By Colleen DeGuzman
Before Dane Parker became the Chief Sustainability Officer at General Motors in February 2020, the position didn’t exist. Parker was well equipped for the challenge, however: he’s built a career on leading change within corporations, charting a path based on his own passion for sustainability.
Today Parker leads the multinational company’s sustainability strategy, and directs GM’s strive toward a zero-emissions future. Fielding questions from a group of over 60 young environmental changemakers at the Our Planet, Our Purpose: STEM for Changemaking Challenge, he shared his own story, reflected on the sustainability shifts he’s seen, and offered young changemakers advice on how to create their own paths.
Changemaker Question: How did you start your changemaker journey?
Dane Parker: I have not had the traditional career path. When I started my first job, they laid out this path and said, here’s what you do. If you check all these boxes, here’s where you can end up. I remember looking at that and saying, “Geez, what if I don’t like some of those boxes? What if I don’t want to do that?” And the answer was: “Well, that’s the way it is.”
Early on, I decided that I wasn’t going to do that. I was going to look for a problem in the company, one that I had interest in solving and thought I could contribute to, and then just go try to solve that problem. It’s led me to this really crazy career path.
My dad was a teacher, and he taught botany, biology and life sciences. I grew up outside. I love hiking and being outdoors, and so I had this passion for the environment. I learned, over time, I really enjoyed people and getting to know people and their perspectives. I ended up being able to find these roles in companies where I got to do something I really enjoyed and where the company had a gap or a problem that they needed solving. I fit myself into it. I kind of made up a career path.
Even this job I have as Chief Sustainability Officer at General Motors didn’t exist last year. Now, what existed was a role leading a group we call sustainable workplaces (a job I continue to have). We’re responsible for all of GM’s buildings and construction and our environmental team. We’re the ones working on renewable energy and LEED buildings and water conservation and all those neat things.
But I saw that as a company, we were missing an opportunity to do some things more with our products. So, I started poking around and getting involved. Next thing you know, I got this opportunity.
How do you define a changemaker? How do you feel you fit that definition?
If I ask “When I say change, what do you think?” there are 50 answers. Some say “exciting.” Some say “scary.” Some say “necessary.” Some say “evil.” They’re all right. For me, change is “necessary” because there are only two options: either we’re growing and learning or we’re effectively shrinking and dying. When you stop learning, you start dying in some ways. A changemaker is someone who’s growing and learning.
You can be doing that in a small way within the walls of your own home. You can challenge yourself more broadly in your community and in your workplace. A changemaker is someone who’s growing and learning, and then trying to bring others with them. That’s what leadership is.
I do things that make me uncomfortable periodically, because it reminds me of the need for change. If I think everything’s going well and I’m feeling pretty good, that means I’m in trouble, because I’m stagnating. I need to do something to bump myself into that slightly uncomfortable mode, where I’m learning and changing again.
What inspires you to be a changemaker?
For people like me who grow up, for example, in the United States, we’re fortunate to live in what may be the greatest time of comfort and luxury ever on this planet.
The challenge, though, is the way that we’ve obtained this. The rate at which we’re consuming resources isn’t sustainable. We effectively dig it up, we use it, we throw it out and we start over again. Going forward, we have two choices: either we say we need to start making progress or that some people can’t progress. We need to do things differently than before so we can all thrive in the future. And what excites me is I think we can make that possible.
We’re at the beginning of another time — a revolution in transportation — and we need to do that in a way that protects the planet for the future.
What are some of the culture changes you’ve seen over the past few years around prioritizing sustainability?
To me, the culture shift is in how so many in the younger generation already care. You believe in doing the right things. You want technology, you want innovation, but you want to do that in a way that doesn’t make a negative environmental impact. That’s a huge cultural shift. 20 years ago, very few people were truly interested.
As the Chief Sustainability Officer at General Motors, what are your goals?
There’s an often-quoted Native American proverb, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” I think more people are starting to think that way. We’re not on that path right now as a planet, in total. In particular, in some of our Western societies, the rate at which we consume resources and the choices we’re making are putting us on a path that’s going to compromise that future. We need to take action today to change that path. And because of technology, innovation, and capability, we can.
What advice would you give young changemakers based on your own experiences?
First and foremost, don’t take “no” for an answer, because you’re going to hear “no” a lot. You’re going to be told what you can’t do. You’re going to be told the way it’s always been done. You’re going to be told “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.” Whatever it is, don’t believe that.
Processes are good, but excellence requires deviance. Someone has to go outside the way it’s always been done. Someone has to challenge the people who said no. Don’t give up.
I learned that 80% of the work is convincing other people; 20% is getting the right answer. Getting everybody to come along with you is really hard work. The vast majority of Einstein’s theories were fully developed before he was 25. He spent the rest of his life trying to bring people along with him and to understand what he could see.
We need to bring people with us. So, recognize that 80% is hard. But don’t give up on making that happen. Believe that you can have an impact, because you really can.