Simplifiers Interview: Geof Rochester, Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy

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Behind every brand delivering simpler experiences for customers is a leader who recognizes the inherent value in keeping things simple. Here I interview marketing leaders and founders of brands that have performed well in the Global Brand Simplicity Index and/or that we deem as simplifiers based on a review of the brand. In this Simplifiers interview, I speak with Geof Rochester, Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy.

MM: What does your brand stand for and how does it deliver on that promise every day?

GR: The Nature Conservancy’s brand promise is to protect land, rivers, marine areas, the climate and cities for people and nature. We do hundreds of conservation projects around the world in 70 countries.

MM: What role does simplicity play in delivering on your brand?

GR: Simplicity is critical to putting a face on the work we do. When we’re talking about ocean acidification, climate change, or any heady environmental issue, we spend a lot of time thinking about simplifying communications to make them credible, memorable and emotionally compelling.

Internally, one of the most important aspects of simplicity is alignment. When you’re trying to solve complex environmental problems across 70 countries and five areas, alignment is critical. For us, a lot of simplicity is around sharing knowledge and aligning around strategies.

MM: What’s an example of how your organization strives to create simple experiences?

GR: Every Earth Day we try to identify points of engagement to The Nature Conservancy that are simple and fun for consumers. This past Earth Day we held a photo contest where we got people to take photos in nature. These initiatives make environmental issues accessible to consumers.

MM: How do you strive to conquer complexity at The Nature Conservancy?

GR: As a leader, to simplify processes you have to check your ego at the door. When I think about making scientific work, and these huge, complex global issues accessible, it starts with humility. You have to go into the process feeling as though success is not about demonstrating how smart you are. Instead it comes down to, is the person you’re communicating with understanding what you’re trying to say?

MM: What benefits has The Nature Conservancy experienced from simplicity?

GR: The biggest benefit of simplicity is relevance. We’re 65 years old and still going strong. Perennially, we rank among the largest 20 NGOs in the U.S. Ten years ago we were known predominantly for land. We’ve expanded onto rivers, marine, climate and cities. The fact that we’ve been able to add complexity to our business model and still deliver year-over-year revenue growth is a testament to our simplicity and relevance.

MM: How do you personally lead as a simplifier?

GR: I’m direct, transparent and humble. So many organizations bemoan the fact that they’re too bureaucratic, slow or complicated. In my view, there are rarely external factors driving bureaucracy or complexity in an organization, it starts with the people.

MM: What’s a simple customer experience you’ve had recently?

GR: The one in my sector that I immediately think of is a small NGO called charity: water. Their communications, and their use of visuals and iconography has set the standard in the environmental category for effective communications. As a professional, I respect how they engage consumers by creating simple, clear, urgent and emotionally compelling communications.

MM: What do C-level executives need to do to operationalize simplicity?

GR: Empower your people, especially those who are junior and close to the action. When you’re an executive, it’s easy to forget the tactical effort required on the day-to-day. We have to always be mindful of all employee feedback, and empower people to simplify processes. Flatten the organization, flatten decision-making and move faster to be more aligned and simplify.

MM: What is different about processes and decision-making in an NGO as it relates to simplifying?

GR: There’s no question that there’s a level of government oversight, rules and laws that we have to comply with that are different, and, some might argue, more onerous, than those for-profit organizations have to deal with. We have to work with a lot of protocol, but we’re always determining how to execute our initiatives faster, more simply and nimbly.

MM: Are there any indicators that simplicity is helping to drive your operations forward?

GR: We have dozens of business units—for example, Texas is one and Indonesia another. When we launch initiatives in our headquarters that are voluntary or opt-in by regional business units, we look at high-adoption as a measure of de-facto success. High adoption is a key indicator that simplicity was achieved.

MM: What do you think are the biggest mistakes brands make when they try to simplify?

GR: Sometimes simplicity gets conflated with speed. We regularly toggle between appropriately engaging stakeholders to give them time to accept a concept, and being nimble and fast. I heard a saying recently, which really struck home: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.

MM: What’s the top piece of advice you’d give to other brands trying to simplify?

GR: Listen to both your consumer and the people close to the work. For us, the consumer is the donor, but it’s also the people who are subject to these environmental issues. A couple of weeks ago, I was on a farm in Mexico learning from the people affected just how our intervention was working. It was one thing to see it in a presentation, and another to be on a farm in Chiapas and see how our environmental intervention is affecting people’s lives.

Internally, simplicity equals alignment. Externally, simplicity equals relevance. 

MM: What does simplicity meant to you if you were to define it?

GR: Internally, simplicity equals alignment. Externally, simplicity equals relevance.

Simplicity in an internal context is defined by whether it’s easy to share information and gain alignment. For example, if Texas has a great solution for dealing with river protection, alignment would require us to determine how to apply that knowledge to the countries of Latin America or Asia.

When I think of simplicity externally, I think of putting a face on the work and making it relevant to consumers. To make our work accessible and engaging, we have to use good storytelling, which requires simple communications.

This is this an ongoing Simplifiers series. See interviews with Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Motorola Solutions, Eduardo Conrado, EVP; SVP, Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer at Abbott, Elaine Leavenworth, GE CMO, Linda Boff; McLaren Automotive Head of Brand Marketing, Stephen Lambert; Ascension Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Nick Ragone; Hertz CMO, Matt Jauchius; Direct Line Group Marketing Director, Mark Evans; McDonald’s CMO, Deborah Wahl; Jet.com President, Liza Landsman and VP Marketing, Sumaiya Balbale; Target CMO, Jeff Jones; Spotify CMO, Seth Farbman; Ally Financial CMO, Andrea Riley; Gannett CMO, Andy Yost; CVS Health CMO, Norman De Greve; Dunkin’ Brands CMO, John Costello; Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh; Southwest Airlines CMO, Kevin Krone; and Google CMO, Lorraine Twohill.

Know a simplifier or would like to be included in the series? Please recommend an executive for my next interview: mmolloy@siegelgale.com

Margaret Molloy is global CMO and head of business development at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMolloy and Instagram:@MargaretMMolloy

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