This Author, Banker and Environmentalist Leverages Teamwork for Impact

Mark Tercek Says He Learned Teamwork at Goldman Sachs

  
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Devin: What do you see as being your superpower? 

Mark: Well, I hesitate to use the word superpower. I mean, I’m proud of the stuff I’ve been able to accomplish. It’s all been done with great teams at great organizations by and large, so there was always a team effort behind it. And so perhaps the smartest answer and the most honest one would be, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of harnessing what my colleagues and my teams can do to ensure the best outcome, and I probably did learn that in my rookie days at Goldman Sachs.

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The partners at Goldman Sachs chose Mark Tercek to be the first head of sustainability at the firm. After several years in that role, he left to run The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental nonprofit. Today, he advises companies, investors, nonprofits and others. He also publishes The Instigator, a bi-weekly newsletter here on Substack.

While at The Nature Conservancy, TNC, he authored Nature’s Fortune, one of my favorite books about the environment. It is replete with examples of how protecting the environment brings economic and financial benefits.

One example he reviews in the book is how New York City faced a threat to its water supply. As development and extractive industries encroached on the Catskills, from which it gets water, the city recognized a choice between building an expensive water treatment plant or spending money to protect the watershed. The city chose the conservation approach for much less money than the water treatment plant would have cost. New York still has famously good water.

TNC was able to leverage that model to help Coca-Cola and Pepsi do the same kind of thing to protect their critical water supplies. When nature is protected, the economic benefits are only a tiny part of the puzzle. The approach also saves the native flora and fauna of the area.

Mark led TNC through a transition to using impact investing as a tool. One example he shared was buying $400 million of land in Montana and Washington. The team financed 90 percent of the purchase with borrowed funds at a 0 percent interest rate and five percent as subordinated debt with a low-interest rate. TNC only had to raise 5 percent as donations. His investment banking background showed when he described the deal as being like a leveraged buyout (LBO).

Mark plays in a rarified world. He describes Blackrock’s Larry Fink as a “friend” and a “hero.” He says, “He’s been a great champion of Impact Investing. He’s the biggest institutional fund manager in the world. He’s really used his bully pulpit to push investors to think harder about addressing environmental challenges.”

Fink faces criticism, I’ve seen, from both the left and the right. From the left, there are calls to do more and accusations of greenwashing. From the right, I see folks suggesting that he’ll ruin financial returns if he considers climate change, a hoax in their words, in the screening for investments. Perhaps the fact that he gets it from both sides suggests he’s doing it right. It certainly means he’s doing something that matters at Blackrock.

During our conversation, Mark repeatedly referred to the teams he worked with at both TNC and Goldman. He credits his colleagues with the success sometimes attributed to him.

He conceded that his ability to get the best outcomes from teams was his superpower.

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How to Develop Ensuring the Best Outcome From Teams as a Superpower

Mark explained some of the early training he received at Goldman Sachs. Assigned to value the various business units of a conglomerate for possible sale, his boss told him to talk to the senior people in the firm to gather their input. When Mark presented the findings to a top banker, he challenged Mark name by name about the judgments he’d collected.

“He starts saying, ‘Did you ask Mr. X? Did you ask Miss Y?’ naming partners at the firm. And I’m thinking, Oh good, I did ask these people,” Mark says. “Then he said, ‘Did you ask Mr. A.? Did you ask Mr. B?’ And these were names I wasn’t familiar with, so I said, ‘So I said, no, I didn’t ask them, who are they?’ It turned out they were retired partners from Goldman Sachs.”

The expectation for involving large numbers of colleagues in the dialog proved to be a foundational lesson that he has sought to apply to throughout his career.

Interestingly, in evidence of genuine humility, Mark quickly added something he needs to learn to do even better: listen. In that regard, he identified a specific action he could do to improve. He recognized that there are people who are circumstantially less able to share negative feedback, and so they don’t. He learned that he needs to create a vehicle or pathway to enable people whose voices may not be heard because of their relative junior status or a personality trait to speak up and be heard.

He also shared a powerful insight about the relevance of continuing to learn to develop new skills even in middle age and beyond. He suggested that learning to get more from teams or be a better listener could be worth trying, even if you have gray hair.

One of my duties, of course, at TNC was, of course, to be attentive to and get to know our volunteers and our donors and supporters. A lot of them are senior people. And so for the first time in my life, really apart from relatives, I had a lot of friends who were in their eighties, even their late eighties. Often these events would be organized on social basies, dinners or receptions. And my wife, Amy would go to them with me. It was really fun for both of us. Amy and I would often say to one another, 'You know, Frank there, even though he's a pretty old person, he's one of the most youthful people we know, energetic, interested in others.'

The reason, I think, is he, he and others like him. They found the secret of a long, joyous, happy life. Find a cause that you care about and get to know people who can help you make a difference in that cause. So some of these people, they wanted to be important in the environmental space and whatever the way they could, that required them to spend time with younger people to ask for help, to stay highly engaged. And by the way, when you're doing that kind of stuff, you quit worrying about yourself so much you're worrying about something bigger and more important. And these people, they're happy, they're engaged. They're having they're living great lives. I don't see why anyone can't choose to do that.

So, young or old, you can develop your passion for solving problems and learn to collaborate with others. You can make ensuring the best outcome from teams your superpower.

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