience: Ted brought incredible value to the UNF and to my life as well.
Today, I get to bring that UNF experience — plus what I learned before that working for John Lombardi at the University of Florida, about how to establish good working relationships with a broad cross-section of groups and influencers — and laser-focus it on one issue: climate change.
Just a few years ago, you simply could not get through to people about climate change, or global warming. They just didn’t want to hear it. But now pretty much the entire world has woken up and we’re in the midst of a major breakthrough. Many people, including me, are now dedicating their lives to working on solutions and figuring out a way forward.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I’m not sure I have a single most interesting story from my career, but I do have a single great belief, instilled in me by Ted Turner and my other great mentor, John Lombardi. I worked for John when he was president of the University of Florida in the 1990s.
Both of them taught me that you have to stay true to your convictions, no matter what: Ted with his belief in the UN, and John with his willingness to put it all on the line — his job, his reputation, everything.
John fought with the Florida State legislature and others over and over again during the 90s, to ensure that students got the best possible education at a fair price. I got to watch as donors, faculty, students and alumni all rallied around him. He showed me that if it was the right thing to do, he would do it, no matter what.
I like to think I am like that, too. When it’s necessary, which it is now with climate change, I will put it all on the line.
(By the way, John Lombardi went on to do more great things as head of several other universities, and I am still close to him and Ted Turner. My whole backstory, my whole career, is really about relationships, relationships, relationships.)
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Foundation for Climate Restoration stands out because it is built on hope, not fear.
Our goal is to return atmospheric CO2 to historically safe pre-industrial levels of less than 300 parts per million by 2050, from their current 410 parts per million.
The first thing people always say when I tell them that we can restore the climate is “No way, you can’t restore the climate. Come on. This is way too aggressive. Do you really think that could happen?”
But I tell them that solutions really do already exist to not just slow down climate change but to restore the Earth to the state it was in before the Industrial Revolution. These are commercially viable, sustainable technologies, and include projects like converting excess CO2 into low-cost limestone aggregate to make concrete. No question this is going to be hard work but it is possible if we commit to the goal.
Once we show people what’s possible, they shift their mindset. They move through the belief process and make the transition from “you can’t do that,” to “maybe we can,” and finally “dammit, let’s try!” They move from “you” to “we” — they want to be part of this movement, too — and “impossible” to “possible.”
The pinnacle for us was hosting the first-annual Global Climate Restoration Forum at the United Nations this past September 17th. We had 700 people registered for the forum, and people at the UN are still talking about it and how positive it was. If you show people that there really are solutions, they respond.
I’m a huge believer in the kindest and goodness of others. Once given the right knowledge and the right opportunity, nine out of 10 C-suites are willing to look for change. They just need someone to say here, come to the table, work with us and help us figure this out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This is corny, but I am immensely grateful to my parents. Not only am I dyslexic, I am also gay, and all they ever said was “Yes. You can do it.” They never said things like “his life is going to be harder because he’s gay.” They just supported me.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is the ability to recover and still not lose faith in either the people around you or the mission you are working on. We all have setbacks, and we all have to start over. You have to be able to bounce with it and keep moving.
One thing John Lombardi said to me that I think is really important is: “just make a decision. If it’s wrong we’ll fix it, but don’t leave everyone else paralyzed waiting for you to decide.” Resilience is the ability to look at a change in circumstances or surroundings, say OK, now we have to pivot, and then make a decision. If it’s the wrong decision, there’s always a way to adjust, but keep moving.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
There have been so many people over my lifetime, but Jane Fonda right now, for sure. She’s about to turn 82 years old and, inspired by youth, she’s taking on the most important issues of our time — she’s even willing to go to jail over climate change — and she’s inspiring people everywhere.
Fonda was vilified at one time for her beliefs about the Vietnam War, but she survived that and look at her now. Beloved by new generations for both her acting and her activism. That’s resilience. She’s also out there every week. I was with her at a Fire Drill Friday a couple of weeks ago– she’s just incredible.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
On the personal side, people used to say that I would never be able to marry my husband, but the world changed. We’ve been together for 18 years now.
On the professional side, people used to say that climate restoration is impossible, but I see them changing their minds every day. More and more people are recognizing that is possible to restore the climate to pre-industrial levels, and we are going to do it.
It’s going to be really hard and take a lot of work, but this is a story that I truly believe will have a happy ending.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
When John Lombardi stepped down as President of the University of Florida in 1999, it was a huge setback for me personally. I was devastated– I thought that all we had done for 10 years to try to make it a top research institute in the country was gone. It wasn’t really, it turns out because there were a lot of people there who carried on the work.
When I went to one of our big donors to talk right after John’s departure, she used the old cliché about how when one door closes, another one opens, and she was right. Everyone thought I was insane to leave the University, but I just knew I wanted a new challenge. And that’s when I moved up to Washington, DC, simply because it was where I wanted to be then and started again.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Yeah, it’s called being gay in the deep South in the United States in the 60s and 70s. People can be cruel when they don’t understand. Every day it was a test of my resilience: do you keep standing up and live the life you want to live. I never lived in the closet, but I wasn’t out marching in the streets either. I was just somebody living my life, staying true to who I am and my own values and not being afraid of being gay.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are the 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Embrace change. My life in Florida was great but I left it to move into a tiny, tiny one-bedroom apartment in Washington because I wanted to start a new life. Best thing I ever did. It led me to the UN, my husband, and now the Foundation for Climate Restoration.
2. Make decisions, even when they are scary. I’d been to the UN and read the newspapers, so I knew essentially what the UN did, but it was going to be a whole other start over for me, again, when I joined the UN Foundation in 2001. It was hugely scary, and it could have stopped me, but I made the decision.
3. Accept your life circumstances. I was dyslexic before people really knew what it was and gay long before anyone ever even dreamed of gay marriage. I suppose I could have said “ why me?” but I never felt that way. I always felt incredibly blessed and lucky.
4. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. We had a staff of 300 people at the UN Foundation. When you’re leading a group of people, you have to show them that you, too, are vulnerable — you have your good days and bad days. At the same time, you also have to understand their life circumstances, what they are going through, and meet them where they are. That’s the way you connect with people and build relationships that will see you through even the worst setbacks.
5. Surround yourself with the very best people. I am pretty sure that every single person who is on our Foundation’s Monday staff conference call is far wiser and far smarter than I am. Don’t surround yourself with people who just say “yes” — there’s nothing worse. They will not be there to help when and if things go wrong.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve been working in the area of climate change for almost 20 years and I believe climate restoration is our best way forward, first because it acknowledges that this is a human problem, and second because that humanity can also fix it.
I’m a big believer in people. If humanity decides we want to restore the climate, then it’s just a matter of making that decision and moving forward.
Mitigation and adaptation are critically important, but to finish the job we also need restoration. Remove the carbon, preserve the Arctic ice, return our oceans to full health, and we will have restored the climate. There are solutions.
If you told me a few years ago that you could make carbon-negative concrete, I wouldn’t have believed it. If you had told me a few years ago that floating tiny beads of reflective glass on Arctic sea ice has the potential to allow the ice to remain thicker for a greater part of the year, I wouldn’t have believed it. But these projects are proven to work. Now we just need to get enough people to know about them and others with just as much promise and make the investment financially and politically.
I am convinced that if everyone in the world understood that climate restoration is possible, that would be the biggest gift to humanity, and do the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to sit down with Bill Gates. No one person has changed health outcomes more in the last half a century than he has, and it would be great to talk to him about climate restoration. He is the kind of person who could be the catalyst to take Climate Restoration to scale. If he were to say “Hey, I think we really can restore the climate,” then everybody would take notice and say “I’m in, too.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!