Brainstorm Green

Tony Fadell on practicing what he preaches

November 13, 2013: 11:29 AM ET

"Quality is not a fad, neither is sustainability," says the co-founder and CEO of Nest.

131112170432-tony-fadell-620xaFORTUNE -- Tony Fadell is the co-founder and CEO of Nest, a household product manufacturer that focuses on social and environmental sustainability. Prior to founding Nest he worked as the senior vice president of the iPod division and as advisor to the CEO for Apple. Nest creates "smart" household products like the programmable Nest thermostat and the new Nest smoke detector. After speaking at Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference, we asked him 10 questions about how he promotes sustainability, his thoughts on business, and what he would like to accomplish in his lifetime. Read on to learn what his first job was, his opinion on disruptive companies, and why he doesn't let his own fears stop him.

1. What other companies do you admire? Why?

I like disruptive companies, ones that are looking to change the status quo. I look at companies like Toyota (TM) who started a major trend toward electric vehicles with their hybrid vehicles. The industry told them it couldn't be done, and they did it anyway. SpaceX [which designs, manufactures, and launches rockets and spacecraft] is another one that's always pushing the limits of what is possible and changing the way people view space exploration. I admire companies who disrupt categories like energy efficiency, exploration, etc. and help us get to the right place -- damn the conventional wisdom and entrenched attitudes.

2. What is the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I received was not to let your own fears stop you. It can be limiting if you look at a challenge that's in front of you, or an idea that you think could work, and you don't go after it for fear of failure. All of the products in this world were created by people who weren't afraid. If you want to improve something, you have to set the fear aside and do it. Typically the biggest obstacle to making something great happen is you.

3. What alternative energy projects are you most excited about?

I'm really excited about all of them, because I don't think there's just one solution for the energy problem. We need short-term, mid-term, and long-term solutions to bridge the wide gap we have. It's going to take a variety of technologies, and right now energy efficiency is our biggest and easiest challenge to tackle. I think solar is great, but it doesn't work when the sun isn't shining -- same with wind. We should also be working on nuclear solutions, looking at biofuels and trying anything we possibly can. I'm excited that Nest can be a part of finding a solution to energy efficiency and teaching people about energy consumption.

4. What would you do if you weren't working at your current job?

I would love to be mentoring others, but not through the traditional sense like a classroom or formal education. I think the best way for someone to learn is by doing, by working through the process to figure things out. I would like to work shoulder to shoulder to disrupt something and help mentor during that process.

5. What is one characteristic that every leader should possess?

The ability to listen. It is important to create a smart and capable team around you and actually listen to them. Success is a team effort, so a good leader should listen to the team they've built, take all points of view into account, and then create their own point of view. And a very wise man told me, "Never take a vote, make a decision!" Once it has been made, it is also important to have the team understand how and why we got to the particular outcome was made so they can learn from it.

6. What is one goal that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?

To design and build a piece of architecture that stands the test of time. Most technology products are a symbol of a point in time, and quickly are surpassed by others becoming old and dated in just a few years -- look at the iPod. I would love to build something -- like a real piece of architecture -- that lasts generations by creating something that is sustainable, adaptable, and meaningful.

7. What daily steps do you take to promote sustainability?

Everything we do at Nest has sustainability as the foundation. Any company that is going to truly succeed in the future must have sustainability as a core principle -- similar to the quality revolution of the '80s. Quality is not a fad, neither is sustainability. At Nest, we like to lead by example. Our packaging for the Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect are made from 100% recycled materials. We have 20 electric vehicle charging stations at the office, always in heavy rotation. We built a product that has saved one billion kWh to date -- the equivalent to turning off the power for the entire United States for 15 minutes. We can't get enough at Nest -- we're committed to not only promoting energy efficiency with the Nest Learning Thermostat but also living it internally.

8. What do you do to live a balanced life? 

I think it's really basic for me. I try to eat right, sleep well, exercise, and maintain intellectual happiness and stimulation. Those are essential and important for staying balanced.

9. What was the last book you read? 

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

10. What was your first job? 

I sold eggs door to door in the 3rd grade.

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