13 Jun 2017
Finding Common Ground
Tackling the world’s toughest challenges starts with bringing all stakeholders to the tableby Ralph RanalliTopics:
Photo by Jennifer Heffner/Vita Images
When he took some skeptical conservationists to a meeting at agribusiness giant Monsanto’s headquarters not long ago, Richard Crespin (TGMP 4, 1999) says it seemed the only thing missing was ominous John Williams theme music playing in the background.
“One of them told me, ‘It was like going to the Death Star,’” recalls Crespin, the founder of CollaborateUp, a consulting firm that specializes in tackling big societal problems and bridging difficult, cross-sector relationships. He adds, “The environmental people had their arms crossed and they were looking around to see where the listening devices were.”
CollaborateUp specializes in bringing corporations, government agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations together to take on big, complex issues, such as endangered species trafficking, international food security, and access to health care. Crespin calls them “problems in the commons”: issues where stakeholders with different agendas and clashing cultures each own part of the problem and must each play a role in the solution. That makes collaboration essential, no matter how unlikely the partnerships might seem.
A good case study is the health of honey bees, he says, which is why the environmentalists were visiting Monsanto. As pollinators, honey bees play a crucial role in the food chain, but their numbers have been in precipitous and alarming decline in recent years. What’s worse, no one is able to isolate one specific cause. Suspected factors include predatory mites, pesticide exposure, diet, or perhaps complex interactions among all those factors and others.
“With honey-bee health problems there are multiple possible causes,” says Crespin, who also works on sustainability issues as a senior fellow for the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “But if no one organization owns the problem, there can’t be one owner of the solution.”
For example, the bees need diversity in their diet and can suffer from malnutrition in monoculture environments. But beekeepers have a hard time “going to a farmer and saying ‘pull out 10 percent of your crop and plant wildflowers,’” Crespin explains. So CollaborateUp helped create the Honey Bee Health Coalition, which brings together beekeepers and beekeeper associations, conservation and environmental groups as well as big agriculture and government agencies—including the USDA, the EPA, and several state agriculture departments—with the goal of improving the health of honey bees in general and especially in production agriculture.
Building trust is crucial to the relationships CollaborateUp fosters. Activists fear business executives will take advantage of them. Business people often sense an animosity from their nonprofit counterparts.
“One of the roles we have to play is getting people to see the humanity of the other,” Crespin observes. In the honey-bee world, Crespin came up with the idea of having beekeepers, farmers, crop experts, and entomologists swap jobs, so that they could all get a better understanding of each other’s challenges and goals. That idea became the Bee Understanding Project, which included producing a documentary short film that won a Telly Award.
A Career Full of Challenges
If CollaborateUp’s work sounds unconventional and challenging, that’s pretty much been Crespin’s career arc. A serial entrepreneur, the New Mexico native ran his first business as an undergrad at George Washington University in Washington, DC, in the early 1990s. Selling medical lab tools from his dorm room and making deals using an old-school, brick-sized cell phone, Crespin did his best to make the company seem bigger than it actually was. He was almost discovered when a Japanese customer arrived in the United States and insisted they meet and go to dinner. Two years shy of legal drinking age, Crespin spent the evening in mortal terror that his guests would insist he have a cocktail. He made it through the evening with the client relationship intact, but it also taught him a valuable lesson about personal business relationships that has informed his current work.
“The idea of investing in personal relationships is something we completely discount in business in the US,” Crespin says. “In some ways it’s easier to do our collaborative work in Africa and Asia, because they insist upon building relationships. You’re not going to do business together until the third time you’ve gotten together for beer or for tea.”
After college, Crespin moved into consulting, working for KPMG and later for American Management Systems on accounts with corporations, big NGOs, and several government agencies, including the Department of Defense. In 1999, AMS nominated him to attend HBS’s General Management Program.
“It was a great honor,” Crespin says of his training at the School. “It really widened my horizons from being a project manager, being narrowly focused, to being a general manager and understanding how to manage a whole business.”
He particularly credits professor emeritus Joseph Bower, who coauthored Capitalism at Risk: Rethinking the Role of Business with fellow HBS professors Herman Leonard and Lynn Paine, for helping him expand his thinking about the role of business and his own career approach. “Joe was very insightful,” he says. “He really helped me create a lifelong learning program for myself.”
Crespin’s resolve and resiliency would be tested not long after he finished HBS, by what might be the shortest dot-com career on record. He accepted a job offer at an Internet startup in New York City at the height of the bubble, only to have the business fold just as he and his wife were packing for the move.
“The moving van was there,” says Crespin, who is now back in Falls Church, Virginia, with his wife and three children, “They told me, ‘Oh sorry, we’ve closed.’ The upside was that my severance paid for a new company.”
That company was the Delve Group, which focused on branding and communications services to business and professional services companies. In 2006, he and his partners created SharedXpertise Media and took over Corporate Responsibility Magazine, a publication modeled on CFO and Workforce magazines.
“We were betting there would be a corporate responsibility officer who would have a similar budget to a head of HR or a CFO,” recalls Crespin, who also served as executive director of the Corporate Responsibility Officers Association until 2013. Things didn’t turn out the way the partners had originally envisioned, but Crespin was hooked on merging business with social responsibility and on getting private-sector executives, government officials, and nonprofit activists to think beyond their biases and preconceived notions of each other.
“If you think about how a business makes its money, it does so by specializing,” he notes. “Picking your head up and thinking about broader issues is not something you’re supposed to do, so getting a company to think about something outside its narrow interests is very difficult.”
Similarly, activists and government regulators are also immersed in the worldview of their own environments. “There’s bonding in running down the other and in saying, ‘At least we’re not a bunch of greedy bastards,’” Crespin says.
Breaking down those human barriers can be a first step toward getting to a place where a corporation can see the maximum benefit and minimum risk of collaborating on a potential solution to a big world problem. Once it’s translated into something that looks like it’s in the manageable interest of the corporation, he observes, cooperative solutions are possible.
“The mission really appealed to me,” Crespin notes. “Now it’s our mission in life, to accelerate collaboration between companies and governments and nonprofits.”
Class of TGMP 4