Driving Disruption: Jeffrey Whitford On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industries

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

SHAPE: To help pave a path to our industry’s prioritization of sustainable design, we have implemented SHAPE, our unique Design for Sustainability framework. This framework helps us engineer and reengineer products with sustainability as a guidepost. SHAPE ensures that products not only meet our performance requirements, but also minimize adverse impacts and optimize benefits related to environmental, social and economic factors across the full life cycle of a product. This approach extends down our value chains, benefiting our customers by providing them with products, services, solvents and solutions to help them meet or surpass their sustainability goals.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jeffrey Whitford.

Jeffrey Whitford, Vice President of Sustainability & Social Business Innovation, Life Science Business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany

As Vice President of Sustainability & Social Business Innovation, Jeffrey is a strategic partner to the Life Science Business to accelerate, embed, and amplify sustainability principles and impact across its business operations to drive new business models, margin expansion and cost savings. This is with one goal in mind: reducing the business’ impact on the environment and enabling customers to make more sustainable choices. Industry-disrupting firsts launched under his leadership include the award-winning DOZN™ tool for quantifying the ‘greenness’ of a chemical product, a Biopharma Recycling Program for single-use and disposable plastics, and a new line of award-winning bio-based alternative solvents (Cyrene™). He also championed a partnership with Beyond Benign to expand access to green chemistry in higher education and fuel the adoption of sustainable science in R&D. Ragan & PR Daily’s 2022 CSR/ESG Professional of the Year, Jeffrey was included in Fast Company’s 2020 list of the Most Creative People in Business; and selected as PRNEWS CSR & Nonprofit Awards’ CSR Professional of the Year in 2020, among other recognitions. He is a board member of MyGreenLab.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I can start by saying this is not what I thought I would be doing. I went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, specifically for advertising. Naturally, I thought I would work in an advertising agency and spend my day developing creative campaigns and ideas. When I graduated, the advertising agency idea didn’t materialize and instead I got a call about an internship at a company called Sigma-Aldrich, which I hadn’t heard of. It turned out my aunt gave my resume to a friend, who gave it to a colleague and the rest was history. While I wasn’t particularly interested in a science company at the time, my dad told me, “You can ask people if they’d fries with that or you can go to St. Louis and take this internship.” I was an intern for three months, then was offered a full-time job and then here we are almost 20 years later.

My start in sustainability really began with social responsibility and philanthropic investments and community and employee engagement. I was asked if I’d like to help with the “community stuff,” which was five events in St. Louis, Missouri. They told me to go to a meeting with the CFO. This was very intimidating at that point in my career, but we hit it off. Mike Hogan gave me a starting point and we set out on a growth and impact trajectory. From there we went from St. Louis, to Milwaukee, to other facilities in the U.S. and then internationally. And that was how I found my way into sustainability.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The Life Science Business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, is unique. If you aren’t a scientist, you probably don’t know us, but you most likely interact with us on a daily basis. We are the people who help scientists take their ideas and questions and test them and scale them through our portfolio of more than 300,000 products that help academics, life science, biotech and pharma companies bring life-saving and life-improving treatments to patients around the world.

One element differentiating us is our commitment to sustainability and bringing that through in everything we do — which we map through the product lifecycle. We’ve structurally changed how we operate to incorporate sustainability into each element of our business and fundamentally change the impact of science through a holistic approach integrated into our operations. The reality is, if we can get it right at the start, the multiplying benefit of that is huge when you think about the billions of people who are on different treatments around the world. That’s the kind of scale we’re aiming for.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Anything is possible mindset: I enter almost everything with that attitude. So many things that I’ve worked on and helped bring to fruition were things people told me weren’t possible. I tend to be a little competitive, so when that comes out, you can bet I will find a way to make it happen in a way that respects our business processes but asks people to look at them differently.

Kindness, Positivity and Passion: One thing I frequently hear is, “You’re just so passionate about this.” I hope so, but what would happen if more of us were passionate about what we did? Would our outcomes change significantly? Would we move quickly? I believe the answer is yes, yes and yes. It’s magnetic when kindness, positivity and passion emanate from you — so often kindness, which seems so simple is overlooked. For our team, it’s a core principle. People can see they can make an impact. They’re encouraged and uplifted. They challenge what they think they can do and, ultimately, you see what we have in us, which is a tremendous capability to do really hard things.

Creativity — I didn’t always know what to do with my creativity. I wasn’t an artist or a strong musician, so my creativity was in my mind and expressed through efforts like pulling things together — such as the countless times I would drag my furniture around my bedroom with parents who let me experiment. It’s easy to have this stripped out as we try to fit in or be part of corporate norms, but the lens I look through is different. It helps me to take concepts, twist them in different ways that are still relevant to the business but are compelling to attract people and get them involved. For example, our SMASH Packaging program. If you said, “We’re doing a Packaging Sustainability program, are you interested?” it probably doesn’t land. Now, if we spin it a bit and make it more interesting with SMASH, you’re starting to ask questions … Is that an acronym for something? What does it stand for? Then, guess what, I’ve got you asking questions and next you’re hooked, and mission accomplished.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

I may be an outlier here, but after approximately 20 years, there’s always a better decision or path. I anchor that decision-making process by using people as my guidepost. When you start to say, “What is better for this person or that group of people or customers,” you get more clarity on navigating those hard decisions. Helping people use that lens has been one of the things that has shaped me as a leader. Is it harder? Yes. In the end, you insulate some of the more challenging outcomes because you are thinking in those terms.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

The easiest way, and how I talk about it, is change — maybe it’s a little less disturbing to people than disruption. We talk about change being all around us all the time — which is disruption. Someone wants something in a different way than you offer it — what will you change to see if you can accommodate that, if you need to accommodate it. And the reality is, it can be small and seemingly inconsequential, it can be medium, it can be big and game changing. In the end, it throws a wrench into things and, if you’re not prepared, it can be a painful experience.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

Well, take the pandemic. This was directly connected to our industry — and talk about disruption! It was like nothing we’d ever experienced, and our products were core to the solution. We were all doing things we hadn’t done before to help keep as many things going as possible. And as we were navigating the pandemic. It was disruption on a daily basis — for instance — getting materials to make the products that customers needed or getting those products to customers via challenging shipping conditions.

And on top of that, we were figuring out how to deploy community programming through our SPARK platform and continue to deliver on our sustainability commitments. It was challenging and imperfect, but we ultimately found ways to deliver hands-on science in fun and interesting ways using materials that most families have at their homes. It also gave us another lens to see how we could use these learnings to adapt our future work by adapting quickly and not over-engineering experiences.

While we were all acutely aware of the pandemic, the requirements for sustainability didn’t stop. Customers were more eager to learn about our solutions, curious about their footprints and how we would help them reach targets. This required adaptation to ensure we were still on the road to deliver decarbonization solutions while advancing our internal processes that enabled those solutions.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

I chuckle at it because it sounds a little kindergarten-ish, but I often say, “We can do hard things.” How we approach each situation has a significant impact on the outcome. I was asked, “How are you planning for success?” an interesting turn on the common notion of planning for failure, which is the default. This mindset is commonplace for me — I don’t often think, “There’s no way I can make this happen,” but that is also because I’ve conditioned myself to challenge the status quo.

I remember about 10 years ago, when we were really starting our journey into greener alternative solvents, people told me I was crazy and there was no way that greener solvents would ever be a thing. To me, it just made sense. But of course, I had a colleague who had a PhD in Chemistry talking me through it and why it was a path for us to take. All it takes is a couple of those experiences and you build momentum — and then suddenly — everything is on the table when you realize that you can be a catalyst for change.

Furthermore, modeling that behavior has benefits beyond each of us as individuals. You start to set the tone and pace, demonstrate it is possible and reinforce that. From there, you see people start to believe it and, act on it and then make it happen themselves. That’s what we’re trying to have happen consistently and across a wider range of our colleagues related to sustainability.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

Literally every day. Another thing I remind our team is that we have to pick ourselves up after smacking into the brick wall and be ready to do it all over again. We may need to find our way over, around, under, through, whatever, but our resilience to people saying no, deferring, stalling, etc., sets us apart. And we are pretty darn good at resilience these days.

When I look back, there are moments that seem small but they stand out because they’re great examples of — no matter the pushback — being clear and effective with what you are trying to accomplish and the proof points really matter. When we were preparing our sustainability strategy and working to get approval for it, my boss asked me a very simple question: “Can we not just do two or three things?”

That statement isn’t pushback about our ambition, but it was looking for simplification and there was an important point. But equally, the conviction for our holistic approach that embedded sustainability at each key point in the product lifecycle was disruptive and different. It was complex and significant from an organizational standpoint. We could do two or three things, but we wouldn’t address the key problem. Our ability to communicate effectively was the difference between transforming and very slow incrementalism. This goes back to those three key traits: Anything is possible; kindness, possibility, passion; and creativity. I leaned heavily on that trifecta to enroll my leaders and show what we could do when we dreamed big and kept the customer, our employees and other stakeholders at the center of our approach.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1 . SHAPE: To help pave a path to our industry’s prioritization of sustainable design, we have implemented SHAPE, our unique Design for Sustainability framework. This framework helps us engineer and reengineer products with sustainability as a guidepost. SHAPE ensures that products not only meet our performance requirements, but also minimize adverse impacts and optimize benefits related to environmental, social and economic factors across the full life cycle of a product. This approach extends down our value chains, benefiting our customers by providing them with products, services, solvents and solutions to help them meet or surpass their sustainability goals.

2 . SMASH: As a company that ships over 300,000+ products, we’ve developed a sustainability strategy to reduce waste and optimize resource use in our packaging. SMASH, as we call it, helps us further embed circular design principles in new and existing packaging while continuing to meet safety, quality and performance requirements. Since its launch in 2019, SMASH has achieved 400-plus metric tons of annual packaging savings, leading to unique innovations that divert packaging waste from landfills. One such innovation, our “Greener Cooler,” a recyclable and plant-based alternative to common expanded polystyrene coolers, is currently piloted across key U.S. distribution centers.

3 . SHIFT: We have developed innovative recycling programs that have recycled more than 11,000 tons of single-use biopharma plastics and change the end-of-life scenario for many of our products. Guiding these programs and our desire to increase circularity within our industry lies our framework, SHIFT. Life science markets are expanding and adopting new technologies that challenge the current recycling infrastructure. SHIFT is a multi-year process with a phased approach that will help our organization pioneer technologies and programs to improve recycling solutions for single-use plastics and add value to our products’ end-of-life. Like SHAPE, this framework reduces the environmental impact of our products while assisting our customers reduce theirs.

4 . SPARK™: Tomorrow’s disrupters need inspiration to chase careers in STEM. Our highly skilled employees are equipped to handle this task, so in 2016, we launched SPARK™, a first-of-its-kind, large-scale employee volunteer program that unites employees around the world in a shared commitment to giving back through skills-based and non-skills-based volunteering. Volunteers can help spark young minds’ interest in science through our Curiosity-based programming, the Curiosity Cube and Curiosity Labs™, which provide students with hands-on science experiments. Since the launch of SPARK™ in 2016, employees have volunteered more than 134,000 hours hosting thousands of events in 46 countries, ultimately engaging more than 387,000 students.

5 . Embracing Green Chemistry: Chemistry will change global sustainability, especially in our industry. However, to do so, we need to embrace green chemistry, which aims to reduce the impact of chemicals on human health and the environment. Our disruptive goal is to turn “green chemistry” into just “chemistry” and we plan to do this through collaboration in education settings. Since 2015, we have worked with Beyond Benign to provide access to resources and support needed to apply greener practices in chemistry education. Increasing access to green chemistry education will help tomorrow’s chemists implement sustainability as a core component of their work, not an afterthought. Our latest partnership will expand access to training for more than 4,000 educational faculty members worldwide.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

I would never have thought that this is what I would be doing but it exceeds my goal for myself, create more impact than I have done on my own. I’m empowered to drive that impact for a multinational organization that is 27,000+ strong. If you asked my high school chemistry teacher if she thought I would be working at a science company, I guarantee the answer was no. I would have said the same thing. It was an honors advanced biology field trip that ended the idea of medical school for me in high school — and thank goodness for that field trip. I think disruptively constantly. However, it’s always within the context of the business, a vision of what we are trying to accomplish and how it benefits our customers, employees and communities.

I’ve learned that disruption gets easier. The surprise is that people have come to expect it from me now. It’s become part of who I am, but it’s equal parts the ability to see the disruption opportunity, come up with the ideas to deal with disruption — and most importantly — deliver an outcome that addresses the disruption. What we know is that our ability to build consistency and momentum is the key. When you build a reputation delivering in the midst of disruption, it sets the work apart and creates something that we all look for — constancy during times of uncertainty.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

Personal or professional, it’s all the same thing. Being comfortable with disruption means you’re willing to be that person regardless. From a personal level, embracing disruption means I’m confident in who I am and how I manage through disruption. I am who I am because the consistency of how I show-up reinforces the approach I take in the face of dealing with disruption.

If I take the same approach of ‘people first’ and making choices about how we handle things with a view on how it impacts people, you’re putting others first and always asking yourself the question, “Is this the best outcome we can deliver or is there another way we can look at it to make it better for more people?”

When we are who we are, we are stronger. That ability to use disruption as a testing ground has made me a better advocate, a better champion and a proof point. Having been through disruption and coming out the other side mostly unscathed, strengthened by learning opportunities, I’m resilient and believe now more than ever that we are capable of much more than we can imagine.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

One of the things I spend most of my time thinking about is how we bring people along the journey with us. Change is hard and it’s scary to a lot of people. I live constantly in this space and, let’s be honest, there are times when I’m shaking in my boots because something seems impossible or it’s something I don’t understand. This is one of the biggest opportunities we have as leaders. Figuring out how we make change less scary and increase our capacity to understand what happens when we’re scared and how that impacts what we deliver. This is an area where we’re constantly working and developing, but we’re starting to crack it more times than not.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is how I think each day. It’s my guidepost — impact — and I’m fortunate to get to do it. There is a different model for how we do things. Yes, it does require change but there’s a remarkable opportunity for us to change the impact of what we do every day, ensuring that we’re accountable for others and considerate of people’s needs and outcomes. It changes with how we interact with the products we use every day because we’re mindful of risk, harm and eliminating that as much as we possibly can. Once again, if we can help scientists develop better formulations because they’re using different materials, that future is something I want to sign up for and it’s a future I’m determined to make happen.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow along with my work by following me on LinkedIn and can learn more about our sustainability initiatives on our Sustainability & Social Business Innovation webpage.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.