Meet John Audley, our new Executive Director

Posted by Renee Magyar on September 16, 2013

"There's no better place to be than Sustainable Northwest"


Today is the two-month anniversary of John's arrival at Sustainable Northwest. As staff and board have been getting to know him, we thought we might share some of the things we've learned. Dimitra Giannakoulias, Communications and Operations Associate, conducted a formal interview.

SNW: You've been in our region for seven years now. Tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from, and what brought you to the Northwest?

John: I'm a Midwestern boy, born and raised in Kansas City. I spent my summers in southern Utah, because my father oversaw the concessions in Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks. That was my first exposure to the outdoors and I loved it.

For 15 years I worked in international trade and environmental policy. I represented the Environmental Protection Agency's interests in U.S. trade policy. After that I worked in Belgium on trade policy to make globalization work better for the world's poor.

My family and I came to the Pacific Northwest directly from Brussels when my wife got a job offer here. I got lucky and The Nature Conservancy offered me a position as a federal government relations manager. I began spending time in rural Oregon and developed a deep respect for 4th and 5th generation families that know more about land stewardship than I ever could. I began to appreciate the difficulties that well-intentioned people have when they go to rural communities and say, "Here's how to save your environment and restore your habitat," without talking to the people whose lives are directly affected.

SNW: How do you bridge that gap?

John: I remember a Latin American minister who once told me, "I'm just trying to keep people from dying of dysentery, not recycle my plastic," and the light bulb went off for me.

Here in Oregon we might talk to 5th generation landowners who grew up cutting trees, and acknowledge that in the 80s they cut too many trees. But they bristle when someone with a Ph.D from Portland comes in and says, "Here's the answer..." I don't presume to have all the answers. You can call it climate change, but what hits home is that there's less water than there used to be and the fires burn hotter than they used to. Those are their realities.

SNW: What drew you to Sustainable Northwest?  Why did you want to be our next Executive Director?

John: We have an obligation to treat the Earth much better than we have, but the only way to do it is to find ways to live off the land and continue our livelihoods in a sustainable way.

That's what Sustainable Northwest does. We're here so that people can work in the woods again, ranch again, farm again - profitably, not just on the margins - and still use natural resources responsibly. The only long-term answers are those that work for the communities affected, through consensus and agreement. I believe in that process and so there's no better place to be than Sustainable Northwest. During the interview process, I was asked about my level of interest on a scale of 1 to 10. I said 15.

SNW: What challenges and opportunities do you foresee for Sustainable Northwest?

John: I think we are faced with two challenges, which are also opportunities. One is that we have been tremendously successful in elevating rural voices, but sustaining these voices is very challenging. Judge Steve Grasty in Harney County has said the most endangered species out here is the rural community: "We are the endangered species."  

The other challenge is funding.  You can reach consensus about how to manage a forest but there has to be an economic opportunity to crystallize that agreement. So I'd like to have at least one staff member with a finance background who can help create opportunities for the communities we serve, someone who can find, access, manage, and transfer financial resources for our projects. This way, communities can take back their own destinies.  

SNW: Where do you envision Sustainable Northwest to be in 5 years? 10 years?

John: Five years from now I'd like for us to be generating 50% of our income through fee-for-service, by selling our knowledge, experience, and expertise. This makes us less vulnerable to changes in funding from foundations and donors.  

Ten years from now, I hope people will say that we helped communities figure out how to make things work for the 10th generation. I think we can do that by expanding our reach into other fields like energy development. That's a real opportunity because communities can generate and take ownership of their energy needs, and the Northwest is blessed with abundant energy potential like geo-thermal, biomass, solar, and wind.

SNW: What are your immediate priorities?

John: I'm an old school kind of guy. I need to meet a lot of folks and see the projects out on the ground.  I'm spending time now visiting and getting to know our partners and friends better. I'm meeting all the folks who support and believe in our work.

SNW: What's your philosophy of leadership?

John: Steve Jobs said that innovation is what distinguishes a leader from a follower. Leadership must be innovative. I also think that a good leader empowers others to achieve their own goals. If everyone on staff wanted the job of Executive Director, I'd work hard to see that every one of you would learn the skills to run the organization. My job is to create the space so that you can realize your goals.

SNW: How does a leader do that?  

John: I do my best to listen to what's going on and what people have to say. I'm a firm believer that there are many paths to get us to where we want to go. Often it's not so much where you end up but how you get there that is the mark of success.  

I think the other thing is to not to be afraid of being the risk-taker. What's the worst that can happen? You fail. I want staff to feel they can take a shot at things and not worry about crashing and burning. We'd step back and say, 'Okay, what did we learn?'  I can say that I've learned more from my mistakes than I have from my successes.

SNW: Who is your personal hero?

John: My economics professor, Don Wells. He opened my mind to a way of thinking that I still use today. I think about how society functions within markets. It helps me appreciate the complexities of communities in a social environment.  

And Mike McCloskey, who was the chairman of the Sierra Club when I met him. He inspired me to take the path I've taken. I stepped out of graduate school for two years to build a trade program at the Sierra Club for him, and that got me on my way into a very rewarding career.

SNW: What's a personal goal?

John: I'd like to raft some of the great rivers of the West, like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. I'd like to go up to Alaska and see some of the last remaining true wilderness. I've traveled all over the world, but now my interests are more regional. Most of my family vacation time is within driving distance, so we can experience and share our own region as a family. When I think about it, I want to be able to tell some good stories. That's what life is all about.