CEF Spotlight

Lessons from the Middle Fork Salmon River

9Last month, nine outstanding leaders from CEF member companies were chosen from a highly competitive field of applicants from around the world to embark on a life-changing sustainability leadership development rafting trip along the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River with Jib Ellison, a sustainable business expert, CEF advisory board member, and class V river guide. The winners were deemed by the selection jury as being at “an inflection point in their lives or careers with regard to sustainability—ready and eager to take their sustainability leadership to the next level within their communities and/or organizations—as well as being strong team players accomplished in setting ambitious goals and getting results.”

The winners were dropped off on the banks of the Middle Fork Salmon River, known as the “River of No Return,” and then spent three days rafting through one of the most remote settings in the United States—the Frank Church Wilderness Area. The group spent its days navigating the winding river, hiking the steep banks, and observing nature in its untouched element. Evenings were spent discussing sustainability leadership, sharing experiences, and camping out beneath the stars. Here are the reflections from the winners:

David Bennett, Real Estate Green Team Innovations & Operations Lead, Google

I believe leadership to be not only a mindset—but more importantly, the set of behaviors we exhibit when we are driven by a leadership-based mindset. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River proved to be an excellent context for the 2013 CEF Member Challenge, as it provided an ideal setting for our group to 1) evaluate our personal mindset that ultimately determines our actions as leaders, 2) optimize our mindset through setting clear intentions in a manner that will lead us towards the outcomes we seek in our work, and 3) test our abilities to do the hardest work of all, which is following through from intention to action.

There is, perhaps, no better backdrop for setting clear intentions than the riverside camps surrounded by tall pines nestled within the deep river canyons that the Frank Church Wilderness area provides. Furthermore, leading a team of colleagues through roaring rapids and navigating between oversized boulders became an excellent test of our abilities to transfer our intention into action and to evaluate how we show up as leaders in times of excitement, change, and crisis.

It was remarkable to see how quickly our cohort of sustainability leaders created a true sense of team through meaningful professional and personal connections. Regardless of industry and tenure, it was clear to me that our group shared the common thread of being at an inflection point in our careers where we see compelling opportunities for driving meaningful change, and most importantly, the passion we shared to be at the forefront of leading our organizations to even higher levels of environmental excellence.

Tamara (TJ) DiCaprio, Sr. Director, Environmental Sustainability, Microsoft

River running….stay present, engaged, and watch the signs to find and grab the current to where you want to go….sometimes moving forward-backwards-sideways…. inspired by the awareness and kindness of my colleagues all flowing together like the water running through…. leadership lessons around setting and communicating direction and then team check-ins and appreciation along the way. Yoga to connect…. being away from the things of man….. associating with my newly assigned animal spirit the osprey. 

How am I different from the experience? I have a river running through me now, with the sound of the water and the laughter and kindness of the group and arms wide open to inspire environmental curiosity and bold new action to mitigate climate change. 

Scott Holub, Silviculture Research Scientist, Weyerhaeuser

As I was preparing to leave on this leadership development opportunity, one of my outdoor-enthusiast colleagues commented that the Middle Fork of the Salmon River was a once-in-a-lifetime destination for rafters worldwide. I admit that when I applied for the program, I had not fully appreciated this fact. As I later found out, previous trips were to the Amazon and Antarctica!

The location itself was indeed amazing, but I find myself reflecting more on the incredible opportunity created by this trip to meet and befriend so many interesting and sustainability-minded individuals from a variety of backgrounds and companies. As the memories of the location and adventure fade, I will continue to value the personal and professional connections that the CEF has afforded me by sponsoring this program and allowing me to attend. 

Lucinda Jackson, GM, Energy Technology Company, Health, Environment & Safety, Chevron

I came away from the trip encouraged to have met and been with people who are trying to make a difference across the globe, each in our own ways. We are all aiming to do our best to improve the sustainability of our respective companies within our own boundaries. It was heartening. I also had a blast and loved spending so much time wet! I appreciated the opportunities to try a lot of new outdoor activities and stretch my experiences—there were some chances to be bold. I returned more relaxed, more appreciative of others, and more willing to let others also lead—all things that help me be better a leader.

Rich Kroes, Director of Product Strategy, Oracle

It was an honor and a pleasure to share the four days on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The representatives on the trip brought a tremendous combination of passion, expertise, and accomplishment that made it truly humbling to be amongst them.

The raw, unspoiled beauty of the Idaho Wilderness gave great perspective and was so incredibly inspiring. Its seclusion allowed us to focus both on our individual thoughts as well as our shared goals and aspirations. Jib Ellison provided empowering guidance to inspire in us a mindset of self-awareness, leadership, and exploring the realm of the possible.

The “River of No Return” shared so many fitting analogies to life on both a professional and a personal level. Its ecosystem appearing so formidable and rudimentary, yet still in a vulnerable balance. The powerful and relentless flow perpetually navigating a path amongst the sheer rock faces and immense boulders, determined to find its way. Each run through the rapids promising to be unique and unpredictable, and yet delivering the prospect of exhilaration, progress, and a sense accomplishment.

I’m still in awe of the level of reflection and bonding that took place in such a short period of time. I now look back upon many fond memories of the Middle Fork and look forward reinvigorated and committed to navigate the rapids of our quest for a more sustainable world.

Elizabeth (Tish) Lascelle, Sr. Director, Strategy & Assurance—Worldwide Environmental, Health & Safety, Johnson & Johnson

“Rivers have what man most respects and longs for in his own life and thoughts – a capacity for renewal and replenishment, continual energy, creativity and cleansing.”

I no longer know where I first found that quote, but it’s a good description of my experience on the Salmon. I felt intense gratitude to be in a place in nature that few people ever see… the middle of a 2.4 million-acre wilderness preserve. Wow. I’m not sure my awe ever subsided, though perhaps I did grin a bit less as the days evolved. (Well, OK, maybe not.)

The North Fork of the Salmon River and her surrounding mountains captured my imagination (“what must it have been like for early pioneers to discover this?”) and actuated some conscious pondering (“how do you get people to invest in the protection of things they have not seen?”). I know the corporate work I do is valuable, but I often sense it is incremental at best when compared to the planet. “Why can’t we be bolder?,” I often wonder. Though never reticent to dream big and push my company to be bold, I came away from the river ever more sure that courageous leadership is required. Rivers have continual energy, and that’s a good metaphor for the leadership required.

I felt cleansed, replenished, and energized from the journey and blessed for the experience. On the river (well, technically, on the beach), Jib Ellison led us in yoga, beginning with Mountain Pose. Now, when I arrive at work each day, I pause for a moment, reconnect with Idaho memories, and think, “Be the Mountain!”…it’s a pose for balance, it’s rooted in the earth, and mountains are pretty darn bold. Today I am a mountain.

Atlanta McIlwraith, Senior Manager, Community Engagement, Timberland

When you convene a group of nine dynamic leaders, similarly driven but not the same, in a place that is rugged, remote, and free from electronic devices and outside distractions, great things happen. We each had applied for the opportunity to meet in Idaho for a river rafting trip and so we arrived with an intention to make the most of our time together on the river. Intention is always a powerful force, but it is even more effective when shared. Our common intentions led us to be open with each other and to forge strong connections as individuals, professionals, and as a team in an accelerated period of time.

Our guides educated us in their rigorous “leave no trace“ camping practices that are a way of life on the river. It was refreshing to strive to have no impact at all. Many of us are tasked with minimizing the environmental footprint of our companies’ business practices. This is vital work, but what if we raised the bar for ourselves and (and our companies)? What if we pushed ourselves to strive beyond mitigation strategies and to adopt practices that have no impact or possibly even a net positive impact on the environment? I have no doubt our group could have some thought-provoking and action-inspiring conversations on that topic and many others.

The speed of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River may change, but its direction never does. The water just keeps moving ahead without hesitation, and we move with it. We may eddy out and pause for a time, but as soon as we allow ourselves back into the river’s flow, we are moving onward with the water.

When I wasn’t admiring the striking and pristine landscape of the canyon’s walls, I felt very aware of our forward motion. I stretched my boundaries by taking on the rapids in an inflatable kayak. As a result, I took a few (euphemistically termed) “swims” in the rapids. After clambering back into the boat, my arms would paddle forward while my mind often paddled backwards, rethinking my latest tumble into the river. Because of the powerful physical presence of the river, I quickly noticed the disconnect between the direction of my body and that of my mind.

Thousands of cubic feet of water had continued to rush forward and were now considerably ahead of me while my mind was re-evaluating my earlier missteps or something off the river entirely. I know that reflection can lead to significant growth and learning, but the constant movement of the river beneath the boat kept the balance of my attention in the present, looking forward on the next challenge and opportunity to do better.

Some say that if you adopt a new habit for three weeks, you’ll stick with it. We only had three days but, so far, this practice of keeping the balance of my attention in the present and facing forward, has stuck with me. 

Rich Powell, Engagement Manager/Sustainability & Resource Productivity Fellow, McKinsey & Co.

Our time together on the Middle Fork was about constantly shifting perspectives. Most tangibly, we experienced the river from every conceivable angle. We flew above it on a gorgeous, smoky morning, watching the incredible contours its many streams had carved into the hills.  We moved down the river a foot above by boat, an inch above by kayak, and, more often than not for me, by frantic careening through it helmet in and lifevest after the latest “hole” sucked me under. We scouted the rapids from its sides, climbed high above for a better vantage on its curves, and chased a beautiful waterfall raining down from the cliffs, swaying from side to side in the breeze. We saw the river’s past and those who’d lived there in our minds’ eye, and hoped that those after us would keep it safe.

As we interacted with the river from every perspective, we were constantly challenged to shift perspectives around ourselves. We started by “watching ourselves being and doing us.” From there, it was reimagining our roles as influencers in a space where impact is often outside our direct control. How can we honestly view ourselves, our limitations, and our many possibilities, and find the ways to step outside ourselves and shift situations to accomplish the formerly impossible? For me, this started with pushing to listen deeply, unselfishly, and sometimes (though usually not) silently. 

I’m left above all with the regular refrain from one of my new, wonderful friends: how incredibly lucky to be one of the few who experience the natural world in such a way at all, and still fewer to feel the grandeur of that particularly special place, and to be amongst the handful to have shared it with such rare and gifted company.

Russ Wilkenloh, Manager, Asset Recovery & Recycling, Duke Energy

I went to Idaho a little nervous and not exactly knowing what to expect from the CEF challenge. Are my ideas and accomplishments worthy of inclusion with such an illustrious group of people from some of the top companies in the world? Will I have anything interesting to say that will add value to the group?Will I have an epiphany related to sustainability and my inflection point? Will the expense and effort provide a worthwhile and lasting benefit to me, Duke Energy, and CEF?

I can honestly say that this experience provided a new prism for my views and values, and was an extremely affirmative experience.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River was a perfect place to think and talk about issues related to sustainability. Ebbing and flowing with the seasons, the Middle Fork has clear, pollution-free water, scant evidence of the human race (except for primitive petroglyphs), abundant wildlife, and starry skies unfettered by light pollution.  It is a natural environment that has largely been protected from outside influences and continues to cycle as it has for eons—the very embodiment of sustainability.

Will global warming impact the natural state of the Middle Fork? Will the timeless beauty be affected by flooding? By drought? By forest fires? Even the Frank Church Wilderness is probably not protected from the effects of non-sustainable human activity. Maybe the world’s politicians and policy-makers should get outside and stomp around in the woods a bit to gain an appreciation for the wonders of nature and the impacts from short-term and short-sighted activities. I know for a fact that my strong views of sustainability are rooted in an appreciation and preservation of the natural world, and this experience certainly affirmed that belief.

Our group was comprised of nine individuals, all with different areas of sustainability focus and different concepts of exactly, “What does sustainability mean?” Each participant came to Idaho with a unique lifetime of experience, individual ideas and concepts, and very distinctive and disparate corporate backgrounds and cultures. We have a built-in opportunity to cross-pollinate the sharing of problems to generate ideas and solutions. Of course, there is not a single definition of sustainability, and through a range of discussions it is easier to appreciate the idea that sustainability is really a big swimming pool with plenty of room for all. The more people “swimming” the better off we’ll all be. Come on in, the water’s fine!

Floating down the river and gazing up at the canyon walls, it was easy to be mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the Middle Fork. Numerous river metaphors could be summoned that can relate to our sustainability pursuits:

        •  The most obvious channel is not necessarily the best
        •  Just go with the flow
        •  After the rocks, there is smooth water ahead!
        •  When in doubt, paddle harder!
        •  Stay away from the holes!
        •  There is often more than one channel through the rapids
        •  The quietest stretch of the river is also the deepest

We evaluated our initial actions as we joined the group and traveled to the Middle Fork. It was a bit enlightening to realize that just finding a seat on the plane was reflective of my typical problem-solving processes, and the actions I take to get results. Not that my problem-solving approach is right or wrong, but to be aware of my actions and the impact to and from other influences.

The opportunity to connect with each other and the earth through daily yoga exercises was new and enlightening, and while my form leaves much to be desired, I think maybe I will try to continue the practice in some manner to gain introspection, reflection and connection to myself and Mother Earth.

At the very end of our trip, we shared truly unique things about ourselves with the group, and now when I think of each of my fellow rafters, I smile in reflection of their trips, huge pumpkins, skydiving adventures, tattoos, communes, etc… Every person on the planet is blessed with something that makes them different and to be appreciated. I appreciate each of my new friends for the time they shared with me on the beautiful Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

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