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As a young ranger in New South Wales, Dermot O’Gorman was quick to realise that a more effective way to protect the environment was to leave the national park on Australia’s eastern coast to develop his education and leadership skills.
“[Dealing with] what was occurring outside the park was more useful to protect the park itself, rather than simply defending the park’s boundaries against urban development, invasive species and agricultural encroachment. You just end up defending islands,” he says.
With the bigger picture in mind, O’Gorman quit his job and departed for Europe — the beginning of a two-decade professional and educational journey that would give him the tools to push the green message to governments, local communities, indigenous groups and businesses around the world.
Today, as chief executive of the Australian arm of World Wide Fund for Nature, O’Gorman, 51, manages 100 staff, an annual budget of A$27m ($21m), and is the environmental figurehead for 1m Australian supporters of the non-profit organisation.
An important part of his trajectory to head of WWF Australia were his studies at IMD business school in Switzerland. In 2008 he completed 10 weeks of executive education on the Program for Executive Development (PED), before carrying on to complete an executive MBA the following year. Then taught in two five-week modules (the format has since changed), PED is intended to enhance the performance of mid-career executives and develop their leadership skills.
“[The PED] was a hands-on 10 weeks and we were project-based, so we were constantly in teams working together to build businesses or projects or work out how to solve problems,” he says. “The international nature of the course was really impressive, so that was a distinct advantage — not only understanding how European people think, but people from all over the world as well.”
“[The programme] was a great refresher on a whole suite of business tools,” O’Gorman adds. “I was working with professionals from almost every sector . . . and on these courses you can learn almost as much from your peers as you do from the formal teaching process.”
With exposure to multiple industries and regions, the programme covered judgment and decision-making, career experiences, understanding and evaluating leadership style and skills, as well as understanding which behaviours lead to ineffective management.
The internationalist outlook of the course was a good fit for O’Gorman’s career. Founded in 1961, WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and promote living in harmony with nature — no mean feat given man-made climate change, a growing global population and heightened pressures on food and natural resources.
Despite WWF’s non-profit status, he says lessons from his business education gave him the insight “that non-profits are quite entrepreneurial and use investments to try and have the biggest possible impact in terms of social good”.
Not only did he learn from the experience of working on innovation, start-ups, entrepreneurs and venture capital during his studies, they also “gave him the confidence to go and start working in an area that wasn’t a core skillset before then”.
CV Dermot O’Gorman
Diploma in Environmental Science from Southern Cross University, Australia
BSc in Conservation Science from Birkbeck, University of London, UK
Master of Science in Environmental Policy, London School of Economics
Program for Executive Development, IMD
Executive MBA, IMD
He lives in Sydney, is married and has one son
Such entrepreneurial thinking is evident in O’Gorman and WWF Australia’s use of blockchain, the shared-ledger technology, which he says can “potentially play a huge role in sustainability in everything from transforming supply chains to sustainable financing”.
In partnership with tech groups, WWF is applying blockchain to the Pacific Islands’ tuna industry — a sector that has long been plagued by allegations of illegal fishing and the use of slave labour on fishing boats. WWF hopes the tamper-proof technology will eventually be used to track fish from vessel to retailers to help curb the introduction of unsustainable or illegal fish into supply chains. Using a smartphone app to scan the tuna’s packaging reveals when and where the fish was caught, by which method and on which vessel.
The widespread adoption of such technologies requires the co-operation of local communities, private businesses and governments — with O’Gorman and WWF facilitating the changes. Environmental protection is “too complex for a government with national constraints to solve alone”, says O’Gorman. “The private sector is the only [stakeholder] that can mobilise the type of capital and entrepreneurial thinking to deliver solutions of scale.”
Hence the importance he places on the skills honed in his management education, during which he and his fellow students “adopted” a start-up for three months and worked with the founder, who later pitched the business to investors in Silicon Valley.
His business education “was fundamental in my understanding that we only get to protect the planet if we don’t see the environment as something to be exploited. The role of the private sector is becoming increasingly important in delivering on sustainable development,” he says.
O’Gorman says his negotiation and leadership techniques were sharpened by his EMBA and his international work experience, which began in the 1990s in the UK and included an MSc in Environmental Policy from the London School of Economics. After a period in Fiji for WWF, O’Gorman spent five years as chief executive of WWF in China, a country renowned at the time for prioritising economic growth over environmental protection.
A return to his home country with WWF in 2010 was similarly daunting, given Australia’s record of damaging its unique landscape and wildlife through widespread land clearance, as well as the introduction of invasive species such as rabbits, foxes and cane toads.
“Australia has the highest rate of extinctions of mammals in the world over the past 40-50 years. We continue to lose biodiversity through excessive [land] clearing,” he says.
Other environmental challenges facing Australia include the fight over moves to build a large coal port near the Unesco World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef in order to exploit one of the world’s biggest untapped coal reserves in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
“Australia’s efforts to tackle climate change have been messy politically. [Changing policies] have created enormous uncertainty in the Australian market. That has been a great disappointment when the opportunity for Australia to play a greater leadership role in our region has been squandered,” he says.
According to O’Gorman, the first of four big environmental concerns facing the planet is population growth, with an estimated 9bn human mouths to feed by 2050 likely to increase pressure on turning wild spaces into agricultural land. Creating space for nature, addressing economic and gender inequality in society, and climate change are his three other central environmental concerns.
However, it is Australia’s millennials, he says, who will soon be on the frontline of future environmental battles — a thought that heartens him. “When I talk to CEOs of Australian or multinational companies, if the CEO is over 55, I have to explain to him or her why sustainability is important,” he says. “If I talk to a 35- to 40-year-old CEO they tell me why sustainability or ‘profit for purpose’ is a key part of their philosophy for managing business and how their company is looking to do that.”
Those conversations among passionate, younger chief executives are becoming more prevalent, O’Gorman says with obvious pleasure. “These young people are the ones who will transform the way business thinks about the environment.”