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Female Disruptors: Shannon Bouton of Delterra On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

It is possible to burn out doing what you love. This is something I have to keep reminding myself of. I’m doing my dream job, but I still need to keep a balance between work, family, and downtime. I also have to keep reminding my teams of this. Just because you love doing it doesn’t mean it is OK to set the rest of your life aside while you do it. We are running a marathon, not a sprint.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Bouton.

Shannon Bouton, CEO and President of Delterra. Delterra is an environmental nonprofit on a mission to create a world where human activities protect and restore a healthy planet. Delterra’s founding partner is McKinsey & Company, and its flagship initiative, Rethinking Recycling, works with communities in emerging economies to build rapidly scalable, self-sustaining waste management and recycling ecosystems that redirect waste into productive use while improving the lives of the people it touches.

Shannon is a scientist, environmentalist, and business strategist, who has dedicated her career to creating a more sustainable future for people and the planet.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I am a mission-driven person and my passion is protecting the environment. I started out as a field biologist working with birds to understand the effects of stress caused by human disturbances such as tourism. I initially imagined I would go from my PhD program straight into an environmental non-profit but, as I looked at the global NGOs, I realized that business management skills were as important as subject matter expertise to create scalable impact. So, I made the unexpected jump to management consulting. I joined McKinsey & Company without ever having heard of them or really knowing what to expect. It took me some time to find my footing, but I eventually found my “family” within the firm and helped to found and build the firm’s Sustainability Practice.

I was looking for my next adventure when the firm decided to found McKinsey.org a nonprofit that would act as an incubator of promising solutions to the world’s most challenging social and environmental problems. I jumped at the chance to help build McKinsey.org and lead the conception and development of the Rethinking Recycling initiative. After three years of experimenting and growing the initiative, we decided it was time to turbocharge the scaling efforts, which meant adding and collaborating with new partnering and funding organizations. So we stood up Delterra, a new independent environmental non-profit, to house Rethinking Recycling. The past few years have been a steep learning curve as my team and I have learned how to build and run a startup non-profit, secure funding, and onboard new partners, all the while implementing programs on the ground and managing complexity that comes with delivering real impact. I am loving every moment of it though and in many ways, it feels like I’ve come full circle to my original goal of working for an environmental non-profit.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I think what is truly disruptive is our approach. At Delterra, we weave together analytical thinking with pragmatic implementation. We look at whole human systems, starting with waste management and recycling, we disaggregate each challenge into its component problems and figure out creative solutions to solve those problems while keeping the big picture in mind, something I learned during my McKinsey days. However, what makes us disruptive is that we don’t stop there; we try the solutions we come up with in the real world, always with the goal of figuring out what works and what can scale. This is also where my science background comes into play. By designing our initial iterations as experiments and rigorously collecting data we are able to understand whether for example approach ‘A’ works better than approach ‘B’. By doing this, we quickly learn what works and what doesn’t and are then able to build the solutions that do work into the next iteration. Then we go back to that original analysis of the problem, refine our solutions based on what we learn on the ground, and solve the next component of the problem.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Some of our naivete is funny in retrospect like our timelines and how fast we were going to change the world. I remember one strategy session where we all agreed that our recycling program would cover the whole of Buenos Aires by the end of year two. It does make me chuckle when I look back at those documents — we’ve learned a lot about humility and pragmatism. We now know much more about what it takes to make things happen on the ground, especially if you want the local community to be part of that journey.

I also remember some strange situations where I found myself hiking through landfills in Jakarta and Hyderabad, walking through trash and past grazing cattle, in heeled dress sandals and business attire, basically looking ridiculous because I’d come directly from an office meeting with a minister or corporate executive. You never know when an opportunity will come in impact work to “get your hands dirty” so to speak, so dress accordingly — or at least pack a change of clothes. I now have a nice-looking pair of what are essentially work boots that I pretty much wear everywhere.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I am lucky enough to have gathered several mentors throughout my life ranging from my Dad to my Ph.D. advisor Bobbi Low. Right now, though, the mentor that comes to mind is Jonathan Woetzel, who is currently the Chair of our Delterra board. Jonathan is one of the most brilliant, transparent, and supportive people I know. We’ve worked together for over 10 years and built some interesting initiatives together — mostly focused on sustainability and governance in cities. When we were first standing up McKinsey.org, I really wanted someone who would get into the weeds on problem-solving with me, so I nominated Jonathan for our board. He has always taken the role seriously: learning the details of what we are doing; asking some great thought-provoking questions; and providing helpful insight. You always walk away from a call with Jonathan with lots to think about. When we stood up Delterra, it felt like a big and scary decision — to move away from the mothership — so, after lots of thought, I called him to ask if he would be the Chair of the Board. He thought about it for long enough that I thought he might say ‘no’, then told me it felt right that we would take on this next adventure together — but he had some conditions, most importantly that we keep open channels of communication and work together on the big important strategic decisions. I was surprised by how relieved I felt when he said ‘yes’. Looking back on it, I realize that we are a good partnership and that I knew we had a better chance of success with the two of us working together.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Social media is a highly contentious disruption, isn’t it? On the one hand, it has made the media world quite egalitarian by empowering everyone with a voice. It is a place for self-expression, connection, and easy access to information. And on the other hand, it is also a place where people are losing touch with reality. Adults and children alike are facing unprecedented social pressures. People can say whatever they want with no reference to facts and political narratives, in particular, are getting morphed and are creating a very divisive society. We are living in a hyper-connected world which ironically is quite alienating, infuriating and yet addictive at the same time.

Another way of thinking about your question is that curiosity and insights-gathering come before disruption, and they can inform or change how disruptions play out. At Delterra, we have been very curious about why things are the way they are — why they’ve stood the test of time even when there are aspects that are clearly dysfunctional or not compatible with the particular social or environmental goals we have in mind.

When we’ve pushed ourselves to ask those questions — say, when navigating the complexities of local Balinese village governance, or the recycling cooperatives landscape in Latin America, or the various kinds of corporate interests in recycling — it’s usually led to a better solution, that’s not only more inclusive and sensitive to the cultural and political context we work in, but also more effective and enduring.

So maybe it’s not so much that disrupting an industry is positive sometimes and negative sometimes, but that there will be a cost to every disruption — some needs that the new paradigm may not be able to provide (at least not right away) that the old one did. And part of our responsibility as disruptors is to gather these insights and think through those consequences, to see if there’s a different approach that takes the best of both old and new.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Make sure your answers aren’t individually correct and collectively wrong. To do this you must always look at the full picture — the full system. This is something I learned throughout my training in ecology and evolutionary biology. History is full of stories of humans disrupting ecosystems that, once out of balance, resulting in one species proliferating. A common approach to fix this situation early on was to introduce a new predator species, but we soon discovered that those introduced species caused problems of their own. We saw this when for example cane toads were introduced into Australia to control destructive beetles in Queensland’s sugarcane crops. Now the toad populations have grown out of control across Australia and because the toads are toxic, they have led to the regional decline and extinction of several native predator species. An example of this in recycling is programs that pay people to separate their recyclables. This might seem like a great way to drive up recyclables collection, but it is rarely sustainable or scalable in the long run and, in fact, leaves us with duplicative infrastructure that is designed to collect only the valuable part of the waste steam making it even more costly to manage the rest of the waste.

Love the problem, not your solution. Mona Mourshed, who leads the other non-profit founded by McKinsey & Company, Generation, said this to me in the early days of developing Rethinking Recycling. What she meant is never become so convinced of your solution that you aren’t willing to see it when there is a better solution. It is an easy trap to fall into — we all have to work so hard to implement our ideas that it is easy to become territorial and lose sight of the need to stay flexible and open to learning. It is important to remember that solving these big meaty problems isn’t a competition, and the solution will be better if we learn from each other. At Delterra, we think this is so important that we have embedded it into our values.

It is possible to burn out doing what you love. This is something I have to keep reminding myself of. I’m doing my dream job, but I still need to keep a balance between work, family, and downtime. I also have to keep reminding my teams of this. Just because you love doing it doesn’t mean it is OK to set the rest of your life aside while you do it. We are running a marathon, not a sprint.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’m intrigued and challenged by big systemic problems. I don’t yet know what we will tackle next, but I’d love to do something with sustainable agriculture. Soil erosion, fertilizer and pesticide pollution, small-scale farmers unable to make ends meet while working to feed the world are as yet relatively untackled challenges. I see lots of parallels in agriculture with waste too — fragmented supply chains, human rights abuses, lack of information and transparency. For me, it is the next frontier in the sustainability space.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

In my experience, in a male-dominated world, self-promotion is necessary to get ahead. I can’t speak for all women, but I know for myself, I have always struggled with highlighting my own accomplishments. In the real world, it takes collaboration to get anything done; plus, for me, doing something with a team is always more fun, more gratifying, and produces better results. So, I talk about “we did this”, “my team accomplished that” — I want to recognize the collaboration rather than my individual contribution, which may negatively factor into conversations around job roles and promotions. And even if you do train yourself to talk about what you personally did, it feels like a fine line to walk — women are perceived differently than men in this as in so many things. Men often get called “driven” while women get called “arrogant”. Thankfully, I feel like a lot of this is changing though and, if I’m being honest, I’ve never felt held back by being a ‘woman.’ But, again, I know this is often not the case for so many women around the world.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

My favorite podcast these days. WorkLife with Adam Grant. He explores creative ways to address everything from salaries to conflict in the workplace. It feels like whenever I listen, he always sparks some new idea. Most recently I listened to his episode on “How to Rethink a Bad Decision” and learned about the idea of a kill signal. This is necessary because it is completely human to keep investing time and energy in an idea long after you know that it won’t work — a concept also known as the Concorde Fallacy. Anyway, the idea of a kill signal is that at the beginning of the project you set yourself a target that if at any point it becomes clear you cannot meet, you kill the project. Hypothetically, for example, say you calculate that you need to reach a $/ton amount on the cost to recover glass or you won’t have a market to sell the material into and you find you cannot meet that cost no matter how creative you get, then you kill the project. We’ve started to use this idea in our discussions at Delterra and I think it is super helpful for us in thinking through at what point we decide something just won’t work before we get too invested to be able to easily let go. Adam Grant’s podcasts are full of nuggets like this.

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 am fascinated by the idea of a basic income for everyone. There have been lots of studies looking at situations like the sharing of profits from casinos on Native American reserves where, for example, more kids graduate from high school and go to college even when the income supplement is relatively modest. It frees people up to dream. It prevents people from getting funneled into cookie-cutter jobs and life patterns. And when people dream, they drive innovation and impact. They change our world, bit by bit, and for the better.

Several countries from Canada and Germany to Kenya, India and Japan have experimented with this universal basic income concept, which at one point was only considered a policy fantasy. Now with the pandemic, there is some fresh momentum on the requirement of a guaranteed income to tackle the financial loss and uncertainty that most of us have been facing. Through Delterra’s work, we have supported one of the most affected, yet an often-overlooked category of essential workers i.e., waste workers. Through the pandemic, our programs have provided financial support, access to medical care, and health and safety equipment and in some cases food for the waste workers in our programs. But our efforts are a drop in the ocean when one considers the larger scheme of things. If universal basic income became a reality, people would have a natural cushion through these kinds of challenges.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m not exactly sure where it came from, but I like the grounding sentiment of: “This too shall pass”. I find that good and bad times tend to go in cycles. So, when things are rough, I often find myself thinking — “this too shall pass” — and so far, it always has. We find our way through the hard times, but we also need to remember to celebrate the good times. It is always important to pause and celebrate the good times — ride the high while it lasts because it gives you the energy to get through that next rough patch.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am active on LinkedIn and post there regularly. To follow Delterra’s journey, visit our website https://delterra.org/ and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.