As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Derek Sabori.
Derek is the founder at The Underswell and The Underswell School of Understanding, crafting sustainability talks and online courses to help students and professionals better understand sustainability and social responsibility so they can integrate both, more fully, into business and life.
Additionally, Derek developed the Apparel Industry Sustainability Certificate at Orange Coast College — a 3-semester program for sustainability and social responsibility in the apparel industry and is a co-founder of the brand KOZM; a sustainability-driven, mindfulness-focused, Certified B Corp, lifestyle brand. He’s also part of the Constructive Interference Team at the innovative sustainable materials company, Circular Systems.
In addition to teaching, consulting, and brand building, Derek serves on the boards of the UC Irvine Alumni Association, the Orange Coast College Foundation, and PangeaSeed Foundation, an NGO dedicated to protecting the oceans.
Derek’s helped multiple companies, brands, and individuals with their sustainability journey and was the former Vice President of Sustainability at Volcom.
An engineering student turned art student, mid-career Derek went back to school and received his MBA from the Paul Merage School of Business at UC Irvine and went on to write a kids book about sustainable living. He’s helped develop the ongoing A/PART student x industry workshop series for colleges, has shared ideas on the TEDxUCIrvine and TEDxBSU stages, and continuously moderates discussions on the topics.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I went to college thinking I might want to be an architect, but because my grades in high school were so good, and I was a first gen college student with little insight into the process, my counselor suggested that I head over to one of the UC (University of California) schools who didn’t have architecture, but instead engineering; that I figured, would be close enough. Well, surprise…civil engineering and architecture are two very different disciplines. Needless to say, I lasted about 2 years and knew I had to get out of there. So, I took a trip to Hawaii, came back, and changed my major to what any other engineering student might: Studio Art. So, I went from physics and calculus to performance art and digital media. I performed much better in the latter.
After college I was lucky enough to get my start in the action sports space taking a “can you answer the phones for a few hours?” opportunity at the then small brand, Volcom and turned that into a 19 year career with the brand.
My first real job there was purchasing fabric and trims for all our domestic manufacturing at the time — we made clothing and accessories for the surf-skateboarding-snowboarding-art-music scene that was booming in the 90s. I ended up managing the raw materials department for a few years and then parleyed that into a management position in the Design Dept. and eventually became a Divisional Merchandising Manager (DMM).
About halfway through my time there, I was introduced to the idea of eco-fashion and more “eco-friendly” (what we called it back then) materials by a few thought leaders at the time, Isaac Nichelson and Frank Scura. I was super intrigued and little by little we started to make some moves in this space in our line: organic cotton, hemp, recycled polyester, etc. It became a passion of mine, and eventually I was nominated to be the head of a little eco-club we had started to try to get more and more employees on board with this movement. We called it the V.Co-logical Society.
And because I was the head of that club, people at the brand started to look at me as the expert — which I wasn’t — and so I was forced to learn. The more I learned, the more they came to me, and it snowballed from there. Sometime in 2006 we watched the climate-crisis documentary An Inconvenient Truth on DVD at a lunch-n-learn that our club hosted, and from the moment the credits rolled, I knew what I would be doing with the rest of my career. This is what I call my flashpoint moment.
In ’99 I went back to school for my MBA, and so by the time I had watched that documentary I had nearly 10 years of industry experience and two degrees under my belt and found myself asking the question, “why have I not already learned this?” and “why isn’t everyone else talking about this?”
I continued on as a DMM and eventually went on to build the brand’s Planning & Analysis Dept, but all the while I was locked in on this idea of responsible business and addressing the environmental and social impacts of our decisions and our products, and doing what I could to learn more about what was starting to be referred to as “sustainability” and, of course, the climate crisis.
In 2009 we transitioned my role to a full time Sr. Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, and I was now fully locked in. Admittedly, however, I was in over my head; where do I even start? I knew, right away, that better recycling programs in the break room and volunteer days for beach cleanups wasn’t going to cut it. The real problem was what we were making, where we were making it, and how we were making it…I didn’t know where to start.
As more luck would have it, in 2011 Volcom was acquired by the group PPR who soon became Kering and was at that very moment rolling out a global sustainability program for all their brands (us included). Those brands? Maybe a few you’ve heard of: PUMA, Gucci, Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta, Brioni, and more…we were in good company. And so was I. My first contacts at the group were our assigned point persons; amazing women that I ended up learning so much from: Holly Dublin, and Helen Crowley, both PhDs in Ecology.
Needless to say, I began to learn what we were really talking about when we referred to “sustainability.”
I eventually went on to be Volcom’s VP of Global Sustainability and worked under/with the team at Kering for years, learning so much from all of the amazing people at each of the brands, all of which had venerable sustainability initiatives underway. Their program today, is one of the most well-regarded in fashion & apparel.
In 2015 (at the age of 43) I left what I might have considered a near perfect job to start my entrepreneurial journey. I wanted to apply what I was pushing for at Volcom and in the action sports industry, more broadly, in a 100%, all-in manner in my own brand. The opportunity to be a co-founder at Kozm was just what I was looking for.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Because of what I do now, and my emphasis — and subject matter expertise — on sustainability, I cringe (and laugh a little) when I look back at myself saying that I was in charge of, “environmental sustainability” at the brand (that was years ago, mind you). That was an obvious cop out, and I teach all my students, and clients that there’s no such thing. Sustainability is, always has been, about people. And when it comes to brands and business, it’s about striking a balance between social, environmental, and economic well-being in all that we do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My two seniors at while at Volcom, co-founder and early CEO, Richard “Wooly” Woolcott, and Jason Steris played a big role in helping me advance my career. First, they continued to believe in me, and place me in positions that I didn’t have prior experience in. I’m thankful they saw the passion I had for continued learning, facing challenges, and hard work.
And when I look back, there was, as I see it, a defining moment that helped elevate my status in the company, and even the industry I was in….
We were sitting in a sales meeting, and they were at a table behind me. There was a quick break in the action, and during some light rustling around, I heard Wooly call my name. I looked back and they were sitting next to each other, leaned into one another, huddling, if you will. I headed over to my boss, Jason (then COO, eventually CEO), and his boss, Wooly.
“We got a little something…”
“Yeah?” I wasn’t sure what to expect.
“You know that office upstairs next to mine?” asked Wooly.
An office on the executive floor had recently opened up due to a shuffle, and I don’t think I would have ever expected what came next, as a young head of sustainability at an influential action sports lifestyle brand.
“We want you to have it if you want it. You’ve earned it, and we think it will send a good message.”
My career trajectory, I believe, changed that day.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Kozm was built with purpose. My co-founding partner and I knew that if we were going to build another brand, we didn’t want it to just be that…another brand. We wanted to do things differently. We wanted to apply everything that I had learned and was applying, teaching, and inspiring in regards to sustainability in our brand. We wanted to take the playbook from the brands that had come before ours, i.e. Patagonia, PUMA, Levi’s, and others and take all the great things they were doing and put them in place from the beginning. No midcourse corrections here. From banking, to corporate set up (we’re a Certified B Corp), to materials and manufacturing, and to our operations (we have an Open Book Business Model), we knew we wanted to be an example. How we built this brand was on purpose, and with purpose, for sure.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I’m persistently optimistic and energetic. That doesn’t mean everything is always great and perfect, it means that whatever has happened and has set us back is done; time to move forward. How quickly can we learn and continue moving forward? It’s crucial to build resilience in your team — just like we’re trying to do with systems, especially ecosystems. We need to ensure they are diverse and strong and can bounce back quickly after the storm. Our teams are the same.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Nope. Ok, well, you can’t help but know the exit’s there, but I’ve listened to too many episodes of How I Built This, with Guy Raz to know that success typically comes to those who hold on just one or two moments longer than they thought they could, right?
I’m driven and I’m not sure how to put my finger on it, but I just don’t like the idea of giving up. If I start it, I need to properly finish it, and if that means a financial reward at the end, then even better.
Being in a good head space though is what gets you through it. Think of it as mindfulness, but I spend a lot of time focusing on mental and physical wellness, my relationship with my wife and family, my creative outlets, and mindlessness, and more.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Empathy. We need to be able to see how those challenging times are affecting everyone.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I love thoughtful, inspirational, and motivational books, documentaries, podcasts, and more, and am always sharing what I come across with those who I think will appreciate them. Always be on the lookout for motivational stories to share and discuss. Use open-format discussions. Be a listener.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
To do it directly, and honestly.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By learning from the past, studying thought leaders, talking to mentors, and going with what your years of experience have taught you and are likely telling you. Leaders need to listen to that 6th sense they have. Read Malcom Gladwell’s Blink.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Breathe. In yoga, we learn to focus on the breath, no matter how intense things are getting, no matter how much it burns, stay focused on the breath. It keeps you steady, and focused, and in rhythm. I believe we can apply the same in a macro sense to business. In business, that’s staying focused, and keeping your eye on the flag, but also ensuring that your key players, and most all of your players are key, are also able to find their breath; make sure they are collectively in a good place as well, so that they can be in their best condition to contribute to the rhythm.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Exiting too early — Sometimes the break we’ve been waiting for is literally right around the corner. Some of the greatest business stories have come from brands and founders who were seemingly at the very cliff’s edge and even though it seems that we can’t go any further, if we get creative, we can often hold on for longer than we tell ourselves.
- Showing defeat — Which will lead to an inability to rally and keep the team motivated. Teams are a reflection of their coach and leader, and like our animal friends, they can tune into our emotions and behaviors in hypersensitive ways. Let them know, you are in it for the long-haul.
- Lack of empathy — “Table for one.” That was a saying that used to float around at the Volcom office, and I loved it. It was a quick, light-hearted jab one could use (even if sarcastically) if you felt like someone was only looking out for themselves. It’s so important to consider more than just your own well-being and emotional state; especially when you’re leading a team. Everyone is experiencing the difficulties differently and has different tools to handle those difficulties. As a restaurant manager once told (actually scolded) me when I criticized another team member for not being able to handle the workload that I was able to, at the speed that I thought was normal: “Not everyone is you, Derek. And this team is a lot bigger than just you too, and I need an entire team.” Basically, saying that if I couldn’t support this particular team member in time of need, then really, I was letting down the entire team, and that I was dispensable — no matter how strong of a player I was, the team was bigger than just me.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Bring on new and outside voices. Add new perspectives and be a good listener. Sometimes we get so caught up on our vision that we’re not seeing clearly, and I’ve found that letting people into the circle and really hearing them out can be invaluable. So, during the good times, always be on the lookout for mentors, guides, coaches, and colleagues whose opinions and wisdom you’ll value in those difficult times. That said, don’t be afraid to listen to those voices during the good times too!
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have a vision, stick to the vision — From what I’ve learned, wavering gets you nowhere, and teams respond best to clear direction and steadfast progress. There was a saying that floated around at Volcom, thanks to Wooly (or his dad), “keep your eye on the sparrow.” Don’t lose track of where you’re headed and where you want to be.
- Lead with certainty — Believe in yourself so your team will believe in you. If you believe it can be done, they’ll believe it too. But if no one believes in anything, or anyone, no one’s getting anywhere.
- Have empathy — I can’t stress this one enough. Avoid the “table for one” and the “well if I can make it through this, they should be able to as well” attitude and take time to listen to your team. What do they need? How are they doing?
- Give support — And to really show empathy, offer them the tools, or the means to get through it. Sometimes this means a day off, sometimes this means additional resources, sometimes this simply means a phone call. Know what your team needs, be there for them, and make sure they have what they need to meet the expectations you’ve put on them.
- Show gratitude — When it’s all done, and you reach that vision (or when you meet that daily goal), show them you appreciate them. And don’t just say it, show it. And gratitude shouldn’t just be reserved for the finish line.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never, ever stop learning.”
I have a set of index cards that I add little sayings to and post on the refrigerator for my teenage kids. Little things that I hear, or learn, or come up with after being inspired by someone or something. One of the most simple ones, and it’s a core value of mine, is this: Be a lifelong learner. I don’t like to say no to anything, or say no, I’m not a “_______ person” or “That’s just not for me, I don’t understand it…” — I’m someone who wants to learn — at least at a high level — about as much as I can. Just enough to be dangerous, you know. Sometimes I can’t tell if this is a strength or a weakness, because even in grad school I just sort of skimmed the top on all my disciplines — I was drawn more to some than others, of course — but I really have become a generalist across multiple topics rather than a fine-tuned specialist in any one thing.
That said, today, I specialize in sustainability in business and brands, but even that is wide open and spans so many topics; social, environmental, economic, management, leadership, strategy, etc. I think that’s one of the reasons I appreciate it so much.
How can our readers further follow your work?