CEO Leads 100-Year-Old Waste Management Company Into the Future
The Leading Change and Organizational Renewal program gave Salvatore Coniglio the knowledge and frameworks to modernize a company built on tradition.
The waste management business has changed in recent decades, as garbage collection has shifted to include waste diversion and recycling programs. This is what drew California native Salvatore “Sal” Coniglio to build a career in the industry.
“I started out on the front lines, working at a transfer station,” Sal recalls. “This is a blue collar industry filled with amazing, hardworking people. I quickly fell in love with this industry.”
As waste management practices evolved, Sal grew as a manager, working for companies in Northern California. “The San Francisco Bay Area made a shift to divert recyclables out of landfills,” he says. “I was inspired and intrigued to see waste companies evolve into sustainability companies. I wanted to be a part of that movement.”
In 2015, Sal took a general manager job at Recology, an employee-owned waste management company founded in 1920 by Italian immigrants. “Over 100 years ago the founders of our company scavenged towels, rags, and glass from the waste stream,” Sal explains. “The recycling movement has been embedded in the culture of this company from the beginning.”
Recology has 3,800 employees and manages collections services for more than 2.5 million individuals and 100,000 commercial customers in California, Oregon, and Washington. Sal worked his way up the corporate ladder, becoming a regional group manager in 2017 overseeing Recology’s California Inland region operations and Chief Operating Officer in 2020.
Then, the company’s beloved, long-time CEO retired. Sal was named chief executive officer in January 2021. On day one, Sal was charged with leading the company forward.
“I recognized we had to reinvent ourselves and renew our focus,” Sal recalls. After 20+ years in the business, Sal knew he needed to learn more about organizational change to rise to the biggest challenge of his career to modernize a company with traditional roots.
Leading Through Organizational Change
Sal joined the one-week, on-campus Leading Change and Organizational Renewal program at Stanford. He let his colleagues know that he would be participating in an executive education program. Sal recognized that being a true leader of an organization requires the skills to cultivate buy-in from everyone.
The curriculum combines a systematic methodology for diagnosing and dissecting strategic challenges, hands-on design thinking sessions, and Innovation Challenge workgroups that invite participants to apply what they’ve learned to achieve their organization’s specific goals.
Through case studies and discussions with professors and other participants, Sal gained a new understanding of how to effectively bring about organizational change. “I learned that we’re a large ship, and it’s hard to turn that ship quickly,” Sal recalls. “The program helped me identify cultural deficiencies and how to break down barriers for our organization to be successful.”
Learning with Other Company Leaders
Sal particularly enjoyed the Innovation Challenge workshop, where participants work through one company’s specific problem and come up with an action plan. “In my executive team, we all know each other. And someone might not challenge me because I’m CEO,” Sal notes. “But in this group, all bets are off. You get good feedback and criticism. You’re all working toward one goal. At the end of the day, I learned how to solve a problem back at work.”
Sal has been sharing his Stanford learnings with his Recology colleagues. “Hearing other company leaders talk about their challenges resonated with me,” Sal says. “I gained new ideas from this program. Now, I’m inspiring other leaders at our company, so we can continue to help the communities we serve achieve their carbon reduction goals and grow the employee ownership model in our industry.”
He is also encouraging other company leaders to enroll in the Leading Change and Organizational Renewal program. “I’m telling them, ‘I want you to go to this program to help me learn how to break down barriers,’” Sal says. “I wanted to be a successful, seasoned CEO. I’m 44 years old and into my third year. I have a lot to learn and a lot of runway to continue to grow.”