Recognizing Leaders: Bob Langert, McDonald’s

Bob Langert is the Vice President of CSR and Sustainability at McDonald’s. Bob leads on global sustainability efforts and works with McDonald’s system to grow their business by making a positive difference in society. McDonald’s has Five Sustainability Pillars: Food, Sourcing, Community, People and Planet. He and his team collaborate with internal leadership to integrate sustainability in day-to-day operations and decision-making. Bob’s team is responsible for ongoing sustainability reporting and works with a variety of external stakeholders.
GlobeScan co-CEO Chris Coulter recently interviewed Bob to gain insight on the value McDonald’s puts on stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world.

What do you see as positive trends in the world today?

I am optimistic about many of the changes taking place. When I reflect on how different things are today compared to a decade ago, it’s been a sea change of big steps and progress.
Let’s begin with leadership. When it comes to leadership in business, I see a new category of young people entering this space like never before. When I started 30 years ago, there weren’t any business leaders focused on social impact. Now I see many young leaders who want to succeed in business but make a difference in society, too. Personally, I love to talk to young people, like Net Impact members, who are so invested in creating positive change. Their talent, enthusiasm and passion are so infectious. It reminds me very much of the type of social activism that took place in the 60s. I was born in 1956 and I feel that a big part of who I am today is a result of growing up in that era of great social activism. Even though I was too young to directly participate, it still had a huge impact on me.
I see a similarity in how Millennials are seeing the world today. They see all these problems with society: social conflicts, challenges with governance and government institutions, environmental concerns, corruption, ethical issues and the loss of trust in institutions overall. My theory is that when you have people growing up in this context, you get a generation of new leaders that will work for a better world.
Another area of positive change relates to the acceleration of technology and growing demands for transparency. I see these as related and positive trends. Our ability to learn about our world in an open way and to connect more easily with stakeholders is remarkable. This is a gift from heaven to have all this.  It changes the game so significantly compared to when I first began working. On technology, I think there are so many ways to leverage new innovations across a wide range of societal issues, but especially in the food and agriculture industry: how we grow food, how we transport it, how we ensure supply, etc. There is huge potential here. Food is fundamental to people’s everyday lives around the world. At the same time, there are challenges inherent in feeding a growing population without unnecessarily depleting natural resources or creating negative people or animal consequences. We have a tremendous opportunity to leverage new and more sustainable food production systems and processes to do just that. And we must.
And when I think more specifically about the world I have been working in, the food and agriculture sector, I also see remarkable changes. Let’s look at supply chain. For example, here at McDonald’s, we had sustainability on the agenda for a worldwide annual meeting in 2002. I remember hearing what our suppliers were talking about back then, and to be honest, their level of knowledge related to sustainability issues (or how they should be working with us to build a stronger business by proactively tackling these issues) was pretty limited. Well, it’s almost thirteen years later, and I can tell you that there has been an extraordinary change in how the suppliers across our entire value chain understand and engage on the sustainability agenda. Furthermore, this has been a cornerstone of helping transform McDonald’s into a more sustainable company, and we couldn’t have done this without the support and participation of our suppliers.
So, overall there is clear momentum, but also lots more to do.

How about the challenges we face in the world?

The first thing I think about is polarization. It bothers me how polarized the world is, with people taking sides and attacking each other, sometimes personally. Collectively, we should be having much more positive approach to communicating with each other on the tough issues. That’s when mutual respect is most important. Compromise is now seen as a dirty word, but we need to embrace some sort of common ground if we are going to make progress.
I also think there is a battle going on between science and popular opinion that is really important. I am concerned about how some issues get so simplified in the public domain, to the point where there is outright misunderstanding and inaccurate information floating around. Climate change, GMOs, animal welfare, antibiotic use are just a couple of examples. Time after time, I see a fairly big divide between what the science is showing and what gets reported in the public space. Way too often the few that are the loudest cloud-out what is best for all. The context for addressing complex issues like climate change or feeding a growing population safely is very difficult. Our ability to have thoughtful, clear dialogue between experts and the public will be critical if we are going to manage through these important issues.
Another challenge that concerns me is how we engage consumers, or for that matter, don’t engage them. Consumers have high expectations for companies and Millennials want to spend their dollars on companies that have a corporate purpose. But this is still a niche area and it is not yet a mainstream thing with the average consumer. We need to find a way to help consumers spend their money in ways that fit with their values. I think we are getting closer to that – finding new ways to bridge the gap with consumers is the next frontier for sustainability and the next big step we need to make in this area.

What does this all mean for business today?

I think most businesses operate more in a defensive mindset, but you have to play offense. I still think that too many CSR and sustainability efforts are about playing it safe and staying out of trouble. We need to see more companies and corporate leaders playing offense to seize the opportunities at hand, thus creating the win/win situations that provide shared value to business AND society.
Some people will say playing offense is too risky. But I’ve learned that no matter what you do, you are going to have critics and detractors. That is just the reality of business today. I wish it was different, but you have to suck it up and accept that you live in a polarized world. You have to take the risks that advance your business and make a positive difference in society. You can’t escape unscathed in this age of social media, so you have to have courage and thick skin.
In today’s world, I also think that companies have to be good at partnering with others. Given the low level of trust in companies, it’s critical for businesses to work with NGOs, academics and a range of other types of individuals and organizations that bring critical expertise and credibility in tackling complex and sensitive issues. So make sure you pick your partners well!
Finally, companies need to get better at engaging consumers in sustainability. There has to be risk taking and more creativity in how companies work with consumers. We need integrated strategies with marketing, sustainability, brand and communication functions to do this effectively.

How is McDonald’s responding to all these shifts?

First of all, it is interesting to note that 10 years ago we didn’t sit around with leaders and say sustainability or CSR was actually good for business. We always believed CSR was the right thing to do, but it was difficult to prove it was good for business back then. When we published our first CSR Report in 2002, we wrote “We are committed to doing what is right,” right on the front cover. How great it was that our executive leadership signed off on this! It energized me. What has changed now is that we see that CSR is very good for business, as well as being the right thing to do. This has had a catalytic impact on our progress.
I think our global CSR & Sustainability Framework and 2020 goals released in May, 2014, illustrate how we have evolved over the years and how we are more strategic at McDonald’s in the area of sustainability. We knew we needed to get on our front foot and play offense. To do that, we needed a clear strategy, focused on the most important issues and anchored by forward-looking, measurable goals. And being BOLD, like our goal to purchase sustainable beef, starting in 2016.
Another core element of our approach is a commitment to dialogue. It is so important to listen to people who have different views than your own. If you don’t spend enough time listening to others, especially the tough critics, you are bound to miss something that will help you identify a key gap or opportunity. McDonald’s started dialogues in 1990 with the Environmental Defense Fund – we heard challenging things and that changed our thinking. More recently, we have been involved in broad engagement on sustainable beef. McDonald’s is not going to create sustainable beef on its own, but we can be a catalyst for igniting and maintaining meaningful dialogue that leads to sustainable change.
I also think we are naturally good at partnerships. This probably stems from the concept of the three-legged stool – company employees, owner/operators and suppliers working together – that is foundational to McDonald’s success. I would say we are good team players, pretty collaborative and we don’t prescribe or dictate things. It’s probably related to how decentralized we are at McDonald’s. Also, our suppliers, our owner operators and our people are all co-equal in running the company. Some people say it makes our job harder, and sometimes it does. You have to bring people on board, engage them and get their buy in. But when it comes to sustainability, this is very effective because what we come up with sticks and gets embedded.

What are you most proud of McDonald’s approach to sustainability?

I am proud of the sustainability framework we have developed and the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves for 2020. This is the accumulation of a great deal of work that began in 2002 with our first Social Responsibility Report.
Looking back, one of the events that I am most proud of is our work in the Amazon. We came out of the box in the 1980s by not buying beef from rainforests and when Greenpeace rightly criticized the deforestation in the Amazon from soy production, we immediately decided to engage and work with them to create the soy moratorium in 2006—even though we purchased through our upstream suppliers less than ½ of 1% of soy in the marketplace.
This was actually pretty remarkable. Why had McDonald’s acted this way when most companies would have dug their heads in the sand? First, we already had in our company a commitment to zero impact on the rainforest for beef sourcing, so it was a core value and principle of the company. As a result, it was easy for top management to sign off just in one day to engage on a solution that led to the moratorium. Second, we had people in our organization that strongly believed that we had to be a leader and our supplier, Cargill, also took unique leadership and were willing to stick their necks out. Third, Greenpeace, which is an activist organization of course, demonstrated a willingness to go beyond a campaign to focus on a solution. As soon as we committed and came together with other retailers, to Greenpeace’s credit, they got behind it. Four, we had a history of being comfortable in engaging with external stakeholders and NGOs – like Dr. Temple Grandin and EDF – which gave us the confidence to jump into a collaboration like the soy moratorium.

As you are about to retire from McDonald’s after three decades, what are the things you are reflecting on?

I am so appreciative of all the people, friends and relationships that I have experienced as being part of the sustainability community. There are so many good people out there in this field. I am proud of the work I have done to try and connect with people and different organizations. At heart, I am one of them. Sometimes I think I am half business person and half activist. It has been interesting to combine both sides, but it is a balancing act.
I cut my teeth by working with some great people at EDF in 1999. I think of them not only as bright environmentalists, but as friends. And that has been the hallmark of the past couple decades. The great, passionate, smart and fun people to be with along the journey.
A role model to me has been the honor to work with and get to know Dr. Temple Grandin. She’s a practical activist. When I get down, I think of Temple, and how she never gives up. Because of her singularly unique way she leads, she is proof that one person can make a huge difference.
You have to make your business acumen visible and you need to use your activism skills strategically. You need to display the 4 P’s – passion, patience, persistence, purpose – and balance these out. The life cycle of some of these issues is 2-5 years so you have to be persistent and patience in equal measure.
And it really does all come down to people and relationships. It is so important to develop really good relationships as the world revolves around us. Everything begins with trust and respecting people, even the ones that bring you discomfort. I also believe that optimism should be in your DNA and it is way more effective than doom and gloom. I don’t think doom and gloom is motivating and we need to become more optimistic.