Business Brains

Facilitator | Robert Harrison, CEO, Clinton Global Initiative

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As head of the Clinton Global Initiative, Robert Harrison has merged his private sector experiences to help serve the public good.

President Bill Clinton and Bob Harrison at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative Global Meeting. (Adam Schultz/Clinton Global Initiative)

Bob Harrison was hooked.

“I really caught Potomac fever,” he recalls of the time he spent interning on Capitol Hill.

Harrison’s passion for politics wasn’t a secret. When asked by California Congressman George Miller III what he wanted to do later in life, Harrison was quick to respond.

“I like public policy, I like the things you’re working on,” he said. “Maybe I’d like your job some day.”

Miller, one of several “Watergate Babies” elected in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation, offered Harrison sage advice. “Come back to Washington,” Miller said, “when it needs you more than you need it.”

Harrison decamped from Washington after that summer. “I knew at some point in my life I was going to get involved in public service somehow,” he said. What Harrison didn’t expect was just how long it would be before his return.

Some leaders plan their ascent. The late self-help author Stephen Covey suggested beginning with the end in mind. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins recommends envisioning your future. For Harrison, however, having an open mind might be the best way to describe his rise to becoming CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a non-profit organization that brings members of the public sector, the private sector and civil society together to address global challenges like climate change, poverty and clean drinking water. “There’s no way in the world that I ever would have predicted at any time in my life that I’d be doing what I’m doing right now,” he said.

While perhaps unexpected, Harrison’s rise was far from accidental. As an undergraduate studying personality and politics as part of Cornell University’s College Scholar program, he quickly distinguished himself. Elected to student trustee during his final two years, Harrison had the chance to meet Dave Knapp, provost of the university.

In addition to coaching Harrison on being an effective trustee, Knapp suggested he travel and -- perhaps more pointedly -- apply for a Rhodes scholarship. “I had never thought of that before,” Harrison said.

Granted a Rhodes scholarship, Harrison spent two years at Oxford reading politics, philosophy and economics. He went on to Yale Law School and then began practicing mergers, acquisitions and securities law at Davis, Polk & Wardwell, a well-known Wall Street firm.

In the late '80s, concurrent to the publication of Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker, Harrison joined Goldman Sachs as an investment banker. “Investment banking was an incredibly exciting place to be,” Harrison said. “It was a rush of adrenaline to be working on some of the biggest deals in the world and seeing what you were doing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or the front page of the business section of the New York Times on a regular basis.”

Harrison’s 16-year tenure at Goldman, a period that included the firm’s 1999 IPO, ran parallel to the careers of prominent Goldman alumni including former treasury secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson Jr., Tsinghua University professor John Thornton and former treasury secretary Robert Rubin, the latter of whom Harrison credits as a role model.

“Bob Rubin was the co-chair of the firm, co-senior partner of the firm before we were a public company,” he said. “He was a great banker, a great trader and a great leader of the firm.”

By the late ’90s, Harrison was the global co-head of communications, media and entertainment at Goldman. Harrison’s group focused on media and telecom investments during the height of the dotcom bubble. “We couldn’t possibly do deals fast enough,” he said. “It was like drinking water out of a fire hose. At the time, we were really turning down business on a regular basis because we couldn’t grow fast enough to get the deals done and keep the quality standards that we had.”

Then, as history records, the bubble burst. “It became a lot less fun to lay off people over a period of time than it was to grow the business,” he said. In 2003, after two decades of dealmaking, Harrison returned to his first passion -- public service.

He landed at the presidential campaign of Gen. Wesley Clark Sr. “I had met with, I think, five or six of the democratic candidates,” Harrison said. Clark, however, stood out. “I was very impressed with him. Number one, for his history at being an extraordinary NATO leader; number two, the guy dripped with integrity and was articulate and smart.” Harrison and Clark, both Rhodes scholars, had friends in common. “The people who really knew him had tremendous respect for him,” Harrison said.

When Clark dropped out of the race, Harrison joined Sen. John Kerry’s campaign. When Kerry lost the 2004 election, CGI offered Harrison a senior leadership role. The position, executive director of the Clinton Foundation's childhood obesity initiative, was far from a leisurely pursuit. “This is as intense and urgent as almost any period of time at Goldman Sachs,” Harrison told CNN Money in 2006. Months later, Harrison was offered, and accepted, the role of CEO of CGI.

Founded by President Bill Clinton in 2005, CGI challenges its members to make substantive pledges -- known at CGI as “commitments” -- to address global issues like health, poverty, climate change and education. CGI is far from alone in this endeavor.

“There’s been a tremendous craving among the private sector to get more involved in dealing with some of the big global issues the world faces,” Harrison said. Since 2005, CGI has facilitated 2,300 commitments valued in excess of $72 billion that affect 400 million people, he said.

For many companies, addressing these issues is both profitable and in the public interest. Early in CGI’s history, for example, retail giant Wal-Mart committed to reducing packaging of products sold in stores by an average of 5 percent over five years. The impact of that single decision took 200,000 diesel trucks off the road, dramatically reducing Wal-Mart’s carbon footprint and saving the company $3 billion.

“President Clinton believes that some of the best commitments, by far, are the ones that are both good for the world, in the sense of being socially or environmentally or economically beneficial to society, but also to the commitment-maker, the company,” Harrison said. “The reason is that if it is good for both, it will be sustainable.”

Research supports Harrison’s conclusion: 88 percent of Millennials seek employers with corporate social responsibility values that are in line with their own, according to a 2008 survey of 4,281 college graduates by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“Today, most private sector companies want to be viewed as good corporate citizens,” he said. “They want to be seen as the kind of companies that customers want to buy from, that employees want to work at.”

This shift marks a sharp contrast from the world Harrison entered after college. Whereas Harrison might have had to choose between doing good and doing well, for graduates today the decision isn’t a zero-sum game. As Harrison and his role at CGI attest, corporate interest and public service aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Harrison's Manhattan office may not overlook the Potomac, but the impact of Harrison's work is clear, contemporaries say.

"Bob Harrison has done an extraordinary job as CEO of CGI," General Clark said over e-mail in January. "What he has helped create is helping move mankind forward. He is a terrific leader."

Photo: Adam Schultz, Clinton Global Initiative

Claire Lambrecht

Contributing Writer

Claire Lambrecht has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and CBS MoneyWatch. Previously, she taught English as a Teach for America Corps Member and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, and the Arthur M. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure