Dr. Bruce Piasecki is the founder of a global management consulting firm, AHC Group, Inc., and a New York Times bestselling author on shared value and social response capitalism. Bruce has worked for over a third of the Fortune 500 in change management, including BP, Merck, and Toyota. One of the earliest advocates for climate solutions, he has been an agent for change for over 40 years. He’s also the co-founder of the Creative Force Foundation – which annually awards young authors writing on business and society issues.
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This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe: I’ve worked with many authors and there are few who have a resume quite like yours. You’ve had such a fascinating career path and I’m really looking forward to talking to you and having you here today. I’d love to learn more about your background.
Bruce: I believe that at age 67, the things you didn’t know when you started writing at 15 or 17, they become a little clearer about your path in retrospect. So, I guess I would say that the first most critical thing is I’ve always loved books. I grew up in a family where, after my father died when I was 3 years old, my mother didn’t have the money to buy books. Luckily, being a basketball star, I won a scholarship to some really good schools.
I wound up playing basketball at the University of Maryland and then I accepted a full scholarship at Cornell University – which is where I met my wife.
My career would not have been fateful if it were not for meeting Andrea – and finding a person who also loved books. And so, we’re sort of like hand and glove, in the sense that she likes perfecting someone’s creativity, and I like creating new books.
Although she never edited my work, even when we were raising our children, books were a big part of our family. So, I think my career path is a set of concentric circles, where you start with the discovery that you want to write a book. And then there’s a larger circle of family, and also a larger circle that I build a firm around my books. Finally, there’s the audience. So I don’t think of my career as a linear path. I think of it as a set of concentric circles.
Joe: So, with that I know that you mentioned you started a firm – AHC Group. Would you be able to elaborate on the work you’re doing there?
Bruce: Back in 1990, I got a contract from Simon and Schuster to write about the search for environmental excellence. In doing that, I met people from the White House and other influential leaders. What I found is that there was no difference between what I wanted to record as a social historian and what I was experiencing in my life. So, I founded my firm right after my PhD in 1981. The purpose of the firm is to change companies. It’s a change management firm.
And so, we have the best lawyers, scientists, and MBAs with the experience and skillset to help a firm change.
For example, it took 4 years, but we had a million dollar retainer for Merck – and they wanted us to create an Advisory Council to change them regarding carbon and carbon impacts. So, here you have a firm of more than 50,000 people. We’re working for the top 40, and they’re giving my firm 1 million dollars per year.
So, I then appoint a team of 7 people to be change agents to work with the top 40 people at Merck. Every 6 months, we would go inside of Merck with presentations on how they could change regarding what’s called carbon neutrality.
We did the 15 billion dollar plan across the next 15 years for Merck by interacting with them as change agents. They have the talent to make incredible advancements in drugs to treat cancer and boost immunity, and they know how to design the scientific molecules that make modern medicine incredible. But, they don’t know how to deal with the external stress of climate change. So, we were hired for 4 years to come in and do that. So, my firm the AHC Group, is a change-management firm.
Joe: It’s so interesting talking to you because I feel like you have been an advocate for climate solutions for a very long time. What was it that inspired you to start that work? Obviously makes me think of your book from 1995, Corporate Environmental Strategy.
Bruce: So, back to when I was finishing my PhD, I was studying natural resource management. At Cornell, that field is mostly fish and wildlife management – how to improve the yields of fish or improve the yield of forests. But for some strange reason, I hung out with a bunch of people who were concerned about the impact of energy usage on society.
So, even before we had the phrase “climate change”, I was poking around with a lot of experts. And so we wrote this first Simon and Schuster book on climate solutions.
Bill McKibben, who is now quite famous, a writer from the New Yorker, wrote a book on the problem of climate change. I wrote the book bout how to search for the answer – how to move beyond blame into the answer. So, I think that I got interested in energy and innovation, and that led us to be interested in climate change.
Joe: Was it challenging early on in the 1990s and even early 2000s to get companies to buy into the message of climate change and climate solutions?
Bruce: Absolutely. I think that is one of the reasons I don’t have any hair left. I pulled a lot out traveling around the world, and knocking on doors about this. I think that the one thing in which being a change management consultant is similar to writing is that it takes persistence.
You don’t get an answer right away. You often are required to present a solution before people even know they have a problem.
You have to convince companies to work with your team and be ahead of the law – and reduce their carbon emissions and achieve neutrality faster than the law.
For the most part, companies will react to an existing law or out of fear of a law. It’s only in the last 5 years that your generation and new business leaders are competing for climate competitiveness. It was very difficult early on and it took a lot of persistence. But we had very smart lawyers and engineers on our team.
Joe: It’s impressive how much work you’ve put out there, and the different topics you’ve covered throughout all of your publications. My question is, from every book you’ve written, would you say there is some commonality that ties all of your work together? Even with all of the different topics and themes, what is the bridge between them?
Bruce: From the beginning, I’ve always had an interest in personal narrative. Even though I was taking pictures and framing landscapes of things changing in society, I wanted to convey it in a personal way, and I think that’s why there’s so many different things that I have to cut out in different book topics.
So, take in case what I mean by personal narrative. The first president of Princeton, Jonathan Edwards, gave a great speech when he became president of the university called “A Personal Narrative”.
He talked about his experiences leading up to him wanting to lead this great school. There’s a Quaker called John Woolman who I read his journal. Even before America was formed, he was telling a personal narrative of his set of principles and virtues and beliefs. Then, of course, one that changed my life is Ben Franklin’s autobiography. Here’s a pragmatic politician talking about how he wants to improve the world.
All of those writers express personal narrative – in which you could embed your sensibility and voice in the context of historic change. This is the best form of writing in my opinion. With writing like this, more people will read it since it’s more than just a dry, technical account.
Joe: I completely agree, and I think that’s what makes writing interesting and compelling for readers. It makes people believe in it. It’s really interesting to see how your work has shifted a bit over time. With your newer work, I’m fascinated by your focus on social response capitalism. I’d love to hear more about it from your perspective. Maybe then we could touch on your new books that cover this topic.
Bruce: Once you develop the style of personal narrative, it becomes an endless search to improve your next book so that you can feel more authentic or more valid. So, that is one of the reasons why I’ve now written 5 biographies. I like the idea of studying somebody else’s life to watch how they achieved authenticity. Like my book, The Quiet Genius of Eileen Fisher, I’m really studying how she remained authentic and valid. Or my book on Giants of Social investing. It’s about two giant investors who don’t want to only make money in their investments. They want to improve society.
So, in the course of writing my books, I came to see that after the 2007 financial crisis, capitalism itself was beginning to change. I had always advocated that it become less selfish and more socially oriented. But after 2007, which is when I wrote the book called World Inc. on globalization, I began to see that there were more and more capitalists who shared my view. It is that as the owner of a corporation, we not only have to use human talent in our staff and not only have the ability to serve a customer. We also have to answer social needs.
I’m very lucky, Joe. I got an assignment from Toyota when they wanted to change the nature of the car to go towards the hybrid power trade. And so, we were part of the initial team that came up with the Prius which used less gasoline and had less climate impact. So, I began to see that there were these companies out there who were willing to change on behalf of social need.
There are some companies that are totally focused on this – like Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream or Dove. So to me, social response capitalism is the exact opposite of speculative capitalism. Speculative capitalism is someone wanting to make a vast amount of money by just popping a hole into the earth and hoping that oil will bust through. It focuses on quick results. Social response capitalism is when someone uses human talent and distribution and the tools of capitalism to answer social needs. Toyota answering the need of more efficient mobility. Dove answers the need to keep many people in 190 countries clean through affordable soaps. In a sense, they all have made stuff that is lovable. So, all the techniques of changing human behavior to want the product that is socially good is my newest fascination. And I call that, “social response capitalism”.
I first wrote about it in World Inc. in 2007 and that book bounced around into 10 different foreign editions. So, I found out that in a non-American setting, there are more people willing to think about this responsible capitalism. Then sometimes in America, where we have this huge set of extremes where you’re either a capitalist or you’re a socialist, my work is about finding the capitalist engine to move in the direction of social need.
Joe: What are the biggest challenges to get this message through to people and different companies/organizations?
Bruce: My new book looks at the 5 dominant prejudices regarding wealth. I think the biggest resistance is when you think about the people who lead social movements, they are sometimes perceived as anti-capitalists and sometimes even socialists. What I’ve begun to see about this new world you live in – the world of hyper-connectivity and 24 hour news cycles – is that there are more people seeking social response capitalism. They want to put their money in the right place. But there was a huge amount of resistance, just like in the beginning with climate change.
So, there was a lot of resistance to adding social purpose to capitalism. So, for example, you may have read that 50 years ago, a man from the Chicago School of Economics believed that the only purpose of capitalism was to make money.
And now we believe the purpose of capitalism is to make money, enhance the lives of their employees, and satisfy the needs of stakeholders – investors and environmentalists. So capitalism itself has emerged in my lifetime to be more complicated and more dynamic.
Joe: It’s interesting because people definitely want to spend their money in places that make them feel good. I think that message goes a long way. When you were writing your new book, A New Way to Wealth, how did you become so fascinated with Benjamin Franklin?
Bruce: Again, I always want to make my writing personal. Back when I was a senior in high school, I was playing my fourth year of varsity basketball. I was still angry because my father died. An ex-principal told me that I’ve got a brain, and I’m more than just an angry man. He gave me a book to read, and it was Ben Franklin’s autobiography.
I hurt my knee and sat down to read the book. I was blown away at Franklin’s pragmatism. He was thinking about making sidewalks in a time of mud in Philadelphia. He was thinking about making a public library, so he didn’t have to buy all the books himself. He was thinking about eating healthy because it was more affordable and sustainable. I found this book to be so practical. So, after writing a bestseller in Doing More With Less, where I tried to demonstrate some of the principles of competitive frugality, I decided to make a global version and really honor Benjamin Franklin. That’s why he’s on the cover.
So, although I believe in competition and capitalism, I also believe in the power of frugality. The inspiration from Ben Franklin shows that you can be civic and still successful as opposed to just being brutally successfully.
Joe: After dedicating so much time and work to sharing this message of competitive frugality, are you optimistic that we live in a world in which this concept can truly become practice and embraced?
Bruce: Yes. The world is moving towards an open type of democracy and an open type of capitalism. I do think there are plenty of movements that are on the right path. And so I think that the battle between good and bad, the battle between speculative capitalism and social response capitalism are almost eternal, but they’re getting better. More people are bonding with the good. Today, we’re coming back around to the type of Ben Franklin Pragmatism where it’s a give and take between citizens that improves the world.
And so, as I travel the world, I realize that Benjamin Franklin has become a world citizen – and lots of people understand his story and vision.
Joe: With the scope of work you have, if you’re communicating with readers and you want them to really gain a full understanding of your work and your values, what would you say are the most important books that should be read about you?
Bruce: Even better, You can go to One Planet Podcast and listen to my career retrospect. You’ll hear a rendition of the best parts of my books with some commentary from other people. So, you can start with that overview. But I think that my books Doing More with Less or A New Way to Wealth are great places to start because they are short books and do a great job conveying my messages.
Joe: You’re clearly someone who is always writing. Are you working on any projects that people can keep an eye on for the future?
Bruce: I’ve been on select boards lately. You know, if you live long enough, you get invited to corporate boards. Well, I’ve been volunteering for 6 years to a board called the Medical Consortium on Public Health and Climate Change. It’s a set of 9 doctors and 2 business guys. During those years I’ve watched this man called Bill Novelli. He’s the former CEO of AARP – the association fighting on behalf of retired persons. He also invented a type of public affairs when he ran a firm called Port Novelli, which he sold at age 42. So, I’m writing a book about this man and I’m going to call it The Good Boss.
Everyone around him testifies how he is such an incredible boss – and a wonderful person. So I became fascinated regarding what makes this guy a good boss. So, my new project involves using his life to define the characteristics of what makes a good boss.
Joe: What have you picked up so far? What have you found regarding these characteristics?
Bruce: He is attentive and humorous. Those are the two big things. He has a sense of humor, and he’s paying attention to the people serving the organization.
Joe: This brings me to the final point I’d like to touch on. You’ve written work that’s been published from the 1980s to now. Your work stands out to me because everything you’ve written about in different decades is as relevant today as it was then. You’ve always been a bit ahead of your time. So, is there a way of thinking that helps you create such timeless work?
Bruce: That’s very kind of you to say that. Again, I think it has to do with personal narrative. And the other thing is honesty. When you start a new book, you oscillate between fear and joy. If you stay honest to these emotions, the fear for example, is fearing no one is going to read it.
But then the joy of completing the composition is incredible. I thought I might write 10 books in my life. Now, when I finish number 20, I want to write another 10. They’re like airplanes flying in your head and part of the pleasure is landing them. But there is fear as well as joy.
Joe: And I think that is really good advice for other authors. Don’t let that fear consume you. You just keep writing.
Bruce: And that’s another Ben Franklin Lesson. You just keep plugging along.
Joe: Well, those are my questions. Thank you so much for your time. I hope everyone checks out your work and learns more about your incredible career.
Bruce: I’m honored, Joe. You be well.