“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision is merely passing time. But vision with action can change the world.”
Our guest today is Simon Mainwaring, a brand futurist, global keynote speaker, and NY Times bestselling author. Simon’s superpower is showing companies how to drive business growth and increase profit by scaling their positive impact.
He is the founder and CEO of We First, a brand consultancy that has helped companies like Sony, The Coffee Bean, Timberland, and Toms, to accelerate their growth and impact.
Simon's latest book, Lead With We: The Business Revolution that Will Save Our Future, was voted the McKinsey Top Business Bestseller on Workplace & Culture. His previous book, We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, is also a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, and was named the Best Business Marketing Book of the Year.
Simon has been named one of the top keynote speakers in the world, is a regular columnist for Forbes, and in 2015 was a finalist for Global Australian of the Year.
In this episode:
- The importance of collective purpose and the role of business in solving the world's biggest challenges.
- What the “Lead with We” formula is, and how to apply it to accelerate and scale your company's growth and impact.
- The importance of purpose-driven messaging and storytelling, and how it can be lived by every layer of your business; and
- How you can become the leader we all need in today's fast-paced, digital world.
Before we begin, the right bit of inspiration can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, so if there’s a friend or loved one who needs to hear this episode or could use some help to Win the Day, share it with them right now.
Let’s WIN THE DAY with Simon Mainwaring!
Simon, great to see you, mate! Thanks for coming on the show.
Great to see you and to hear a familiar accent!
Give us a bit of a sense of where you grew up and what career path you naturally gravitated toward.
Mate, I'm like any other Aussie, I grew up in Sydney, spent a lot of time on the beaches, went to university.
I think a lot of Australians, we have this sort of wanderlust, we wonder what's going on in other places around the world, you feel like you're so far geographically or in other ways that you think maybe I want to give it a go overseas. So I spent some time in Japan and then France, and then I was in the advertising world and had a great stint in London as a lot of us Aussies do much to the English chagrin, shall we say.
Taking all their jobs!
Yes, that’s right!
And then I came over to the US to work on Nike at their ad agency, Widen and Kennedy. So I spent several years doing that, writing campaigns for the fancy athletes out there. I then moved to Los Angeles 22 years ago to become worldwide creative director of Motorola and help launch things like the Razr phone, which was a big deal back in the day.
But then for the last 13 years I've had my own company called We First because all the advertising experience that I'd had taught me that you can actually build brand movements, you can actually mobilize everyone from your suppliers to your employees, to your customers to build your business with you.
I thought, what if we took that expertise and those skills and applied it to a business of any size and, more importantly, a business that's doing good, because that would allow you to drive your growth by scaling your impact because the impact is really what motivates people to be part of your brand.
So for the last 13 years we've done that for tiny startups, through to private equity backed companies, through to some of the biggest companies in the world.
How can people focus on impact if there's so much craziness going on in the world or they feel like they haven't got things together in their own life?
In 2023, it's more disorienting than ever. I mean you look at the headlines every day and it's pretty scary and that can destabilize your sense of confidence in the future. You hear talk of inflation and a recession, all these different things and that can be sort of debilitating. But as all entrepreneurs have selectively chosen to have a positive mindset to get up every day to build a business with our bare hands.
How do we leverage today's market forces so that we can scale our impact in ways that will build our business and is really fulfilling on a personal level at the same time?
So when you think about the reality of the marketplace that we're in, consider this every day: your employees, your customers, your investors are sitting there going, "Wow, our future looks pretty rotten in some ways." And the market forces are now rewarding companies that are doing good, people want to buy from, work for and invest in companies that are course correcting the future.
So it's not sort of Pollyanna, "Hey, let's go and make the future a better place." It's like, how do we leverage today's market forces so that we can scale our impact in ways that will build our business and is really fulfilling on a personal level at the same time.
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Give us some examples of companies doing that really well at the moment?
There's many companies, some you know and some that you don't know. There are startups, for example, like the Timberlands and the Virgins of the world that have now become household names that really have built their brand on the strength of their impact on the environment or whatever it might be.
There are new startups today, for example, like Air company in New York, which is actually oddly enough, one of the co-founders is an Australian, but they're pulling carbon out of the air and making award-winning vodka and perfume and now carbon neutral jet fuel, which major American airlines are now coming on board with. And that's really looking at this marketplace as opportunities in disguise.
Do you actually want to build a business that's going to give you fulfillment on the inside?
Then there are very, very large corporations out there, the Unilevers of the world that are publicly traded companies, or the Patagonias of the world that are privately held that really have demonstrated for a long time that you can commit to doing good and build a rapidly growing business. So it really applies to all different levels of business.
But I will say one thing, all of us as entrepreneurs, and I've been one for 13 years myself, you've got to ask yourself why are you in business? Is it just to make money? Is it profit for any sake at the cost of anything or do you actually want to build a business that's going to give you fulfillment on the inside?
As a dad as well as being an entrepreneur, I look at it and my daughter's future and I say, "Hey, I would actually love to be part of a business that is healthy. It gives me an income, it provides my future, but I'm also being responsible to that future as well." Not only in my own interests but the interests of my family and others.
There's been a lot of chatter recently around this idea of the four-day work week. Have you done any research or seen any insights on that?
I wistfully think about that. I think they're the same way. Hybrid work, remote work and now the four day work week.
Big experiment in the UK, which at different times, depending on what you read, they say it does work and it doesn't work. I think the larger point to take away is that the work-life balance is increasingly important not just to a company but to its employees, to keep that talent that makes your company possible. So you have to consider different versions of that. That might be hybrid work, it might be remote work or it might be a four day work week. There are markets in northern Europe and also places like the UK where it seems to be proving out.
That said, at the same time it's a challenge with remote work and if you're losing a day, arguably 20% of the productive times of your employees, can you as an entrepreneur, as a boss, as someone who's managing payroll, can you live with that and can you sort of stress-test it long enough to see whether it actually serves the business or hurts the business?
We're still five days a week at my company We First, but we actually work remotely and then we come in once every two weeks to see each other. So I think it's a case by case, but I think it's something everyone should consider.
Yeah, it sounds like if your company is a lot more balanced to begin with, then that's going to make it far less urgent in terms of moving to a four-day work week.
I think so.
I used to be a corporate guy for a long time. We were lucky to have a job. You'd go to work, you'd work your butt off, you were lucky to have a job, you hope you didn't get fired, you'd go home, you get your paycheck hallelujah, you go and have a beer on a Friday afternoon.
But now the center of gravity is moved to the employee, not just because it was out of balance, but because after COVID, I mean I think so many people were weary and frightened and anxious about the future and suddenly the responsibility, which should have always been there, was thrust onto us as business owners to say, "Hey, how are you taking care of your people in these conditions?"
And the interesting thing about that is COVID has subsided to some degree, but then we've heard all these other shockwaves, global supply chain issues, the war in Ukraine, it seems like the hits keep coming and that's going to be true of the future forevermore because of climate, because of so many issues, in which case you have to consider a four-day work week or that work-life balance just to make sure the health and wellbeing of your employees is in place.
I was in Australia on a family holiday when the December 2019 to January 2020 bushfires started. At the time, everyone was talking about how the world couldn’t get any worse because of the destruction that ensued.
Then COVID hit, and it's a great reminder that the world is getting faster and faster. There's all these big things that can literally change the world pretty much overnight. How you adapt to that and how you manage that and your lens to a growth mindset dictates how you'll perform, succeed, and survive.
Yes, the growth mindset is now increasingly a function of how you can be, what I like to say, a gyroscope. You see those guys with a steadicam on movie sets that no matter which way they move, the camera stays steady. You've got to be the same thing as a business owner. You've got to absorb the shocks.
You've got to be a shock absorber that insulates your business, your employees, your customers, your bottom line from all of these different shockwaves. And I characterize leadership cause I'm lucky enough to get to speak to that in a lot of sort of conferences and so on. Leadership will be defined by your ability to manage through multiple crises at once.
Leadership will be defined by your ability to manage through multiple crises at once.
And we've all done it. It's not like this is a new thing. The last two and a half years we've had all of these consecutive crises, especially here in the US. We had the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murder of George Floyd. We had Ukraine, we have inflation, we have recession, we have global supply chain, we had COVID, all the variants all at once and we all had to keep our businesses going. And so we've already been doing it.
But rather than think that, hey, we've got to get back to how things were where everything was normal and the exception to the rule was a crisis. We've got to accept that we are going to be in a constant state of crisis and how are we going to hold that center.
What did an average day look like for you in your advertising days?
Gosh, in my advertising days, I mean I was lucky enough to work in different markets around the world and I would say that the peak of it was working at Widen and Kennedy, Nike's ad agency.
It was an interesting environment because everyone has really aspired to be very good at what they do. And what I'm really saying is it was a very competitive place and the account guy or girl would come in and say, “Hey, here's a brief for a new shoe” or for the basketball shoe or whatever it might be. They would throw it down at the desk and say, “Do something cool.”
And in each case there'd be writers and art directors and on each project you'd have a different art director and you'd probably have maybe four or five projects at once. So you'd be rotating through different art directors and they'd have different writers on a number of different projects all at once.
When you sit down to do a Nike commercial, you've got to come up with an idea that nobody's ever thought of.
We were all pitted against each other for the best work. So it was constantly relentlessly competitive on multiple fronts at once. And as you could only imagine when you sit down to do a Nike commercial, you've got to come up with an idea that nobody's ever thought of. And Nike's been doing ads for 25 plus years, Adidas, Asics, everybody. So it's quite the challenge to come up with something that's not only new but really extraordinary as well.
The average day looked like calm, exterior, mild panic on the inside, several cups of coffee, late night work, and just being lucky enough to be amongst some of the most inspiring creative people I've ever met in my life.
What about the role of emotion in storytelling, trying to reach in and connect with that emotion – how important is that?
There’s one Lance Armstrong commercial I remember; it’s probably the best commercial I’ve ever seen. It was released at the height of the speculation that he was using PEDs. In the commercial, he addresses the critics and it’s overlaid with footage of people fighting cancer while he trains.
Heavily emotional. And obviously his career came unstuck in various ways. But emotion, we are all still human beings sitting around a campfire telling stories, I don't care about digital, social, blockchain, AI, ChatGPT, whatever it might be. We all have to make that fundamental emotional connection.
And your business, if you're a solopreneur sitting at your kitchen table or whether you've got 20 employees or a hundred employees or you’re multimillion dollar company, turns on the fact as to whether someone will sit down on their computer or in a store and instead of putting in “sneakers,” they put in “Nike” or instead of putting in “cars,” they put in “Tesla.” And the only way you get to win that consideration set is if you've made an emotional connection to that person.
There is something about how their company shows up in the world or its values and how they align with your values or something you did that landed with them or an experience of their product that stayed with you, that made an emotional connection, so you self-select to choose their brand over others. And that is timeless.
When someone's sitting at a strip mall and they've got eight different restaurants to choose from, to spend their $12 for lunch or whatever, who do they go to? They go to the one that means something to them.
A lot of times these days, technology means that entrepreneurs allow the tail to wag the dog. What am I doing on TikTok? What am I doing on Snapchat? What am I doing on whatever? As opposed to how can I make an emotional connection to someone?
Was there a particular day in your advertising career where you realized that this is not the path for me?
Yeah, there was. I mean a lot of Aussies, as I said, you go around the world and you've got sort of ambitions to sort of test yourself against others.
I was lucky enough to work at places like Sachi and Sachi in London and Charlotte Street, which is sort of a thing over there and then Widen over here in the States. And then I came to LA and had a big job at Motorola. But something was irking me.
I was a father in my late 30s. I had my first young child and I wasn't happy and I didn't know why. And it's really hard when you're a dad or a mother and you're working your butt off and you're trying to provide for your family and you're not happy inside and you don't know why – because you're still on the hook to put food on the table, yet personally you're not surviving the way you'd like to.
And so I went out and I was freelance for six years and I was kind of like the cleaner from Pulp Fiction. I'd be one of the guys that call it the last minute to really sort out a brand when they're in trouble. And I did that. I was busy, very busy, for six years.
But even then, I found that I was starting to feel disillusioned with it. I'd worked at a lot of the name places in the States and it's such a privilege. But at the same time you weren't feeling challenged anymore. And then I walked into my kitchen one day here in Los Angeles, not far from the studio here, and there was an answering machine on the table, which shows you that I'm a little bit older than some of the people listening to this podcast!
There were five messages on the answering machine. First one from my mum in Sydney, she was calling in the middle of the night and she was calling loudly down the phone to try and reach me in my bedroom because the answering machine was in the kitchen. And she's saying, "Simon, pick up the phone, wake up! Pick up the phone." Another message, "Simon, pick up the phone, please pick up the phone!" Beep.
My sister yelling down the phone trying to wake me up. Fourth message my mother really yelling down the phone, trying to wake me up and then beep again. And final message, "Simon, dad died. He was calling to say goodbye, call us when you wake up." I hadn't seen my dad for five years because I've been running around being a dad on the other side of the world or whatever. And he'd been sick for a long time.
Final message, "Simon, dad died. He was calling to say goodbye, call us when you wake up."
Those words “wake up” took on a profundity to me that I don't even think she intended. And we talked and I went and did part of the eulogy in Australia, but I realized I was unhappy or I wasn't feeling challenged anymore professionally – and that really destabilized me personally.
For the first time in my damn life, I got out of my own way. I was so at sea with being professionally and personally destabilized that I couldn't make sense of it. I couldn't take control of it. I couldn't write a list about what to do next. I couldn't run into my head and rationally make myself feel safe by thinking it through. I was just lost. Probably for the first time in my life, I was just at sea.
And two weeks later I happened to read a speech that Bill Gates gave at the World Economic Forum that year where he said, "Hey, the global economic meltdowns just happened. The private sector's creating a lot of the problems. They're on the hook for fixing those problems. In fact, they're better equipped than anybody else to make a difference through business. So you got to do more."
I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I wanted to be independent, but I wanted to do something that was going to make me feel good about who I am and the role I'm playing in the world.
In hindsight, I was looking for some meaning in my life. I'm the classic self-important ad guy that was running around trying to get awards and so on. And I wasn't finding fulfillment in it. When I look back now, I was looking for more meaning in my life. I wanted to be in business, I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I wanted to be independent, but I wanted to do something that was going to make me feel good about who I am and the role I'm playing in the world.
And so I spent three years writing my first book. We First came out and did well and it was about the shift from me first capitalism to we first capitalism. So it was that moment, it was that I wasn't planning, I wasn't a smart, cool guy who wanted to do good and use business. To that end, I was just a self-important dad who wasn't happy, who didn't know what was going on. Then life came along and slapped me in the side of the head.
Obviously a horrible experience, but so many people go through life never getting a realization like that, never waking up from the life that they're living someone else's life or certainly not a life that's their own.
Yeah, I mean for your listeners, I cannot tell you the work that you can do on what your personal purpose is and then how you can bring that to life inside your business could not be more important. And I'll tell you why…
Up until that point, I was always looking at what someone else was doing or I was wondering what else I should be doing or looking at that person making more money and saying, “God, I should be doing that.” And then you're churning, you're having these dialogues inside your head and you're that takes a lot of energy and you're hiding it from everyone. But you can spin out on all this sort of stuff.
So, when I committed to doing something that was meaningful to me, I created alignment between who I am and what I do. And when you do that, two things happen. First, you become bloody good at what you are doing because you are leaning into your innate gifts and your values, and there's synergy between that. And you show up so authentically and things work out much more effectively.
So, when I committed to doing something that was meaningful to me, I created alignment between who I am and what I do.
Second, and even more importantly, you stop worrying about everybody else and you stop wasting all of that energy that you spin around, “should I be doing this, should I be doing that?” You're having the conversation “I had a bad day” and it's all spinning around in your head and you've always either got envy or something else about somebody else and it all just drops away. And it's kind of like you suddenly, you stand your own ground, you hold center for yourself and then you can move forward in life much more confidently.
That doesn't mean you don't have all the entrepreneurial challenges and so on, but the energy you save and the energy it gives you in a clear and aligned direction is incredibly powerful.
What about the benefit of the opportunity you attracted? Did you feel like when you stepped into those shoes for the first time that opportunity came to you rather than needing to chase it in many ways?
I got to tell you, and I, this is, I'm sure you've heard it from others, but when you lean into those moments by accident like me, or consciously, weird things happen. People show up in your lives, opportunities present themselves to the point that you're like, "This is a bit spooky."
It seems like it's almost like you're manifesting something just because there's so much integrity behind your intent, what you're trying to do. It's almost like, and you're signaling the universe and this is what I would love to see happen. And these things fall into place and it gets to the point where you're almost a game of joke with my wife. She was like, "This is so strange, this serendipity that's happening."
And then it comes and goes, depending on what happens. You're like, "Damn, how do I get that back? That was so cool. What have I done? What am I doing wrong?" And it doesn't last forever and you have it at different times, but it's night and day, the difference between living an inauthentic or non-aligned life on behalf of somebody else or just because you haven't done the work on yourself.
So get that alignment and put it to work for your business.
Shaahin Cheyene who connected us, amazing guy, when he came on the show, he said, “Overwhelm is the death of flow.” And I found in my own life, just like you did, when you create that alignment between life and business, the opportunities show up. You don't get so much of that clutter that's occupying your mind.
In fact, you're so busy focused on opportunity and productivity and the importance and prioritization of balance that great things happen and you feel like you can maintain it a lot better and, thus, make a considerable gain over the long-term.
Yeah, it's so true.
As entrepreneurs, we're spent all the time. We leave it on the field, we're in the arena. We almost pride ourselves on working so hard and everyone else is working so hard, it just spins out of control.
To your point about restoration and balance. At the end of last year, I was pretty tired after launching a new book and just everything that COVID took out of all of us. And I talk a lot about our responsibility to the planet and the environment and our future. So I wanted to deepen my relationship with the natural world, so I went and spent two and a half weeks at the sacred headwaters of the Amazon with three different indigenous tribes through an amazing organization called the Pachamama Alliance.
And I'll share with you, when you leave your home base, when you leave your computer, when you leave email, when you leave the news headlines, you go to another culture completely foreign to you, you then go into the most biodiverse place on earth and then you are alone and you have time to really reflect and experience it in a very visceral way. Swimming in the Amazon. It's an extreme example, but the experience of flow you have is absolutely extraordinary.
You've stripped away everything, this noise, this static in your life and you've also enhanced that flow by being in a very, very dense natural environment, a very pure natural environment.
It's like all of, as they call it, these downloads start happening when you have new ideas and solutions to issues that you hadn't solved before and so on. It's almost because you've stripped away everything, this noise, this static in your life and you've also enhanced that flow by being in a very, very dense natural environment, a very pure natural environment.
So I think about flow both in the normal business context, in the cities that we live in and so on, but I just had a direct experience of plugging into the natural mainframe and it was extraordinary. So my advice to anybody would be maybe you like the mountains, maybe you like to hike, maybe you like to surf, maybe you like the beach, whatever it is, as much as you love your business, don't rob yourself of time in nature because it's a really powerful way to give to yourself and connect to the flow that will add so much value to your business.
I have a lot of high level business leaders and clients who travel around the world each year specifically to look for inspiration. Their goal is to just go somewhere inspiring so they can return with an upgraded perspective.
You mentioned the big transition when you moved away from being an ad exec. Did you feel like deep down there was always a voice calling for you that you just hadn't been in tune with?
I don't know. I think hindsight always gives you a lot of clarity you didn't have on the way through.
But I was always a values based person. I went through law school at Sydney Uni, my dad was a lawyer before he was unwell. And I think there's always a dialogue, an implicit dialogue around values. Also being an Australian, you always hear Australians say, "Oh g’day mate, how are you doing?" And yes, there's the tall poppy syndrome where they cut you down to size, but at its heart it's like we're all good mate, you’re a good person. I'm a good person. We all have value. And I think that is part of who I am.
I was living out different versions of success, winning shiny statues in the ad world, being on the cool account like Nike or being the important guy running a big piece of business like Motorola. When really I'm just a guy who gives a shit, quite honestly. I care about other people, I see a problem or I see people being treated poorly and it actually affects me and I don't like that.
But I think I'd written that part of me out of me because we had to go out there and slay dragons as business people and entrepreneurs and it's dog-eat-dog and you had to compete and all that stuff. When you allow who you truly are, if you can start wearing who you're on the inside, on the outside, and you can bring that to life in your business, it makes all the difference.
What's the problem that you wanted to solve at We First and why did it fall on your shoulders to do it?
The problem I saw was this: I really looked at business and capitalism and the way it was being practiced around the world, like so many others in 2007, 2008, I don't know if people recall, but people lost their homes, healthcare, their hopes. It happened in the States and then Greece and Iceland and then in the Gulf States. It was really a knock-on effect around the world. And everyone got really shafted, as we'd say in Australia. And I just thought it wasn’t fair.
I asked myself, what is the root problem here in a way that's accessible to people? Because what you learn working on things, advertising, you got to make communications very simple and very clear. And I really identified that there was a me first mentality at the heart of business, but it was coming at the cost of things that are worth far more than money, people's lives and health, hopes and so on.
And I thought, well what's the antidote to that? What's a way to start communicating this that's accessible but also provocative in terms of doing business differently? And so I introduced this term, “we first”, and all I remember back in 2010, 2011, people would kind of do a double clutch. They'd be like, "Oh, we first don't you mean me first?" They knew what “me first”, it's in the vernacular, but they never really heard of “we first.”
All it means is all of us working together in service of everybody's wellbeing, like prioritizing collective wellbeing. The only reason that's important to me is because if the whole falls apart, the parts can't thrive. If our planet, if our environment falls apart, society and business can't thrive. And so we need to serve the collective, we need to make sure the whole is okay so that we can all do well within it.
So I distilled it down to “me first” versus “we first” and spent the next sort of 10 years really working inside companies of all sizes to help them understand how that's actually a growth driver.
And the first chapter of my book years ago was The Future of Profit is Purpose. And here we are 10, 12 years later and every company's falling over themselves telling you about their purpose and what they're doing. And that's because the conditions we've created have got worse and we need that. But also the market forces are rewarding companies that are doing that. So this is all about growth, but thankfully it's all about having impact at the same time.
You've worked with some of the biggest companies in the world. Is there a particular client transformation that you have had that you're most proud of that you can share with us?
Oh, there are lots. We're lucky to work with a lot of big complicated global enterprises and so on.
It's like ranking your children!
Yeah, and it's like a Wes Anderson movie. They're all different characters with different personalities.
We were lucky enough to work with VF Corporation, which no one probably has heard of, but they're an enterprise that owns big brands like Vans, Timberland, the North Face. And we worked with them to help them really become a movement of movements. And what I mean by that is at the enterprise level, they're leading one movement, which is to enable sustainable, active lifestyles for the betterment of people and planet.
It's about being sustainable and getting people out into the world in ways that better them. But then there would be a movement of movement. So Vans would have its own movement, Timberland would have its own movement, the North Face and so on and so on. They were like arrows in its quiver.
For me, it's all about speed and scale. You have scale at a global enterprise like that, but you also have all these powerful levers of these brands that are making a difference out there in the world. And my great concern is, are we moving far enough, fast enough? Because even if you look at the latest or the final update on the IPCC report, which is this big climate report that comes out of the UN and heads of state and so on, we are probably going to miss this target of 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperature globally.
For me, it's all about speed and scale.
We are currently on track for over two degrees Celsius, if not up to 2.5 degrees Celsius. The consequences – irrespective of politics or wherever you live – are really, really serious for all of us. And you're already seeing that with these very surprising weather patterns around the world and farmers who no longer can have arable land and it's really going to affect everybody.
So I think of VF Corporation in the B2B world, I think about Avery Denison, that is a plastics materiality company that is doing very, very exciting things. I also think of these disruptive startups that are looking at all of these problems as marketplace opportunities in disguise. And I would share that with your listeners. Every problem peculiar to your industry that is giving your heartache or keeps you up at night, someone's going to solve for and have an extraordinary business as a result.
So there are those entrepreneurs that are going to thrive in the future purely because of the way they look at things and execute against it as opposed to those who are trying to do what they've always done as the world gets tougher around them.
When you're sitting down with these companies, what is the “Lead with We” formula that you take them through?
Well, in its essence, “Lead with We” is another expression of very simple but flexible messaging. And let me explain why. If you provide a solution for how business can drive growth through impact that is all wonkish and intellectual and using terms that people don't understand, it's going to fall on deaf ears even with leadership and employees, let alone with your customers out there.
Lead with We is designed to be very simple. You've got to choose to lead – because not everybody chooses to lead. They want things to be fixed or they'll go second or they'll let somebody else do it or it's somebody else's problem. You have to actively choose to lead, which means with as many stakeholders as possible. So that includes leading with your suppliers, your employees, your customers, your competitors, cross-sector with nonprofits or whatever it might be. It’s to benefit the largest number of people, including the planet.
Now, you could be in payroll of a small company and you can say, “Hey, I've got to make this decision about this or that. Who do I choose to lead with?” It might be how do I make sure my benefits serve my employees as best as possible so that they stay with us and that supports our business and this supports their health and wellbeing, for example. Or it might be R&D or it might be sales. So it's Lead with We.
There are several layers to it. You've got to do it on an individual level, you've got to do it as a leadership level. You've got to do it inside your company culture. You've got to do it inside your brand community with your customers. And then you've got to actually have a positive impact at a societal level. So the simple formula is Lead with We all the way up through, there's different levels so that you compound your positive impact, inspiring everyone to drive your growth at the same time.
In your book, you mention that 67% of consumers bought a brand for the first time because of its position on a controversial issue. There's been a lot of talk in the last few years about whether or not political and social stances should be made in companies and sporting organizations.
Do you feel like every single company and sporting organization should be open to including those things, even if it means ostracizing a significant portion of its fanbase – especially in a world where it can be difficult for people to figure out what accurate information actually is?
The accuracy of the information really muddies the water. I mean, who knows what's true anymore!? It's absolutely maddening.
Brexit, as an example. Economists can't even understand the full implications of that, let alone your average working class person who is the one who votes for it.
Then you vote out of emotion or based on the latest ad and then you come to regret it later on. But there'd be a two-part answer, I think. You need to make sure that whatever you stand up for is relevant and authentic to your business.
Across all businesses, there are three issues which everyone has to address: first, a fair living wage, which is the number one concern of all Americans according to Just Capital Research; second, you have to have some sort of sustainability profile where you're not making bad things that have bad impact – people don't want to see that anymore; third, you need to have some diversity and inclusion policy, even if you’re small company.
But then you should commit to an issue that is relevant to your brand. And by that I mean if someone sees you standing up for that issue, they go, “Of course that makes sense.” If you're just jumping onto the latest bandwagon, that doesn't make sense. But to your larger question, should every company do it? I mean that ship has sailed in the sense that if you've looked over the last few years, every company has been standing up around same-sex marriage, abortion, gun control, the war in Ukraine.
You need to make sure that whatever you stand up for is relevant and authentic to your business.
You saw Starbucks, PepsiCo, McDonald's, all of them pulling out of Russia on the basis of their values, which actually came at the cost of huge value to their business, but it was more valuable to them to be seen to stand up against such actions by Russia.
So yes, you do have to stand up on an issue, but you have to do those three that I mentioned first always, and then you need to find an issue that is really logical for your business. It's not about trying to speak to all things and just playing whack-a-mole with every issue that's out there.
Which is where the issue of topic hijacking comes into play, the virtue signaling, and they get called out from their bullshit very, very quickly. I know you mentioned a few examples in your book…
There's so many examples.
Here's the thing, every conversation matures over time and sustainability and ESG “environmental, social and governance” is how companies show that they're doing less harm and more good.
There's a lot of people who didn't do it. There's a lot of people who did it, but they're only greenwashing. There are a lot of people who are doing it authentically, but only in half of their business and the other half of their business is doing harm. There are some leaders out there that are really re-engineering their whole business. And there's a shakeout as more and more people look at these issues and they look at what the companies are doing, the pretenders get called out, people say that ESG funds are BS and so on and so on.
It'll get more serious, they'll get more rigor, they'll get more metrics around it and things will get better. So I think you've got to ask yourself who you are as a business owner, how can you manifest what you care about through your business, and how can you demonstrate integrity of intent and action in ways that will inspire people to work for you in ways that will inspire people to buy your stuff and just as importantly to talk about you to others. It's as simple as that and that is absolutely timeless.
But when you do that, here's the difference: most small companies, like mine, like others, don't have enough marketing resources. You don't have a deep marketing department, you don't have a huge advertising budget, so you have to inspire everyone to become an extension of your marketing department.
How do you do that? You have a point of view that resonates with people emotionally – employees and customers. You demonstrate that through how your company acts, through the type of products you make, how you take them to market, and you give them messaging that equips them to be an effective amplifier of what you are doing so that they talk about you on social, they share with your friends.
There are examples of legions of brands out there where you just like what they're doing in the world because they're part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Is the way that a company treats its staff one of the easiest and most visible ways of finding out whether that company actually cares?
In LA where we live, there's been a lot of restaurants lately that add like a 4% service charge to better care for their staff, and I love seeing that. Patagonia, they have a thing that when the surf's up, we don't want to see you in the office. Go surfing!
So then how they treat their staff, is that a big indicator of how much they care about every other stakeholder?
I think it's like the canary in the coal mine in that if you're not doing it well, you're going to get called out and you'll notice that it used to be consumer or media activism that would be called out by a brand, but now it's the employees that call them out.
Think about Amazon and Google and Apple and Facebook in the last couple of years, all of their employees have called them out. McKinsey, one of the biggest consulting firms in the world, 1200 of their employees wrote an open letter to their own company saying, stop enabling the biggest polluters in the world. Your own employees will expose you if you're not careful.
At the same time, if you look at your P&L, the biggest line item is usually your payroll. So it makes sense to invest in the human capital that show up every day to make your business possible. You've got to keep them happy so they stay because as you know with the Great Resignation and quiet quitting and conscious quitting these days for $3,000 extra, someone will leave and go somewhere else because they just don't feel connected to your company anymore.
You've mentioned purpose a few times today. What are the biggest mistakes companies make with their creating and broadcasting their purpose?
There's so many, but I'll give you three…
One is they're doing it, but they're not doing it with integrity or they're not doing it authentically. I think a lot of companies feel like that's one of the sort of boxes they've got to tick these days. And so they may define it, but it's not a static noun that sits there on an annual report or you paint on the wall. It's an active verb that needs to animate the company. So you've got to put it to work for your business. And in this really difficult market today where every three months there's some other challenge, it won't only help you decide what to do. It'll help you decide what not to do because if it's not aligned with your purpose, you shouldn't be doing it.
Second, a lot of companies out there when they're being purposeful, talk about it in a self-directed way. They'll say, we're company X and this is how we make our products and this is what we are doing and here's our volunteer hours and look at what we've done and here's all the meals we did for the afterschool program or whatever it might be.
Be the celebrant of your community, not the celebrity.
It falls on deaf ears because ultimately they're just talking about themselves rather than getting off themselves and onto others. And the way I like to think of this is you need to be the celebrant of your community, not the celebrity. Celebrate your employees, celebrate your customers, celebrate your partners.
The content you create, the marketing you create, the digital and social content you create, will be completely different. And they'll pay attention because it's about them and they'll share it because it's about them. Because no one really wants to hear anything other than it's really about them.
What's in it for me?
What's in it for me? Exactly.
The third thing I'd say about purposes, companies of all sizes, especially smaller companies, are failing to leverage collaboration and partnerships. You cannot do it all on your own. And the problems we're solving for are very large, whether it's problems in your local community, your state, country, nationwide or around the world. So think about how on the strength of your purpose, you can find other partners, even competitors who could work with you because their mission or values aligned level up the whole industry and double down on the resonance and reach that you're getting through partnership.
One of the biggest mistakes with entrepreneurs is they try doing it on their own and they almost pride themselves on sort of hacking it out of a granite cliff on their own. Right out of the gate find partners that really kind of align with what you care about and then go to work together.
That's so true.
What do you focus on to get a “yes” in your most important conversations? Do you have a blueprint or a template that you're using when you are sitting down with maybe a prospective client to get them on board with your vision?
I was a pitch doctor for a long time in my freelance career, where you'd actually go in and have to fix the pitches of agencies or companies to get what they wanted. So that was a core skill. You often have to win over a new customer or client who is hesitant or unsure if they want to make the investment in whatever you're offering.
There's three things that you should do. The first thing is you should look at the data in and around what you are doing. So in our case, if you really want to help companies understand what their purpose is or bring their ESG or sustainability commitments to life or really have some impact work out there, what does the data tell them in terms of attracting the talent you want? Fostering a strong culture, inspiring conscious consumers to buy the market, buy your product, differentiating your reputation in the marketplace, research.
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The second thing is to look at the competitive landscape. So say whoever you're talking to, say, listen, just as context, here's what your competitors are doing in this area, and that triggers their competitive instinct. They go, well, wait a second, if our company competitor X is doing it, either they're idiots or there might be something here.
Then the third thing, and this is the most important, is to do a cost benefit analysis where you say, if you're going to do this, if you're going to buy our product, if you're going to work with us, if you're going to be a partner, what is the cost of doing that? But also what's the cost of not doing that? And do a cost benefit analysis at the cost of not doing it, which might be you're not relevant to the marketplace.
A competitor takes a greater market share, and as soon as you sort of triangulate the research that supports what you're doing, competitors pointing in that direction and a cost benefit analysis of actually doing it, but also not doing it, invariably, I've found a client, will be, or prospective client will be like, maybe "Let's talk a little bit more about that, or I'd like to understand more."
Very quickly you can unlock them and because you have to talk to people in terms of what they're willing to listen to and what potential buyers are willing to listen to today is cost consciousness, or if you're a B2B company, how are you going to deliver productivity and performance in my business?
You've got to start with what they're going to listen to. And so show them the research, showing them competitors, show them a cost benefit analysis and then upgrade them from there.
That’s phenomenal value, Simon! Thank you for sharing.
And I have been in so many hostile rooms all around the world, in Asia, in the UK.
Even with the Aussie accent!?
Oh yeah, yeah. Especially in the UK, they're like guilty until proven innocent!
In the States where there's a frowny face CFO or someone who's got really a lot of pressure on their bottom line and so on, and they know they need to do something, but they're not convinced, the cost benefit analysis of not doing it is probably the most powerful tool you can use.
Because, think about it, people don't want to ignore research because then that just shows they're not paying attention. People don't want to ignore competitors because they're not really being competitive. People do not want to ignore the downside, the risk to their business. If you ignore all of those three, basically the person you're talking to is saying, we're not listening to what's going on. We don't care what our competitors are doing, and we don't care what happens. And it really helps to move things forward.
If that's the way you're going to do business, you're putting yourself out of business.
What about the “Lead with We” philosophy in the home? Have you taken that in there and thought about how this could actually impact people in their home and the family unit?
One of the great challenges of this moment in time is how quickly people go from denial to doom in the sense they go, "Oh, nothing's wrong, and the future's all going to be fine, or, I don't believe in the climate crisis" or whatever else it might be to, "Oh my God, it's too late and there's nothing I can do."
The fact is we got into mess together and I'm to blame and you're to blame. I bought groceries with plastic. I drove a combustion engine car, I had a meat-based diet. I invested my money in a bank that was then investing it elsewhere in companies that were harming the planet. Every one of those seemingly innocent actions by me and you and everyone else watching this, unbeknownst to us, have all combined to this mess we're in. Carbon in the air, chemicals in the soil, plastics in the ocean, and headlines that scare us every day when we open up our phones.
In the same way, we've got to get out of this mess together, and the only way we are going to do it is when each and every one of us change what they're doing. So I'll give you some examples in just my own personal life, we made sure that wherever we invest our money, we're now doing it with folks who have really become very transparent about the impact of that and how they're giving back.
Every single action you take, however small and unseen, is a small lever of positive change.
We moved banks because we didn't believe in what was going on in the banks, just the business, the companies we bank, the banks we use for my company. I have a wooden toothbrush. We compost at home. At the company. We volunteer once a quarter, and all of our work is working with purposeful companies. We do pro bono work. We've just finished doing it with an organization called Freedom United in the UK around modern slavery, and we're doing some work with this Pachamama Alliance that I mentioned earlier on.
Every single action you take, however small and unseen, is a small lever of positive change if you see it that way. And so I would encourage all of us to go, you know what this future is compromised and we are going to have to mitigate or moderate how bad things are going to get and we are all going to have to show up to that end.
I'll say one more thing about this, if you think that sounds unrealistic, because we're all selfish fools that want our latte. Two seconds later when we go into a Starbucks, look at COVID. In February of 2020, if you told me that trillions of dollars would be wiped off the stock market, companies all around the world would send home their employees and allow them to work remotely. People would re-engineer their supply chains to make ventilators and PPE equipment. You never would've believed it. Yet a few weeks later, that happened.
And in a moment of crisis we come together in ways that we weren't unimaginable before. We are living in a state of constant crisis now. It's one thing after another. And that temperature, that water that where the frog in the boiling water is going to increase and we are going to be forced to show up differently.
I believe all of us are going to start to make more and more conscious choices because we realize we have to and we're all on the hook.
Is there a book that contributed most to the mindset you have today or skills in business or anything like that?
I'm an avid reader and there's a lot of books and I'm one of those people that forgets that they've ordered a book. So the worst I've ever done is I've had five copies of the same book, forgetting that I've ordered it four times before!
I wouldn't say that there's one. There are many. One of the defining qualities of an entrepreneur is their ability to stay relevant to the marketplace. And so I'm constantly ordering books and we're all time poor and I don't use those audio things or anything and I just scan through them as I go through at night and read them very quickly. But I would say the whole lineage of books that ever since Buckminster Fuller in the 1950s have really pointed to the consequences of the way that we're doing business have all informed what I'm doing.
And I want to sort of point to something here. It's very easy for us all to be pessimistic about the future or feel anxious and so on. But here's how I see it. We're in a car and we're hurtling towards a cliff and we've been doing that since the '50s and '60s and '70s and '80s and '90s and 2000s and 2010s, knowing full well whether you're a oil and gas company and not telling us what's going on or whether you have someone who's read everything from Buckminster Fuller to others on the way through that this is going to come home to roost at some point, these consequences.
Here we are at some point, it's going to run out of rope and here we are running out of rope and we're about to go over the cliff. We've got this existential crisis and we have to throw the wheel of that car 90 degrees.
One of the defining qualities of an entrepreneur is their ability to stay relevant to the marketplace.
Everyone is complaining that we have to grab the wheel so hard, so fast and turn it so quickly and we're all gnashing our teeth and wringing our hands. And why do we have to change? And what do you mean I have to use an alternative energy vehicle or or change my diet or God knows what the good news is.
The first 15 degrees of that 90 degree turn is the hardest because the G forces want to pull you back to the way you've been headed really fast for a really long time, straight over that cliff. But the second 15 degrees from 15 to 30 degrees get a little bit easier because there's less G forces pulling you back from 30 to 60 degrees, the market forces start to take on a life of their own and it starts to get easier. From 60 to 90 degrees you'll look back and go, how could it ever have been any other way? And we are just in the middle of that first 15 degrees.
But more hands are on the wheel every day. More partnerships, coalitions, collaborations to really course correct our future and we will get there. But now is the time to show up as meaningfully as possible. But this is not the end of something. It's the beginning of a business renaissance that will absolutely transform our future. It just feels tough right now.
I was recently in Hawaii at the Disney resort Aulani there and it was so nice to see all of the biodegradable packaging there, because it's right on the ocean. And all you can think about previously was how many tons of plastic would get washed out each day?
Oh mate, I cannot tell you…
I surf a little bit. I'm like an old man drowning out there. The young guys are like, "Hey dude, shall I call someone for you!?"
Anyway, I was sitting out in the surf. I was down the coast here at San Clemente surfing one day by the pier, the sun was going down, and we're all sitting out there having a really kind of nice moment, just really appreciating where we were. And this trash was just floating in and around me and I picked it up and took it with me. The other surfers guys are looking at me, we’re all shaking our heads and just so royally pissed off.
Even when I was in the Amazon at Christmas, I was there and I went on a little canoe paddle in the early morning because you did bird watching in the morning and stuff. And I got somewhere – and this is pristine, pristine, pristine place – and there was a plastic bottle just perched there. The only one you could see anywhere, but you know only too well that this is just how it begins and so on.
So we just have to show up differently. We all give a damn, we all are worried about our future. We all have kids or people we love who are going to inherit the planet that we sort of compromised. So now's the time to show up differently.
On your best day, what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard that you could show yourself on your worst day?
We all are on a very personal journey, the interior life that we have and the challenges we face. So I think it's peculiar to any one's person's journey and a particular moment in time.
But I have found allowing myself to pause and to get on my breath because I think we're very breathless in the way that we live. We're tense, we're anxious, we hold our breath up in our chest and certainly not in our diaphragm. Connecting to our breath and then connecting to nature as a way to kind of restore yourself.
Because I think most of us these days live in a mild or acute state of hysteria, we don't even know it. We are caffeinating ourselves. We are going from Zoom call to Zoom call. We are looking at headlines all the time. We're farming our content across, so across social media, we're trying to keep up with a fast changing and challenging marketplace. And we're going and going and going and going. And I think we're almost become desensitized to the state in which we're living all the time.
So I always caution and counsel myself to stop, to really get back onto my breath in my belly and to reconnect to nature and allow that to ground me and then to look at things with clear eyes.
That's something I've found very, very powerful.
Final question, what's one thing you do to Win the Day?
I'm constantly challenging myself to be a better leader.
The more and more things have been challenging in the last few years and there's been many difficult moments for all of us. I'm very quick to reflex and go, okay, how can I show up better in this moment?
The team may be down or there might be some really sort of dark news out on the news, or it might just be general weariness for everyone. I'm always challenging myself to go, "Okay, what does everyone need here and how can I make sure that everyone leaves this interaction the way that I'd want them to feel? And therefore how do I need to be in that?"
So I'm less self-indulgent and I'm more present to the role I can play in difficult moments.
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