After Jim Prokopanko retired as president and CEO of The Mosaic Company in 2015 and came to the Carlson School as an Executive Leadership Fellow, it was only natural that he spend time with Supply Chain and Operations Department Chair, Professor KK Sinha. After all, Sinha holds the Mosaic Company--Jim Prokopanko Professorship of Corporate Responsibility.

Executive Leadership Fellows share their valuable experience with the school in numerous ways, such as in classroom instruction or by serving as student mentors. When it came time for Prokopanko to decide where to focus his energies, Sinha already knew. “I read up all his lectures and some of the speaking engagements he has had,” Sinha says. “And based on that, I suggested that there was a current theme in what he was doing and one way to distinguish it.”

Sinha noticed that while there are those who talk about sustainability and those who talk about leadership, at Mosaic, Prokopanko was actually able to lead with sustainability. “A lot of sustainability is deemed as a cost and leadership is leadership,” Sinha says. “Yet here is somebody who has effectively been able to use that in uncharted waters because he was taking on the role of a CEO in a company that was just formed and still in its incubation period.”

What Prokopanko did at Mosaic was to bake sustainability into the very fabric of how it does business. The company defined sustainability as “achieving lasting success from making smart choices about the stewardship of the environment, how we engage our people, how we manage resources, and how we bring value to the communities we serve.”

While sustainability is a topical issue to many businesses today, Prokopanko thought the notion was being misused. “People were just using this as a marketing tool and I felt it had far greater relevance and importance,” he says. “It is not just a tactic or a few steps you take, it has to permeate throughout the organization. All elements of sustainability are interconnected – you have to lead with that in mind.”

Prior to his retirement, Prokopanko outlined these themes as a 1st Tuesday Speaker Series event. 1st Tuesday features top executives addressing hot topics in business and leadership. It is held on the first Tuesday of every month at the McNamara Alumni Center on campus.

  “There was quite a bit of traction from it,” Sinha says about Prokopanko’s presentation. “So I though why don’t we write it up and target it to people? So he started writing and I started editing and at the end, we were able to finish each other’s sentences. We really became co-authors.”

Prokopanko says with Sinha’s coaching and suggestions, he was able to turn what could have been a simple editorial about sustainability into a blueprint for others to follow: sustainability as a compass for leadership. “This is a call to action. What Jim has been able to is make sure Mosaic takes its social environmental responsibility to heart and uses it as a compass to navigate.”

Sinha found the compass metaphor quite apt. “I said, Jim, you have a compass, don’t you? You don’t have a road map; you don’t know how to get from point A to point B. But you have a compass. You let this guide you,” he says.

Thus, readers of the November 2017 issue of Supply Chain Management Review were treated to the feature story “Sustainability as a Compass for Leadership” by Prokopanko and Sinha, a rare collaboration between a former CEO and a professor in the premier journal for senior supply chain executives[1]. “Supply Chain Management has a global readership in the 10s of thousands, so the likelihood of impact is high,” Sinha says. “We can get this idea into the hearts and minds of people throughout the world.”

That idea is that sustainability weaves together all elements of a business. “It is not just a branding or marketing program. It is not just an environmental protection program,” Prokopanko says. “You need all functional elements of a business coordinated because they all contribute to the endurance of the company. You can’t have a sustainable business unless you have a product that does no harm to people, no harm to employees, suppliers, distributors. The notion of sustainability is a much broader concept that would be diminished and dangers for a company and customers if you take a too narrow of a view.”

Sinha says he is hopeful the publication of this article will, in a way, sustain this concept of sustainability in people’s consciousness. “This is a classic example of thought and action leadership. And obviously it can go into a classroom. This can become the foundation of a program on leadership and sustainability,” he says. “And this is a piece of a larger effort that is very central to what I’m doing and what my colleagues and doctoral students in the Supply Chain and Operations department are pursuing as a line of scholarly inquiry – designing and sustaining socially responsible supply chains. If you can help create an environment where people are better off, there’s nothing better than that.”

As for Sinha and Prokopanko’s next project, Sinha is pushing for a book. Prokopanko says he doesn’t know if he has the necessary discipline to write a book, but as he reflects back on their initial article collaboration, he knows Sinha can be persuasive. “He has the fortitude and determination,” Prokopanko says. “I’m forever grateful to him. He really made it all possible.”