Change on the Ground, Change in the Air
Embracing Change: A Conversation with James A. Harmon
James A. Harmon joined the WRI Board of Directors in 2001. In 2004, he became Chair when WRI had only 150 staff members and a budget of $20 million a year. Today, WRI works in more than 50 countries, has more than 1,750 staff and a budget of $225 million. As he concludes his final term on the WRI Global Board, Jim is leaving a WRI that is transformed and more impactful than ever. After more than two decades at WRI, we asked Jim for a few parting thoughts.
You built your career in government and on Wall Street. What made you decide to make a change and what drew you to join the board of WRI — a nonprofit — back in 2001?
I didn’t see it as a move to the not-for-profit space. I saw it as a move to World Resources Institute. I had watched WRI and was impressed. Although I was very pleased with my four years in the Clinton administration, I saw an opportunity to make a difference in the broader world, specifically on sustainability and the environment.
I thought WRI was a quality institution working on important issues. I was particularly impressed with the senior people at WRI and its board. I also thought WRI had an important message that was not yet being heard in developing countries, and believe it or not, the developed world.
When I joined WRI, I knew we had to reach people in developing countries. I had spent four years at the Export-Import Bank of the United States and during that time I traveled to some 71 countries, many in frontier markets. That is why I thought I might be able to help WRI.
You have been a driving force behind many changes at WRI. When you joined WRI, what were the areas you saw that needed to change?
There were two areas I saw that I thought needed to change. The first was WRI’s relationship with the private sector, specifically, the corporate world. Despite all its good and the quality of its people, I felt we could not make significant changes in the world without closer relationships with the business community. I came out of the investment banking world and was cautiously optimistic that I could add value by moving WRI to better understand working relationships with the corporate world.
There were people at WRI who perceived the corporate world as the enemy. But I believe in partnerships, and I believe in working closely with people who might disagree with you. To me, it was absolutely essential to build relationships with the corporate community.
The second thing I saw that we had to change was our scope. We were named World Resources Institute, but we were not global. We were based in Washington, DC, working on global issues and only through partners in other countries. We could write wonderful papers and conduct terrific studies, but I thought it was essential for WRI to scale our message to reach both the private and public sectors in the frontier world.
The world has changed enormously during your tenure at WRI. In your view, what has been the most significant change?
Technology. The ability to fax someone something was a big change in those days! Today, between Zoom calls and email, our ability to communicate globally has increased exponentially to what it was even 20 years ago. Now, people accept technology as a way of life. Broadly, technology opened the door to communicate differently, allowing us to get our message out and to persuade people to change human behavior. That is absolutely essential for the entire environmental community.
If you could change one thing — have one ‘do-over’ — from your 21 years at WRI, what would it be?
I should have pressed harder sooner. I was too subtle, too cautious. I didn’t argue when people said, “we can’t deal with people in the corporate sector because they are the enemy.” I never believed that they were in any way the enemy, which was controversial within WRI at the time. But I didn’t push hard enough to overcome the resistance.
So in hindsight I should have made a greater effort to persuade my colleagues that working with — not against — the private sector was a way to effect change more quickly. That would probably be my single most significant shortcoming. We eventually got there, but if we had moved faster, I think we would have resolved some significant issues sooner.
You talk in your book, Up and doing, about the importance of finishing well. Do you feel that you’ve done that at WRI?
I do believe I have done okay. In 2011, I accepted a role as Chair of the Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund to help the Egyptian private sector. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been instrumental in bringing EAEF to fruition. I could have decided then to spend my time on Egypt, but I believed I had to move out of WRI in the right way and at the right time. I just couldn’t leave because I had a new opportunity.
Finishing well is something most people don’t think about, but it is significant. If you look back on your life, when you left places — even personal relationships — people rush out, and they don’t think so much about how they transition. Whether it’s bringing up children or leaving a company.
I am very pleased that we found David Blood and persuaded him to take on the chairmanship. I continue to have close relationships with the people of WRI. I try to help where I can. I am particularly delighted that Ani has taken the reins. Similarly, I am grateful to the people who have left, especially Jonathan Lash, Andrew Steer and Manish Bapna.
So, on leaving WRI, I’d say I think I did okay. I am not about to give myself a high grade, but I think I stayed the course. That was probably the most important thing. I am pleased about David and Ani, who I think are treasures. So, I’ve left WRI in very capable hands, and I feel very good about that.