Passion & Purpose For A Better Future With Simon Mainwaring
The planet is almost one minute to midnight and people are trying to fix everything by tomorrow. That isn’t going to work until they realize that they have to make a meaningful change. Everyone is at fault, they’ve known about these issues for years and haven’t acted. Now is the time to act together for a brighter future. To help us with that is your host Katherine Twells and her guest Simon Mainwaring. Simon is the founder and CEO of We First, a strategic consultancy that accelerates growth and impact for purpose-driven brands. He is also the author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Amazon bestseller, We First. Join Katherine and Simon as they discuss how people can start to be more aware of nature. Learn how companies and entrepreneurs can lead the charge in changing the planet. Start changing the direction of your business today!
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Passion & Purpose For A Better Future With Simon Mainwaring
How The Shift From Me To We Can Make Meaningful And Urgent Change
Welcome to the Coke CMO Leadership Summit podcast and together we’ll be exploring the power of leadership and connection. Our conversations are all about how to best navigate an ever-evolving and highly connected world. We’ll share stories about how much better we are when we connect to a greater community to accomplish more together than we could ever do alone. Leadership is all about service and we’re all called to share our talents to help the collective rise even higher. We hope you’ll enjoy all the conversations. We invite you to check out the show notes on our webpage at CokeCMOSummit.com. Now, let’s get started.
Greetings everyone. On the podcast, we are going to talk about the role of business in creating a sustainable world. This conversation becomes even more urgent with the passing of time. My guest is Simon Mainwaring. He’s the Founder and CEO of We First, a strategic consultancy that is accelerating growth and impact for purpose-driven brands.
He’s a member of the steering committee of Sustainable Brands, the Forbes Business Council, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. The sustainable business conversation isn’t new. It’s been going on for some time but what is required are visionary voices, people to bring together, the right people in the room to have the conversations, and collaboration to make meaningful progress. Simon has been one of those important and powerful voices in this arena.
He was a featured expert and jury member at the Cannes Lions Festival for the sustainable development goals in 2021. He’s a host of the Brands With A Purpose Series with the Harvard Business School Association of Boston and his company is included in the real leader’s list for the top 100 impact companies in the US.
Simon wrote his first book, We First and it was instantly a New York Times Wall Street Journal and Amazon bestseller. It was named the Best Marketing Book of the Year by strategy+business and his new book Lead with We was launched last November 2021. It gives us a step-by-step, what’s next? How do we come together to create change? You’re going to notice Simon’s passion in our conversation and his unwavering commitment over time. To help bring the business community to a place where doing good for all stakeholders is the standard cost of entry. Now here is my conversation with the visionary, Simon Mainwaring.
Simon, my old friend, it is delightful to see you and I’m grateful that you’re taking the time to have this conversation. It’s an important one to have. Thank you for being with me.
Katherine, I’m so happy to have a chance to chat again.
I always begin with the beginning, which is the origin story. Your bio is amazing. We all have these things that we’re doing on our path. We’re going to talk about the books that you’ve written and all the work that you do but there’s a lot more to you than that. There’s what made Simon Simon? What gave you the passions that you have? Can you talk a little bit about what shaped you and your origin story to what brought you to now?
Thanks for asking that. The journey for me began when I traveled all around the world. I’m Australian, I was born in Sydney and then worked in London, then worked in the US in advertising, writing campaigns for large brands. I was lucky enough to get the experience to see that if you get the communications right, you can lead movements. You can get large numbers of people to think or behave differently or to buy a product.
I came away from all of that struck by the power of storytelling to drive change at scale but despite that, I was self-absorbed. I was worried about myself and my life. I wasn’t thinking about the future like many people. As circumstances would have it, I walked into my kitchen one day in Los Angeles where I was living and there was an answering machine on the counter which shows you how old I am.
I can relate to that too.
I was surprised because it was first thing in the morning and I had five messages on the answering machine. I pressed the button and the first message was from my mom in Sydney, Australia. She was talking loudly, almost yelling down the phone, “Simon, pick up the phone,” because she was calling from Sydney and the time difference between Sydney and LA. This was during the night. The next message comes on, my mom is quite upset reeling down the phone, “Simon, wake up. Pick up the phone.”
The next message, it is my sister this time yelling down the phone, “Wake up, pick up the phone.” The fourth message is quite visibly upset saying, “Simon, please pick up the phone,” and then the last message said, “Simon, dad died. He was calling to say goodbye. Call us when you wake up.” I hadn’t seen my dad for five years prior to that. He’d been sick for seventeen years and had a challenging life.
Those words that she said took on a profundity for me that I didn’t even think she intended because what was I doing? I was not challenged so much anymore by my advertising work and at the same time, I neglected my family, and then this important moment passed. I was professionally challenged because I was looking for something new but I became personally destabilized for the first time in my life.
I was at sea and I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t try to make sense of it. I didn’t try to write a list about what to do. I didn’t think about it. I’m trying to think my way through it. I didn’t retreat to my head for safety. I sat for the first time in my life in this mess going, “What is going on? I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore. How could this happen?” A couple of weeks passed and serendipity would happen. I read the speech that Bill Gates gave at the World Economic Forum that year because this is late 2007, early 2008 which is called This Creative Capitalism Speech where he said the private sector needs to play a bigger role in social change.
As someone who had been lucky enough to understand what movement building was, I thought, “How can businesses be off the hook? How come they’re not using their ability to use communications and responsible business more effectively at a time we need it desperately as we saw in the global economic meltdown?” That’s where the journey began. There were no good intentions. There was no strategy. There was no plan. Life just came along and smacked me on the side of the head and said, “You need to think about things differently and you need to get out of your way.”Fulfillment is not an outside-in job by awards or recognition, it's an inside-out job. You fulfill yourself by what you give to others. Click To Tweet
Simon, it seems to me that that’s the way it happens. We get knocked down by any number of things. You got the literal wake-up call. We always talk about, “I got my wake-up call.” Pain is a huge motivator to take a deeper look because you were young and you’re building your life and that’s normal. That’s what we do. We’re like, “How am I going to make a living? I will build a family.” It’s natural to be focused on the me. We’re going to talk a lot in our conversation about the me to the we. Some of that comes with age and understanding. We’re living in a time where it needs to happen younger. We can’t wait till we’ve all matured and suddenly realize that we’re interconnected.
I’m curious before we leave your origin story and dig deeper into the now, was there anything else even from your childhood or upbringing that was a clue to where some of the passions you have now? I always find it interesting that sometimes in our formative years, there’s something that shaped us that may have contributed. Is there anything that comes to mind on that?
There are a couple of things that come to mind. One contributing factor was the fact that I was a young dad. When you start to have a family, you go, “I’m not just thinking about myself anymore. I’m thinking about their future and so on.” I also studied law at university and my father was a lawyer. There was always implicit in all the discussions we had around the kitchen table. Hearing about dad’s work was this values proposition that underscores the law like these organizing principles that make society function.
Having studied at law school myself, you take that on board and you think, “There has to be a way that we can coexist harmoniously.” That’s the presumption of the law and the corrective dimension of it. Prior to that, I always had a love of writing. I thought there’s always power in language. I’ve always loved poetry and read a lot. Oddly enough, I did do a Fine Arts degree. The piece of art that I wrote my thesis about was La Porte de l’Enfer which is the Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin which is a sculpture.
It sounds a lot better in the other language.
It’s these doors that Auguste Rodin, one of the most iconic sculptors in French history, did to illustrate Dante’s Inferno. Oddly enough, when I think about that because I still have a big poster of it in my office at home, it’s a literal 3D portrait of human suffering, the different rings of hell in a sense. I’ve always had a soft spot, shall we say, for human suffering. I can’t look at the suffering of others without having some empathetic response.
Between that and the law and the circumstances that unfolded, I finally let go or tried to get some idea of what I’m supposed to be and then recognized, “I’m not some cool head guy. I’m not this. I’m not that. I’m a guy who feels something when I see other people suffering and feels compelled to do something about it, whatever that looks like to whatever degree I can based on the skills that I have.” One of the nice things about the whole process was all of the pretense, artifice, or projection as to what you’re supposed to be falls away and you become more okay with who you are. That’s one of the greatest challenges in life.
That is powerfully said, Simon. It is one of the greatest challenges because we grow up and we are often indoctrinated into what we should be and many other voices of people in our lives who are telling us which way to go. We need to trust in our gifts and think about what’s right for us and what feels true for us. That’s a challenge for all of us to continue to refine that and know where we want to go.
We first met back in 2011 when you were starting a lot of this work and were more established. I was doing an interview project on conscious leadership and mission-based organizations. What’s different about the fire in their belly? What’s different about why they get up in the morning? This is quite obvious as you think about it, the people that were in these organizations were about a mission, maybe it was Charity Water or TOMS or an organization that wanted to make the world better. Everyone got up in the morning with the North Star of, “I’m going to help. I’m going to make things better.” There’s so much power in that. What did you find in those early days with your first book when you started to engage with companies? What did you see around what was happening at that time?
I was gloriously naive. I had no idea what I was doing.
We all go through that phase.
I didn’t know anyone in the space. I never wanted to write a book. I didn’t know literary agents. I was clueless. The book came out and was well received. One of the first conferences I spoke at was the first Social Good Summit in New York. Sitting in the green room with this guy called Scott Harrison who was starting this thing called Charity: Water.
Living Your Truth
A few years after that we worked with TOMS and I was working closely with Blake Mycoskie who started TOMS, my experience of it was this, you have individuals like your listeners who at some point for whatever reason in their life say, “I’m going to commit to making a difference in whatever form I can.” My experience over the years of doing this work is we’re all sprinting a million miles an hour looking straight ahead at whatever we’re trying to do but occasionally, we look across and go, “Hey, Scott.” “Hey, Blake,” whoever it is. You’re like, “How’s it going?” They’re like, “Good and I’m exhausted. We’re trying and we’re doing the best we can to keep going,” and then everyone starts looking ahead again and keeps running.
It’s the aggregate of all of these impassioned individuals who are connected to the truth as to who they are. If you recognize that fulfillment is not an outside-in job by awards, recognitions, or titles but an inside-out job, you fulfill yourself by what you give to others. The more you give of yourself to others, the better you’ll feel about yourself.
The early days were lonely. I would call up people and clients or potential clients and talk to them about business doing good and they would go, “It’s cheap that someone like you exists.” It’s never going to happen but we love the fact that you’re out there and you’re going to bang your head against that door. They pat you on the backside and say, “Off you go.” It was borderline condescending the whole time.
Let’s pause and take a look at that for a minute. There are a lot of people that can identify with you. Early visionaries will see something that other people don’t see. They’re like, “Look over there,” and everyone’s like, “I don’t see anything.” Did it make you doubt what you were doing? Did it make you question your path or did it give you even more fire in the belly to go further?The deeper our connection to the natural world is restored, the more readily we'll reconnect with each other. Click To Tweet
It makes you doubt. I still doubt today depending on how good or bad a week or a day is. We’re always full of self-doubt with good reason. At the same time, when it’s grounded in what you believe is true in terms of what is right by other people and what is true to your nature, it’s almost undeniable because the doubt taps you on the shoulder. As you want to indulge that doubt, the truth, that self-evident pushes back.
There have been a thousand times that I thought I was crazy. For the first year after starting my company We First and my family trying to stand up a business, credit cards are overdrawn. Things have bounced and you’re all the mess that goes with being a startup entrepreneur. It’s scary. We didn’t have any relatives here in the United States. We’re a young family. I had two young kids to provide for. I’m trying to stand up a business and that was all about trying to make a viable business by doing good. That’s a dumb idea if I ever heard one. That’s never going to work. It was a struggle for a long time but you always come back to living your truth and you’re almost denying yourself. If you have been lucky enough to identify that role you want to play and it’s authentic and inherent to you, it’s hard to walk away from who you are.
They talked about the hero’s journey and answering the call. I love Joseph Campbell’s work around imagery and it’s used in all the movies whether it’s Star Wars or Harry Potter. The hero was called to the adventurer. They meet many obstacles and dragons that must be slain, including their internal dragons. There are mentors and friends and tests along the way until they find redemption. That is the story of our personal lives and it’s also the story of our collective humanity, how will we move forward together.
I remember the early days of speaking with you and you were always generous in connecting me with the people running down those tracks on the side of you. We all had a common vision but maybe we’re looking at it from our unique angles. When we come together, we can go much further together.
Why do you think we’re in this divided state whether it’s political or vaccinated or science or social justice? You can go down the list. You can spend an afternoon on social media and see the absolute violent finger-pointing people do to each other. It’s understandable there’s passion and energy. How do we tackle that, Simon? How do we find what’s more in common versus what’s different with us?
It’s a huge problem and it’s probably the root cause of our concern about the future. It’s happening deeply for several reasons. Firstly, the world as we know it has changed so much in the last several decades. It’s not like we still look forward to the future and we think that there’s a planet of infinite resources and business can grow exponentially. The headlines every day make us realize that we’re in trouble. If you don’t know that, you’re not paying attention.
In the context of that world, we’re not our best selves. If everything’s fine, dandy, and great, we’re much more obliging, open, and positive. Because we’re anxious, fearful, and concerned, we retreat and become more fear-based rather than we say hope or love based shall we say. We protect ourselves which is a natural human instinct and that is compounded by the algorithmic distortions of social media and all its faults.
On the strength of the data we reveal about ourselves, we receive more content back to us that reinforces and compounds our points of view. So much so as we’ve seen in the political context and social contexts on many issues, we bifurcated the world across an infinite number of issues. “I’m right, you’re wrong. It’s me against you.”
The challenge of that is we can’t even agree on reality anymore and without that, we can’t solve it. We don’t even agree on what world we’re living in. Within a community, a state, across the country, or around the world, ask the people to give their description of the same shared experience of life. It’s like night and day. You’ve got this context of concern. We’re not our best selves. Social media is polarizing us as you saw in films like The Social Dilemma. In which case, what do we do?
Connecting To The Natural World
The answer is shockingly simple right in front of us and I hope it is easy to execute. The deeper our connection to the natural world is restored, the more readily we’ll reconnect to each other. Why? One of the most powerful things that we all share as human beings that is one of many species on this planet is that sense of awe. When we look at a mountain, sunset, and ocean where we are taken by what we see, it puts our own lives and significance in perspective. We cannot help but emotionally feel that we are a subset of something much larger than ourselves and we are codependent on that natural world.
What’s happened is the primacy given to the individual and the compounding through social media of your points of view and the polarizing of issues and the density with which we’ve now constrained our lives. When we look at life through all of these little lenses, this Zoom call, our phones, if you look at the data of how much of our lives we live on screen, we are far removed from the natural world. We can have those experiences of awe. We can recognize that codependence on each other in the natural world. The short answer would be we’re losing touch with the natural world. In fact, we’re destroying that natural world and we need to return to it and restore it.
Simon, what you said is not only moving and powerful but so right. I’ve gotten to several conversations on this podcast on and off about nature as our teacher. There is wisdom right in front of us. Nature shows us there’s a pulse to nature. There’s a complete interdependency because it’s an ecosystem. No one thing in nature exists without understanding its interconnectivity to everything else.
What you say is brilliantly true. We’re being shown this is how to live and this is how to be. While technology can be a gift and connect us as we are at this moment and people across the world, we’ve over-rotated to a place where we now don’t see the wisdom teacher of nature. The most frightening thing that you said is we’re not only choosing to see it but we’re destroying that teacher. You don’t want to destroy your teacher because that’s a big problem for your future posterity. It’s simple, yet not because we haven’t been doing it and it requires each of us to take a look at the choices we’re making. Choices, consequences, why don’t you talk a bit about that?
Human Nature & The Ecosystem
It’s not a one-off. The answer is right out that window and out that door but it’s building it back into our lifestyle. There are many different expressions of it whether it’s gardening, having your feet on the ground, or taking moments of stillness but on a consistent basis. I want to come back to a point you said, which has been a draw distinction. If you think about the phrase human nature, it’s about the human expression of nature. We are a subset of a much larger ecosystem, the natural world. Our species is a human expression of that larger hole. That’s what human nature is. It’s not all at the top of the food chain. This is human nature and it’s all about us. We are the human expression of the whole, the natural world.
My great hope is that the urgency that is rising around the destruction of the whole, the natural world will cause us not just to pay attention to it and do less harm, do more good, and regenerate but will inspire us to spend more time there and recognize the therapeutic power of it. We saw that during COVID. When we’re all scared, fearful, and worried for ourselves, our future, and our loved ones, a lot of us go back out into the natural world, almost like medicine. In fact, in certain markets like the UK and even in the US, doctors can now prescribe time outside as a medical prescription to solve certain ailments.
One last comment on this, sometimes we get away with sharing thoughts like this as if they’re a revelation and something new. Isn’t that clever or insightful? I don’t think we’re learning something new. We’re remembering what we forgot. If you look at indigenous people, if you look at how humanity in all its forms showed up especially prior to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, that symbiotic relationship with the natural world was inherent to what we did.Human nature is the human expression of nature. People are a subset of a much larger ecosystem. Click To Tweet
We’ve got to this point of self-importance, absorption, or distraction where we’ve lost sight of how we are part of that larger ecosystem. It’s going to be interesting because a lot of people would say that as we increasingly become this undeniable threat to that ecosystem, will that ecosystem put us out of business with extreme weather, a pandemic, or whatever it might be? We can only benefit ourselves by restoring and reframing our relationship with the natural world and by returning to what indigenous cultures around the world have always known and that is screaming to try and teach us right now.
It is a remembering because it’s been a knowing for a long time. It’s been in front of our faces but you’re right, somehow we stepped off the path. You use the word distracted. We’ve got distracted by many things we thought we had to do. Even in the many conversations I’ve had about the COVID effect, we all know the suffering and the challenges and this ongoing stress on our nervous system. It caused us to pause and ask new questions about who we are and what we’re doing with our lives. There was that wonderful documentary, I forget where it was streaming but it recorded everything that had happened to the Earth during the lockdown. The whales were able to hear each other because the cruise lines weren’t going and many parts of our Earth regenerated.
If we give this natural world half a chance, we will fall in love with it all over again. I’ll tell you why. I don’t think this is a negative time. I don’t think this is the end of something. This is the miraculous rebirth of business beyond which we’re going to work with the natural world. We’re going to serve the natural world rather than steal from it. When we start to do that increasingly as we saw at the beginning of COVID, the inherent, innate regenerate capacity of nature when we see dolphins returned to rivers and habitats explode back into life, it will become apparent to us.
Not to mention we’ll start to recognize that littered around us are all these biological blueprints based on millions of years of evolution that people will recognize as the console for all the issues we’re trying to solve for people in our lives. We’re going to fall in love with the natural world all over again. We’re going to restore our future and it’s going to be the beginning. There is a new renaissance in business. It’s going to be a painful transition for the next decade but I don’t think it’s the end of something. I think it’s the beginning of something truly miraculous.
That is inspiring. I can feel the energy in it as you’re talking about it. I can see that. I love that you said serve versus steal because when you suddenly understand the interconnectivity, when you get it, it’s not just a theory and an idea. When you know that this ecosystem is something we all belong to, you want to nurture it because in nurturing this system, you nurture yourself. It’s all symbiotic. It’s all beautiful.
You went from people calling it cute many years ago, “Someone’s interested in this.” We spoke about you speaking to college kids. How are the generations thinking about this? Because the kids in college now are going to be the ones that are going to take over the wheel of this car and drive us into the future.
A lot of people older or younger are realizing that perhaps the biggest tool that we can leverage to our benefit for the future is business because they’ve caused so much of the problem in the first place and by doing less of that, that’s going to have a positive effect. All of these challenges that were spoken to, climate emergency, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, social inequity, all these different things are marketplace opportunities in disguise. The fact is simply that we haven’t put our time, attention, or resources into that.
For example, there are companies right now that are creating meat analogs by pulling carbon out of the air and creating proteins like chicken and beef out of thin air. There are companies using mycelium mushrooms to make alternatives to leather to get rid of all the carbon and methane consequences of industrial farming so that we don’t compound the climate issues.
We’re slowly starting to realize that it’s not giving up. It’s not a capitulation. It’s not a loss to let go of these practices that don’t serve our future. Rather, we need to shift our attention and increasingly recognize that we can build thriving businesses and better serve our communities and future by working in tandem with the natural world. Also, to reframe the systems that have created a lot of profit in the past but done a lot of damage.
The biggest shift that needs to happen is not just that we need to set new goals. Goal setting is one thing but I don’t think we’re going to achieve any of these goals whether it’s the sustainable development goals, being a B Corp, ESG, environmental social and governance. I don’t think we’re going to achieve any of those goals without a new mindset. It’s not just about goal setting, it’s mindset.
We need to undo the systemic thinking that has enabled these practices that have had all these consequences. If we keep that mindset in place that we’ve used in the past but then keep putting band-aids on things, we’re not going to get to the solutions we need fast enough. One of the most powerful things we can do and what I’ve been preoccupied with in my work is that new mindset you need that will allow you to unlock these solutions at scale.
You came from an industry where you learned how to master communications. Advertising is that type of place where we communicate our mindset and thoughts to people, yet our mainstream media is often talking about all the things that are wrong and the things that we should be afraid of. Some of these amazing innovations that you talked about, we don’t know about it. If we’re going to shift the mindset, how do we find a new reason to believe and start to put our energy towards that endeavor?
The first thing I’d say is that it’s even more urgent that we learn what we’re describing right now because a lot of these issues that we’re talking about are not sitting there statically in the future waiting for us to arrive. They’re compounding and hurtling towards us back in the present. We’ve got to move incredibly quickly. What do we do to shift that mindset so we’re more engaged and conscious?
The first thing I do is draw a distinction between what is commonly known as shareholder capitalism, which is your fiduciary duty to your shareholders to give a big return, and stakeholder capitalism, which is the idea that we need all stakeholders to benefit from the rewards of capitalism including the planet. What I don’t hear enough talked about is sharing the responsibilities of stakeholder capitalism. I do sometimes challenge people when I speak at events and conferences to ask ourselves, “Are we showing up like we need to? Are we complacent? Are we deferring to what’s convenient for us, the fastest service, the cheapest price, and the most convenient way? If we’re honest with ourselves, are we waiting for somebody else to fix it?”
The first thing you can do is say, “I recognize that we’re in this mess together. I caused this problem.” “Simon, on this podcast, with you Katherine, caused this problem. I am complicit because of the diet I ate, the car I drove, where I put my money, and where that money was, in turn, invested in the pension fund and what they did with the money there.” All of those seemingly innocuous acts by one person like me don’t make a huge difference but the aggregate of all of that is what’s caused carbon in the air, chemicals in the soil, plastics in the ocean, and so on.
We need to recognize if we’re going to be conscious of anything, let’s be conscious of the fact that every act by every one of us makes a difference. These things that you take for granted like what you eat, what car you drive, what products you buy, and where you put your money aren’t inconsequential. Everything you’ve done in the past has a consequence. Actions or even inactions have a consequence.People need to serve the natural world rather than steal from it. Click To Tweet
Instead of sitting there passively or deferring to somebody else, “How can I be a small part of this growing movement of change? How can I be intentional about the brands that I’m buying from? How can I shift to whatever degree I’m comfortable with a plant-based diet? How can I look at an alternative energy vehicle? How can I be mindful of where my money is being invested after I invested in a bank or a stock or whatever?”
The reward for you as you go, “Every aspect of my life now is part of the solution. I’m not compounding the problem. I’m starting to join a growing number of people that are making conscious, active, and meaningful choices to be the solution that we all need for our future.” If we want to be more conscious, we’ve got to embrace our agency for change, not look to anyone else to fix it and not think it’s the fault or responsibility of business alone. The solution must turn on the engagement of all of us and that’s why I talk about Lead with We. It’s about what we can create together because we won’t get there on our own.
It’s Time To Show Up And Change
Many small steps were made by all of us. You mentioned hurtling towards us and I thought, “Do you sometimes feel like Leonardo DiCaprio in that movie Don’t Look Up?” You’re like, “It’s going to destroy the Earth,” and everyone’s like, “I’m too busy looking at a TikTok video.”
That movie was borderline on the nose in the sense that it was literal. It was laying it out in front of you, the absurdity of what we’re doing. What does it take to get our attention? For example, there was the IPCC report that came out about the climate end of 2021 that said it’s code red for humanity and then we had COP26. All the heads of state from around the world, Boris Johnson in the UK said, “We’re digging our own graves.” We had another IPCC report come out which said, “We’re in much worse shape than we already thought.” One of the headlines was delay means debt.
There’s so much messaging around this right now that we’ve always become desensitized. It’s become normalized. The same way that the number of people dying every day from COVID almost becomes another headline. That’s not to criticize anybody. It’s just to say that there’s so much news that’s negative. How to being a human being doesn’t resonate as dramatically with you anymore. That’s one of the real challenges. How are we going to get people to show up and do something different when we’re almost numb to the urgency around?
You mentioned people living in their reality. The other challenge is getting overwhelmed with the noise and finding out the truth. You’ll go to a dinner party when we used to do that, people are starting to do that again and you might talk about, “I need to drive an electric car but the production of the batteries is someone else’s.” “No, it’s worse for the environment.” You go, “I thought it was better for the environment,” and the other is like, “No, it is better.” You start getting into, “What’s true?” The average person starts to get confused by the noise. They’re like, “I took this action and I thought this was the right action and now someone told me it wasn’t the right action.”
One of the challenges is being able to sift through that and sometimes it’s that deer in headlights, you get overwhelmed and you shut down. You’re like, “I’ve had a crazy day at work. My kids are doing this. I can’t fix the world. I’m going to make it through my morning cup of coffee and get to bed.” There’s compassion for the challenge of it. To me, it keeps raising your consciousness, asking questions, and looking. Don’t distract and numb. If we do that, we’ll start to see more.
I also want to keep everyone’s feet to the fire because these are urgent times. We were aware of a lot of these issues in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, and 2010s. We’ve heard about this for decades. We kept kicking the can down the road. Here we are one minute to midnight and we’re all complaining about how much we need to change quickly. It’s like we’ve been driving over a cliff and now we’re complaining that we’ve got to throw the steering wheel so hard to save our own lives. We can’t complain about how disruptive this is to your startup, business, corporation, and our lives. We left it too late and that’s the reality.
Secondly, we’ve got to recognize that a lot of the forces that have made a lot of money out of the way things were done in the past aren’t going to give up without a fight. There are a lot of legacy industries and brands, and then there’s the world of politics and all the connective tissue between all of these things that are working against the changes that we all need to see for our future. They don’t want to see those past practices go. That plays into the misinformation that’s out there, which makes it so hard to know what to do about many issues because you don’t know what’s true. That does throw the onus onto the individual as you say, “I’m going to do my homework here. I’m going to do some research and see what I can find as to what is good or what is bad.”
I want us to recognize one thing. It’s not like the shift from doing harm to the planet to now doing good for the planet. The future is a light switch moment. It’s not night or day, on or off. It’s a transition. The reason it’s difficult right now and confusing for us all is that we have an arising appreciation of the urgency that it takes time to change a business, change an industry and fight the forces that don’t want to change. Those of us who see the need to change quickly are gasping for air and overwhelmed when we’re stuck in this transitional phase.
Here’s a positive note. The way I see it is this, if you’re trying to change the direction that your company or business or humanity is going 90 degrees, that first fifteen degrees is the hardest. That’s when the G forces are working hardest against you trying to pull you back to where you were going but the further you get around that corner, the more the market forces start to reinforce brands doing good. The less they incentivize brands harming the planet and the more it takes on a life of its own and the greater momentum it builds. Take heart from the fact that we have all the stakeholders at the table. We have sufficient urgency and we’re paying attention. A growing number of people are grabbing that steering wheel and throwing it to turn us 90 degrees but we’re in that first fifteen degrees and it hurts like hell. It’s confusing and it’s hard but it will get easier.
Shareholder Vs Stakeholder
We’ve got people like you being catalysts for this change. Taking the passion that you have to the conversation to challenge us all to think about this and make active changes in how we vote with our wallets, lives, and choices every day. I want to go back to something you said, which I thought was an important distinction. The shareholder versus stakeholder conversation is big.
I remember even when I was doing this project back in 2011 where I was interviewing mission-based entrepreneurs. There was this absolute buyer for change but there were a few big guys who are bad, startups are good. There’s divisiveness in all of that. You and I have talked about this over the years, everybody has a role. The small innovators, the startups, the mission-based companies, and the large companies that have scale, influence, and value all come together.
You see with established companies who are on the stock exchange with shareholders, this short game profit margin stock price is the real deal. You’ve got a CEO who has a board saying stock price needs to be like this. What type of success have you had in talking with big businesses about shifting the paradigm to that broader stakeholder conversation?
There are many parts to the answer and I’ll step through a few of them. The first is that there’s a new leadership mandate that sends a signal to all other companies that are publicly traded. For example, you’ve got the largest retailer in the world Walmart launching Project Gigaton where they want to take a gigaton of carbon out of the air in partnership with their suppliers. That sends a signal to every retailer out there in the world that they’ve got to do something different.
Another example is Nestlé, the largest food company in the world. A publicly-traded company doing generation regeneration, which is how they’re working with small farmers all around the world to transition to regenerative practices. Mitigate risk to their supply chains and show up their businesses but also to better serve a regenerative future. Each of these examples is powerful in its own right but they’re huge signals to the marketplace as to what you need to do if you’re going to compete. At the same time, there’s a new narrative for business out there.The most important piece of the engine of capitalism is money. Investors have to start taking the lead. Click To Tweet
Many people talk about it. Larry Fink, the CEO of the largest money management firm in the world with over $10.3 trillion in assets under management with his annual letter, challenged the marketplace to think about the social purpose of an organization, not just its fiduciary duty to its shareholders. Increasingly, you’re seeing the investor class rise to the challenge.
What that looks like is this flight of capital. All this money moving towards environmental social and governance funds. These are funds of companies that are holding themselves transparently accountable for their impact on the environment, on society, and how they govern. In the early days of this shift, there are those who are managing the optics, who are putting lipstick on what they were already doing. There’s an active dialogue calling those disingenuous behaviors out.
You’re seeing signals from these large industry-leading brands. You’re seeing CEOs from the financial world. The money managers are calling for a shift. You’re seeing the investor class more broadly moving their money somewhere else. What’s powerful about this moment? I’m going to build on your question because it’s like, “Why is this possible to change now? Why is this going to happen? Why should we be optimistic? Why isn’t it just going to be another mess and ten years down the track, it’s going to be even worse?”
We have the stakes, which are people. A rising number of people all around the world realize that this is an existential crisis. Business and other issues are putting us out of business such as species. Secondly, we have the requisite coalition of stakeholders at the table for the first time. It’s not just conscious consumers. It’s not customers. It’s not just suppliers. It’s not just leadership and CEOs. It’s not just employees that are becoming increasingly activists in nature. It is the investor class as well.
If you think about the engine of capitalism as something like an engine that has many parts, we couldn’t offer a viable alternative to the past practice of capitalism until we had all the parts of a new engine. The most important piece of that engine is the money. It’s always about the money. The investor class coming on board is powerful.
Finally, we have this new story, this new narrative which you see at Davos and the World Economic Forum. You see it from COP26. You see it in response to the IPCC report. You see it from B Corp. You see it from the Business Roundtable CEOs. You’ve got the stakes, the stakeholders, and the story all coming together for the first time that I’ve ever seen it. You need all of those components to authentically transition to a different practice of business. The financial markets are critical to it but I wanted to put it in the context of those other pieces as well.
I tell you in this conversation, Simon, I hear equal parts challenge to rise and be better and to understand the nature of the issue but I hear so much optimism and what you see happening. You have a great seat to see how all of these various constituencies are coming together to collaborate.
I’ll share with you a secret. I am lucky enough to see inside a lot of companies and organizations, and a lot of collaborations, cross-sector, and so on. Incredible people that are ridiculously resourced and that have much influence are coming together in new ways that nobody is hearing about because they’re not just thinking as CEOs, executives, or heads of state. They’re responding as fathers, mothers, brothers, and people who love and respect the environment. You’re not hearing about it because they’re doing the heavy unsexy lifting right now in the background. The last thing they’re interested in is getting credit for doing so.
I am incredibly optimistic because wherever you look whether it’s social entrepreneurs, the biggest brands in the world that are publicly traded, and nonprofits leveling up their game, advocacy groups, and new policies coming into play. We’re seeing the death mills of the resistance to the old ways of doing things that are fighting for survival. Why? Because they’re being replaced by better practices.
Sometimes I wish we could all peel back a positive curtain and go, “Look at what’s going on. It’s extraordinary.” Let alone Millennials and Gen Z who are going into business do good and hopefully make money. Not make money and then do good like my generation used to. There’s a legion of entrepreneurs and business leaders coming through who are saying, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem and we’re going to put you out of business.”
We are living through a transformational time. Yes, there’s chaos and breakdown but that is required so that we can build the new. Simon, for people reading who want to learn more, your book is out, Lead with We, that gets into even more depth on this topic, how else can people find out more about you or engage with you?
Thank you for asking. If you want to see some case studies of the work that we’ve done with brands that you’ll know and also startups, you can go to WeFirstBranding.com. You can also listen to the podcast that I have called Lead With We. The only reason I do it is that I interview some of the most exciting startups and entrepreneurs and corporate leaders who are leading with their purpose and ask them, “How do you get it done? What’s the business case for it? What’s the value it’s offering to your business?” That’s on Google, Spotify, and Apple and it’s also on all United Airlines flights now, domestic and international. It’s called Lead With We.
Here’s the thing I would ask of everybody selfishly. I’m lucky enough to get a line of sight across these different patterns and I feel it’s a responsibility to report back from the future and share what I see in the hope that we can all work together in new ways. I would ask you if you can, get a copy of Lead with We and use it for a better service, building your business, whatever that looks like. There are ten years of work in there from the best brands out there and all the research and we’ll save you a lot of time. None of us have the time to do that on our own.
Secondly, get a second copy and give it to someone you know who’s an entrepreneur or a corporate leader because in the future, I’d be blown away if you connect with one person at the right time. They can shift their thinking sufficiently. The impact that you the person that bought that book will have will blow your mind because they will do something differently because of what you shared with them. This is all in service of leading with we. It’s not about a book. It’s about getting this idea of how we need to work together sooner rather than later to better the future for everyone. If you could do that, my great hope is it would help us all.
It’s all about knowledge, awareness, and collective action for all of us. Simon, I want to honor you having watched you and known you on this journey for a long time for not backing down when someone dismissed the conversation as cute or minor. Just because there were bigger profitable fish to fry at the time. You have persevered throughout and built the narrative and brought your passion and your love for all of us and humanity. This is a conversation about humanity.
We might talk about it from the business lens because business has a critical place to play in this but it is about our share to humanity and how we are going to create a better world going forward. I want to honor the work that you do in the world. Thank you for taking the time to share it with our readers and also for broadening my perspective. I appreciate you.
Thank you. I want to build on what you said. I don’t think we’re bad people. I don’t think we’re innately bad. I think we’re good in our fundamental nature. We come into the world wanting to be connected to improve each other’s lives and be happy and positive about the future. I don’t think we hate the natural world. We are chemically hardwired to love and be restored by the natural world.
The practice of business for too long hasn’t given us permission to be the best and highest versions of ourselves. The closer we get to that, we’re going to be astounded by what we can do together. There’s a great cause to offer optimism because there are more people showing up like you, like myself who cares who is rolling up their sleeves and together we will get it done because we have to.
I love your vision of the future. It starts with a vision. It starts with an intention. That’s what many people are doing and you are leading the way. Thank you, Simon.
Thanks so much, Katherine.
Thank you for joining me. I hope you got something out of the conversation that can be of service to your life. As we like to say here at Coca-Cola, let’s all find our unique way to refresh the world and make a difference. See you next time.
- We First
- Brands With A Purpose Series
- We First
- Lead with We
- This Creative Capitalism Speech
- Social Good Summit
- Charity: Water
- Project Gigaton
- Larry Fink
- Lead With We – podcast
- Google – Lead With We
- Spotify – Lead With We
- Apple – Lead With We