Exit Interview: Chuck Bennett, Aveda

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I met Chuck Bennett in the early 2000s, when he was The Conference Board’s thought leader on corporate citizenship. In 2007, he moved over to be head sustainability at Aveda, the natural care products company, which had been acquired 10 years earlier by the Estée Lauder Companies.

During Bennett’s six years at Aveda, he expanded Aveda’s already impressive leadership initiatives while also helping to bring such practices to its parent company — infecting the mothership, as it were.

The Aveda job was a capstone for Bennett, who turns 70 this week. As he prepares to retire later this month, he reflected on his career: the benefits of studying geography, the role of ego in effecting change and the joys of mentoring the incoming generation of sustainability professionals.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Tell me about the job that you’re leaving.

Chuck Bennett: The job that I’m leaving is Vice President Earth and Community Care for Aveda. I’ve been here for just over six years. There have been two big parts of this job, one of which has been to help Aveda reposition itself as a brand, from one focused primarily on environment, to one focused on environment and people, or earth and community, which is part of the reason why the title for the role was changed when I came.

We’ve been working for the past six years on bringing more balance — not backing off in any of our long-term environmental commitments, but focusing more on such things as local giving through our retail network, combined with volunteering, and growing our Earth Month program dramatically.

The other part of the job that’s been both interesting and fun, and sometimes frustrating, has been working with the parent company, Estée Lauder, as they work towards establishing a more overarching position and approach for corporate responsibility.

Makower: You came to this with a fairly diverse background.

Bennett: Very diverse. I started out in teaching. I moved into environmental consulting, first for two companies, then on my own. Then I moved into corporate environmental work, first at Adolph Coors company. After that, I moved into corporate environmental and occupational health and safety for Nabisco Foods. Following that, I spent seven years with The Conference Board as a senior researcher in global corporate citizenship, focusing on a variety of issues related to sustainability and the evolution of sustainability in the corporate world, with the primary focus on energy and climate change.

Makower: You mentioned once that your geography background was helpful to you in your career. Explain that.

Bennett: I have nothing but good things to say about my geography background, for a variety of reasons, but I think the most important one is that it enabled me to be in a generalist in the field that I ended up in. The reason for that was a combination in geography of both the natural sciences — biology, geology and meteorology — and the social sciences — anthropology and sociology. What I found is that this kind of diverse background has been very useful in my professional career, both from the perspective of understanding and being knowledgeable about it and being able to manage technical issues — such as Superfund sites, remediation or mine reclamation projects — but also understanding the organizations and the people in which I’ve needed to get these various kinds of things done.

Makower: You said that one of your goals to success is, “I don’t have any ego in this.”

Bennett: That was something that came to me 25 or 30 years ago, particularly given the newness of what my responsibilities were, in terms of making changes to really integrate sustainability thinking and action into the organization.

I really felt, based on some earlier experiences, that if I came across as wanting and needing to do this for my own personal career development, I wasn’t going to be successful. My whole game plan was trying to figure out how I could get done what I wanted to get done, and what I thought needed to get done in an organization. And if I became an impediment to that in any way, then I wasn’t going to be successful.

So, maybe it’s a unique attribute of my personality, but I’ve been really fortunate in my career that giving a lot of credit to others, and not really looking for a lot of credit for myself, has really worked well, and I’ve done well.

Makower: But there must be cases where you know something is the right thing to do, and you know that it needs to be done, and that the company will succeed as a result, and yet, there’s resistance. That can’t help but deflate one’s ego.

Bennett: In the face of resistance, I’ve always taken the bobo doll approach: You can beat me back now, but I believe in this and I’m going to bounce back. And I may be back with different arguments, or circumstances may change, but I’ve always been very clear, in terms of what I think is right and where we should be going.

Where I’ve been more flexible is in trying to find a variety of ways to get there and perhaps some of these weren’t necessarily traditional sort of business objectives or leadership approaches.

Makower: Tell me about your relationship with the Estée Lauder Companies. How has the leadership work that you’ve done at Aveda has been adopted or has influenced what’s being done there? Have there been cultural differences, and how you’ve managed to bridge them?

Bennett: It’s interesting that you ask that because I’m just back last night from two and a half days there — sort of a role hand-off trip to at Estée Lauder with Dave Rapaport, my successor, and it was actually kind of an emotional trip for me. I realized how many really solid relationships I had built there over the years in this process of trying to help the corporation increase its understanding of and focus on, and ultimately implementation of a much more cohesive and strategic approach to corporate responsibility.

The challenge at Estée Lauder was, is and will continues to be not a lack of concern or desire for a much more focused corporate responsibility approach for the corporation, but the challenge of having 29 brands. And brands in prestige beauty — which have very specific market niches, many of which may not obviously align, shall we say, with sustainability.

One of the things that’s been fun is trying to figure out how to ultimately make that happen. They’re not there yet, but it’s been really an interesting part of my role, in terms of helping them think about common focal activities, whether it’s corporate giving or other kinds of activities that all the brands could embrace wholeheartedly and yet still retain their individuality.

Makower: Do you think it’s possible?

Bennett: I’m going to cop out and say I hope it’s possible. But it’s going to be really hard for some brands.

Makower: Let’s talk about the process of transitioning and transferring of knowledge that is going on right now. It must be difficult to leave, feeling that you’ve successfully transmitted, if that’s the right word, all that you know and do and believe. What’s that like?

Bennett: It’s been a tough few weeks. Dave Rapaport arrived effectively on Earth Day, and since then we’ve been actively involved in this process. The beauty of it is he brings a great deal of perspective and experience to the role in areas that I have not been as strong in, so in a way, I’m kind of excited about it, in terms of seeing the direction that both the brand and the corporation may go.

At the same time, as I told several people in New York this week, I’m really — I don’t know whether the right word is jealous or envious — particularly at the corporate level where we’ve arrived, because we’ve been doing a lot of trench work over the last five or six years, and it just looks like the corporation is poised to really move forward. To be perfectly candid, that’s tough for me, because I haven’t lost my interest in this stuff. It’s just time in life that I back off, hand things over, but also just spend more time with my wife and my grandchildren.

Makower: So that’s a good answer, but it’s not necessarily the question I asked.

Bennett: Uh-oh.

Makower: I’m wondering about how you go about actually transferring knowledge and wisdom. How do you communicate all that you’ve learned, not just at Aveda, but at Nabisco and Coors and everywhere else? Do you feel that that’s even possible?

Bennett: I think it’s very hard. I think in a way it’s not as hard with staff. I think that’s probably where I feel best about it: the people who have worked with me for a number of years, both staff and sort of non-staff colleagues around key issues like strategic sourcing.

But, to your question, I honestly don’t know. I have a lot of people tell me that they appreciate not just the factual or technical information that I’ve shared with them, but the sort of the broader intuitive ways to get things done. So, I think it happens, but I’m not sure that it happens consciously, and I don’t know whether we could figure out a way to do it more effectively, consciously.

Makower: You officially leave June 30. What do you think this summer’s going to be like for you?

Bennett: I think it’s going to be a shock in some ways. I’ve heard people say that for two weeks it’s not bad, because you feel like you’re on vacation, but then when you don’t return from vacation, it really gets to be distracting and it wouldn’t surprise me that that’s the case. Estelle and I have got a number of things planned — trips here and there, and of course I’m very good at keeping myself busy physically through biking and running and that kind of stuff; I’m very fortunate to be in good physical shape for my advancing age. But I know I’m going to miss the day-to-day interaction with interesting, enthusiastic, sometimes challenging people, and particularly young people in that category.

By the way, that’s been a really big part of what’s has energized me in this role: doing a lot of networking with young people to help them understand the field and figure out their own directions. That part of it I’m hopeful I can continue to do. That’s the thing I think that stresses me the most looking forward, is not having that kind of ongoing interaction on a constant basis.

Makower: I’m fairly certain we haven’t heard the last from you.

Bennett: Well, I hope not.

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