The Climate Corporation CEO Mike Stern: ‘What I’ve learned about the chemistry of leadership’
As part of our Breakthrough Builders podcast series, our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal, chats with Mike Stern, CEO of The Climate Corporation, about how he’s used the tools of science to build a landmark career at the intersection of science, technology, and agriculture.
From his position atop The Climate Corporation, a digital agriculture company, Mike Stern has a clear view of the present and future of food production. He is acutely aware of the massive challenges that face not just his company, but the whole of humanity. Challenges that include the prospect of feeding a rapidly growing population while facing decreasing amounts of arable land, depleting natural resources, and a changing climate.
Taking these challenges on requires solving problems at the intersection of disciplines as diverse as data science, botany, and distribution logistics, and it requires leaders, like Dr. Michael Stern, who have both the scientific depth and the business acumen to lead teams and organizations into the future.
Before he was leading an innovative technology company in accelerating the transition of agriculture into the digital age, Mike was a 10-year-old kid with a chemistry set.
He recalls how it wasn’t the weathered old baseball glove or the musical instruments that captured his interest as powerfully and enduringly as mixing various liquids together to create entirely new substances. This spark of interest was fanned into a flame by a high school chemistry teacher at Friends School in Baltimore.
Mike remembers Ken Drews’ ability to “make the science fun and interesting” and talks about how this teacher’s ways beckoned him toward a career in science.
An opportunity to work in a Johns Hopkins lab while still in high school further stoked his enthusiasm. Describing his time in that lab, Mike says, “I thought it was just the best thing I could have ever done and it really, really excited me about going forward as I went to college and continued my training in chemistry”.
This early concentration on chemistry is the substrate on which he built a career of his unique mixture of science and business, and it was his drive to learn that catalyzed the process.
Behind the breakthroughs
Mike did not realize the full future effect of his luck in landing with a particular group of researchers at Monsanto as a freshly minted Chemistry PhD out of Princeton.
“You look back on your career and you find these watershed events or circumstances or opportunities, that in hindsight you see very clearly had a tremendous influence on your career and future growth.”
This group, tasked with finding a technology that would move the company forward, gave him a professional start that put him right at the forefront of efforts to utilize science, technology, and innovation to change the way the world produces food.
After several years in research, he jumped at the opportunity to lead a business critical project – the “G50” project targeting a 50% reduction in the cost of manufacturing and formulating glyphosate (the active ingredient in weed killer RoundUp).
It was Mike’s first role moving out of the lab and into the business and it was the first step towards a career combining the learnings of the lab and his growing commercial competence.
The chemistry of leadership
Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer talks about how employees are highly valued when they manage what he calls “critical uncertainties”*. A simple way of putting it:
“If you want your career to take off, make sure you’re working on what the company leaders believe to be the most important problems.”
The G50 project was exactly that kind of critical uncertainty. In this new environment, Mike was heartened to find that his familiarity with the scientific method was an advantage that he could apply to the business problems he was facing.
“This was my first realization that my science training was actually going to serve me very, very well in business. The rigor of how you approach a problem, of framing it, of designing experiments. I saw that the same kind of fundamental processes hold for business as well.”
Success with G50 led to opportunities of progressively increasing scope and responsibility. The role of his scientific expertise in his business success was not lost on Mike:
“Opportunities came my way because of the work I was doing within science. I began to think of myself now as someone who could actually not only understand the science, but could move more into running these businesses. And in fact, that was my career path.”
Continued success led to roles running multi-billion dollar businesses and eventually the role of CEO of The Climate Corporation.
Mike talks about how beyond just the combination of chemistry and commerce, it was his marked willingness step into the unknown in order to learn that really made his career:
“For me, it was actually all about being willing to take some risks in your career, stepping through doors that open, that you didn't exactly know what was going to be on the other side, but you knew it was going to be interesting, important, and you were going to learn something and develop new skills.
“Being willing to take some of those risks has been kind of a hallmark when I do a kind of a self-assessment of my career. Being willing to step through some of those open doors that I never would have thought would have opened for me.
“They did, and I took advantage of them”
Listen to Mike chat with our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal in a recent episode of our Breakthrough Builders podcast.
Breakthrough Builders is about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine – and the persistence to build – breakthroughs.
Listen to the full conversation with Mike Stern
*Jeffrey Pfeffer, Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994), 154.
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