David Levine of the American Sustainable Business Council: How To Take Your Company From Good To Great

An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski

Jerome Knyszewski
May 10 · 14 min read

A good organization is one that knows its mission and who it intends to serve, has the resources to accomplish its goals, and is comprised of people who are all moving in the same direction. And it should always focus on both survival in the short and long term but not at the expense of externalized costs and negative impacts on people and the environment. A truly great organization has those attributes plus a holistic understanding and coordinated actions which benefit all of its stakeholders, including the environment, in a just and equitable way. Not just its shareholders. I’d call that organization sustainable for generations.

part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Levine.

David Levine is the co-founder and President of the American Sustainable Business Council, a coalition of business organizations and businesses, collectively representing over 250,000 businesses, committed to advancing market shifts and public policies that support a vibrant, just and sustainable economy.

David is also a principal partner at Miracle Springs Farm, a family farm in the Hudson Valley.

He has worked as a social entrepreneur for over 40 years focusing on the development of whole systems solutions for a more sustainable society through building strategic partnerships and broad stakeholders initiatives. Previously, he was the Founding Director of Continuing Education & Public Programs at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. From 1984–1997, David was Founder and Executive Director of the Learning Alliance, an independent popular education organization.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

here are several beginnings. Since 2009 others and I have been working to build the American Sustainable Business Council as one of the premier business organizations working towards an equitable and sustainable economy, particularly by changing the rules of the game. In other words, driving on public policy at the federal and state and local level. Our work is to get from a shareholder economy to a stakeholder economy that can then help us build this equitable and sustainable economy.

My personal journey began years ago as a community organizer at age 19. I was contacted by high school friends, one who had read a sign on her college’s bulletin board — Make a Difference, Change the World, $80 a month plus room and board. That was enough for me and so I left NYC for Providence Rhode Island where I joined a community organization

This is where I first learned the skills of being able to bring people together for a common purpose. So, the process of going from house to house, block by block, listening to the stories of the residents of the community getting to know them, understand what was important to them and what concerned them played such a fundamental role in shaping me and my work.

As an organizer, I was taught to get people angry and the anger would drive action and even leadership. I intuitively chose a different path. My slower process of building relationships, enabling and supporting their growth as leaders, and then finding ways to creatively bring them together was not only going to guide my work here but it also became an essential part of who I am and how I work.

This mindset and those skills that I was learning as a community organizer then led me on the continued journey working as a part of the early days of the sweat equity movement in New York City, in creating affordable housing. And it was the early days of creating community gardens, and implementing renewable energy where our group put up the first urban windmill and solar panels. And so one could think of it as the work to realize a utopian vision, built into the practicalities and realities of building community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many hard lessons learned here including that realities of working alongside others needs more than a strong vision but the best practices of how to communicate, collaborate, and build community.

From there I moved into doing community and environmental education with fourth and fifth graders on the Upper West Side and in parts of Harlem, for a number of years where I then transitioned into the Resident Fellowship for the Future of the City of New York. This gave me a year to think about how I took all the experiences of how people learned, how change took place, how leadership was developed. And I came up with an idea for a popular education organization for New York, and for the country, a place where you could explore the ideas of transformative ideas for personal transformation and social transformation.

And we put that in the form of workshops, training programs in the arts and cultural events, conferences where none of these were being discussed at universities at the time. So it was a real gathering place, not only for these discussions, but for action for how do we use those moments of gathering together as a way to then transform the sets of actions that we needed to take individually and collectively for something greater than the sum of the parts. All these kinds of experiences and many others that have led to an understanding that would then bring me to be able to co-found the American Sustainable Business Council.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I went to six organizations which became our founding organizational members all of which were intrigued by the idea, agreed to be a part of it, but wanted to see me prove that it could be done. In other words they took a step back to see if it was possible. It certainly made it hard to get if off the ground without any financial resources, yet there was a vision. And the vision attracted a few folks who could sense it and have those organizations in the background and a few folks to walk the path forward was enough to stick with it.

The drive had come from believing that in forming the American Sustainable Business Council we were meeting an unmet need in this country to create a business organization that would bring together many diverse business organizations and companies which held a common belief that business could be a force for good. That solely profit seeking extractive businesses have caused many of the problems we currently face and therefor businesses can adopt the practices, provide the innovations, and together we can mobilize the power to advocate for the change needed to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable economy and society.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

In one of our first meetings on Capitol Hill, I and our core group of business leaders were extremely excited to talk to Congressional leadership. In fact, they were the leadership of the Progressive Caucus. We went on and on about triple bottom line business as a pathway to solve many of the country’s problems. When we finally paused and took a breath from our excited presentation, the Congressional leadership turned to us and quite simply asked, “What is a triple bottom line business?” It was an easy lesson we learned in a somewhat funny moment, and it showed the hard work educating which we’d have to accomplish. Many of the people and organizations that we thought already understood that there was a different type of business — responsible, values-based — needed to have our business perspective explained and even more so demonstrated time and time again.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We founded the American Sustainable Business Council in 2009 at the outset of the Obama Administration to represent the voice of businesses advocating for systemic change. Our leadership and the hundreds of thousands of businesses we represent believe business can and must be part of the solution and must use their brands as a tool for advocating for change. In particular this means be willing to not only improve your internal practices but especially to use your business voice and power to engage in advocating for public policy to help create a more equitable just and sustainable economy. Within months of first forming the American Sustainable Business Council, we asked for and received meetings with the EPA Administrator and separately with the Secretary of Labor. In those initial visits as well as with the many subsequent visits with legislators at the federal and state level, our presence as business leaders was met with surprise and immensely appreciated. The often-heard quote is that we have heard from activists, environmental, social justice leaders, but the only business leaders we hear from are those that seek to undermine the work of government to protect our communities and the environment. You at the American Sustainable Business Council bring a much-needed voice to the table and are setting a high standard for what business and our economy should look like.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

The key to not burning out for me has been the passion that I feel for the mission which is to bring greater well-being to the people and the planet. I love the work I do because it is also creating greater good. That helps a lot in transcending any of the difficulties of the day the day of running an organization. The grander purpose allows me to hold the version for a pathway over the long term and not get taken down by the difficulties that arise day to day. The other key piece that sustains me is the incredible people that I get to work with and knowing the good that I am working to create for the many who I will never get to meet.

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?

Jeffrey Hollender has been my colleague now for over 30 years, and a dear friend. It began when I had returned from the first green gathering to build a green party that was held in 1982 in Minnesota. And when I came back, we organized a meeting of the green effort in New York City as a way of beginning to build that at the local level, and at that first meeting we organized there were only six people that came, and one of them was Jeffrey. One of my colleagues said you got to meet this guy, you know, I think he might really be able to help you think through the new business that I was thinking about creating, which was a social enterprise that became the Learning Alliance, a popular education organization. So, when Jeffrey and I sat down and met, we made a deal that I would teach him about environmental issues and he would teach me about business. And it is that friendship that has blossomed since 1982 into an incredible partnership for creating both the change that led him to become one of the key pioneers in socially responsible business and co-founding Seventh Generation.

It led me on a journey to form the Learning Alliance. And then through all those years of finding the ways that we could be of mutual support to each other. It landed us again back together for the formation of the American Sustainable Business Council.

We each bring a different compliment to one another in terms of the skills and experience, but it’s our deep respect for each other, our common bond of being able to understand the gifts that we each bring that we could then move together in unison, to be able to create the opportunities for the American Sustainable Business Council, and all that it stands for.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A good organization is one that knows its mission and who it intends to serve, has the resources to accomplish its goals, and is comprised of people who are all moving in the same direction. And it should always focus on both survival in the short and long term but not at the expense of externalized costs and negative impacts on people and the environment. A truly great organization has those attributes plus a holistic understanding and coordinated actions which benefit all of its stakeholders, including the environment, in a just and equitable way. Not just its shareholders. I’d call that organization sustainable for generations.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Always allow for and teach inclusive leadership, the way Jeffrey and I have collaborated. And provide opportunities for ownership and engagement by your supporters, whoever they may be. This is how we involve our members at the American Sustainable Business Council, where all voices are welcome. Next, develop principles to guide your work so that it’s clear why you do what you do. And lastly, stick to your values and walk your talk. We’ve done that throughout our history and it builds trust and respect.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

There are so many reasons, including that increasingly conscious consumers are demanding change and want to purchase whatever it is they need from values-aligned companies. This helps those which do become market leaders and increase market share. From a people perspective, employees and future employees want to work for purpose-driven businesses and feel good about their employers, particularly Millennials and Gen Z. These companies are also creating more and better jobs, and that improves the wellbeing and commitment within a company. Next, the people at these companies realize the environmental, health, and social factors of looking long-term and public policies are guiding and demanding change. Lastly, advocates are demanding change and exposing corporate misdeeds.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

We believe that partnership and collaborations with others have helped us strengthen our organization even when we may encounter a plateau. Sharing the attention or combining resources has created a result which is greater than the sum of the parts.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

We continually look carefully at our finances and have always had contingency plans should finances not meet our projections. We continue to invest in our people, ensuring as much access to help us in guiding the organization especially when we are needing to make hard decisions. We also continue to look at our value proposition and look for creative ways to improve our offerings.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

The ability to lift up the leadership opportunities of others is most underestimated. Stepping out of the center of attention and actively encouraging and supporting the leadership of others. We seek to have our staff assume more and more leadership roles and so when opportunities to address larger audiences at one of our national conferences or to lead a coalition that we are developing come up we like to share that opportunity with our less senior staff but offer them the support and guidance that they need to succeed,

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

We do spend the extra time that is needed to understand our potential members, what are their priorities, successes, and where do they need help in further achieving their goals. Instead of standard pitches we truly listen and shape our conversations to ensure that we really connecting with them. We also often offer a sampling of one of our membership services so that they can experience the benefits first-hand.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Always keep to your values and principles and use them to guide your actions. When you make a mistake take ownership of the mistake and don’t let it take ownership of you. We believe deeply in transparency and accountability for our actions and we expect it of others. We aim to always engage with our membership when they raise concerns or questions about our actions. To become trusted we provide access to many opportunities to engage with us in our work. Cooperative engagement in guiding our work has earned us the respect of many.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

To create a Wow! Customer Experience you must you create a Wow! Customer Relationship. This starts with building a relationship with a customer or in our case members, establishing credibility through your actions and earning trust. Once this has been established you can embark on your customer journey and go where the customer selects and you may also be able to use a consultative approach to influence the ride. If you want the journey to last and be repetitive, you have to continuously provide first-class service in a first-class way. This is done by being proactive, continuously sharing information, educating, being a reliable resource to your customer, and asking for constructive feedback on how you can ameliorate your customers journey and, most importantly, incorporating that feedback in the journeys to come.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Social media and Twitter in particular are very important strategies and tools in our communications arsenal. Much of our public policy work is in the news on a daily basis and we need to have our voice and that of our members actively engaged in shaping it. Social media allows us to do that in a very cost-competitive way.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The first common mistake I’ve seen is assuming that everyone equally shares the commitment and passion for the business. It takes a lot of convincing to achieve alignment and passion. Second, I think founders can be prone to forgetting that even though they are working for a greater social purpose they need to first meet the needs of their employees who have mission-critical personal needs. Good and consistent communication with clearly open lines of is critical.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)

The American Sustainable Business Council is precisely that effort to build a business movement bringing together business organizations, companies, and investors across sectors, sizes and geographies to advance a more equitable just and sustainable economy. We believe that now is the time that businesses need to use their brand, voice, and power to advocate for systemic change especially for policy shifts

How can our readers further follow you online?

We’re always sharing new information about how businesses can have a lasting and impactful impact for the benefit of society at https://twitter.com/ASBCouncil and https://twitter.com/ASBCouncil and www.asbcouncil.org

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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