As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Mainwaring, Founder and CEO of We First, a strategic consultancy that accelerates growth and impact for purpose-driven brands. Inspired by the global challenges we face and the human values we share, Simon founded We First as a mindset, practice, and movement to build and strengthen brands that create a more equitable, sustainable, and prosperous world. His upcoming book, Lead With We, launches November 2021 (BenBella).
Thank you so much for your time! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started off in Australia having completed my Arts/Law degree and working in advertising. I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi and DDB, then moved on to Saatchi & Saatchi and Leagas Delaney in London, then on to Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, where I worked as a writer on Nike (projects such as the Olympics and World Cup, as well as famous athletes), and then finally as Worldwide Creative Director at Ogilvy on the Motorola brand.
After that journey, I then found myself looking for something new, so I went and became a freelancer, where for six years I specialized in “brand triage,” meaning I went in and helped brands and advertising agencies that were in trouble, either to win an account, keep an account, or work out how to go to market. Throughout my on staff and freelance careers, I learned deeply about the power of storytelling and how it can motivate people to buy a product or to shift their thinking and behavior.
A pivotal moment came when after five or six years of being a freelancer and feeling unchallenged, I walked into my kitchen in Los Angeles to find six messages blinking on my answering machine. They were from my mother and sister in Sydney yelling down the phone “Simon, wake up!” (because she was trying to reach me in my bedroom from the answering machine she knew was in the kitchen). The final message was my distraught mother saying, “Simon, Dad died. Call us when you wake up.” Those words took on a profundity for me that I don’t think she even intended, because I’d spent the last five years being an arguably self-important ad guy who did not see his father and then suddenly, I’d missed his passing. At that moment I was sufficiently destabilized, both because I was feeling professionally unchallenged and personally because of my father’s passing. So, for the first time in my life I got out of my own way. And rather than retreat to my head and try to make sense of it by rationalizing my way through the situation, I took my hands off the wheel and sat in the emotion for several weeks.
It was at that time I happened to read the speech that Bill Gates gave at the World Economic Forum. In his now famous “Creative Capitalism” talk, he said that the private sector needs to play a bigger role in social change after the consequences of the global economic meltdown. I took that message to heart, partly because it was a very optimistic time with the election of President Obama, but also because I think, in hindsight, I was looking for greater meaning in my own life. I then spent the next three years
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I’m not sure if it’s my funniest moment, but there was one moment that was moderately terrifying that still stands out after 10 years. I was about to launch my first book, ‘We First’ and I was kindly invited to speak on stage at TEDx San Francisco. It was one of the first TEDx’s to be done and it was also the first public speech that I’d ever done. I spent some time preparing and then the day finally arrived. I watched the other speakers present to a large room of around 1500 people. As luck would have it, the event was to take place at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on the same stage that Steve Jobs used to do his iPhone and Apple presentations. Needless to say, I was beside myself with nerves. As I was waiting for my turn, the speaker prior to me got up on stage. She was a wonderful woman named Heather and a fellow Australian who had a tragic skiing accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Through the course of an extraordinary presentation, she was given an exoskeleton by a robotics group and walked for the first time on stage in front of the audience. Everyone was in tears, including me only for two reasons: one, it was amazing to see Heather upright and walking across the stage and two, I had the shocking realization that I now had to follow Lazarus. If that wasn’t enough, as Heather walked off-stage, a gentleman in all black and wearing a headset, walked up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Are you Simon?” I was annoyed to be interrupted when I was about to go on stage, but I said, “Yes, I’m Simon. What do you want?” And he said, “You see those monitors out there that show your slides? The signal has been intermittent all day, so we’ve turned it off. Good luck!” At that same moment, I heard my name announced and I had to walk out on stage. If you watch my TEDx talk in San Francisco talk, you’ll see me looking back over my shoulder mouthing words that probably don’t belong in a public forum. I then had to fly blind through my speech and just ride that wave of adrenaline that shows up when you least expect it. My takeaway from that moment was you need to be ready for anything and you also need to trust yourself. And since that time, it’s helped me navigate the inevitable ups and downs of the entrepreneurial journey, constantly finding myself out of my depth, and accepting what happens knowing that you’ll probably get through it. where you have to be ready for anything.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When I was preparing for my TEDx talk, I was at a loss as to what to do because I put all my energy and resources into launching the book and was, quite honestly, spent in every sense. So, I asked myself the question, why on earth did I spend three years writing a book? What was I trying to achieve? The answer was that I wanted to put new words into the mouth of business because language frames behavior and my hope would be that we could start to unlock some new behavior that would serve us all and serve our future better. With that in mind, I reached out to three people who I did not know. One was a spoken word poet called Sekou Andrews, who I’d never met before. Another were Stephen and Patty Dewey, the owners of Machine Head, a sound design company. And the third was Chuck Carey at Troika design in Hollywood. In each case, I told them what I was trying to do and in all three circumstances, there was a long pause and they said, “Great! How can we help? We’re in.” Without anything to gain through their participation and not knowing me well, if at all, they rallied their teams to pull together in 20 days an animated film that brought the core thesis of a 300-page book about sustainable capitalism to life in a way that I could never have done on my own. We finished the film the night before my TEDx San Francisco talk. I gave up the last three minutes of my presentation of that talk to the film, which was then shared tens of thousands of times in the following 24 hours. That would never have occurred without the generosity of people who simply believed in the same values and vision for our future and chose to show up for someone in need. To this day, I consider them family and have the utmost gratitude and respect for who they are and how they show up in the world.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Whenever it comes to defining the purpose of a company, including my own, we all face a similar challenge in that “it’s hard to read the label from the inside of the jar.” We’re so consumed by the daily demands of running our business, that it’s hard to see ourselves from outside ourselves. And so, I started to ask myself some questions that would help reveal what was unique about the role that I wanted to play. Those questions were: What was my enemy? What was I trying to solve for? What am I the only of? When I’m at my best, what am I doing? And through this process, a clear theme emerged, which was (in light of the global meltdown in 2008) I felt it was unfair that the wealth of a few came at the cost of the wellbeing of so many. I then asked myself, well, what is at the root of that problem? And in my mind, it was a ‘me first’ mentality, which means that people take care of themselves, not just to excess, but at the cost of others. In response, I coined a term that I’d never heard before which was ‘we first’. The power of that idea was that it was a very simple contraction of a complex idea, which is prioritizing the interests of the collective within capitalism. But it was an encapsulation of the purpose that I had defined for my myself and company which was “To create a world where all lead with we.” That purpose has shaped my thinking and behavior ever since, and the We First team that has grown over the last decade thanks to the work we’ve done with amazing clients who are creating meaningful impact at scale.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you led your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Like many business owners, COVID has presented challenges that few could imagine before. It disrupted our work lives, our personal lives and inspired great fear with nothing short of life and death stakes. Like every team, this put additional pressure onto the work that we were doing. One example I might share, which is indicative of so many moments like it, is that one day we’re in the middle of a large brainstorming session with the team for a client. I could see that the team was distracted. They were clearly emotionally tired from the toll that the pandemic on everybody’s lives. It was hard for me to ignore. So, I stopped the meeting and said to everyone, let’s pause this work for the day. I want us to take this time, the next two hours to sit around and talk about how we’re feeling. And over the course of that time, we all shared how we’re feeling on a personal basis, how we’re feeling on a professional basis, how we’re feeling about the state of the country right now, how we’re feeling about our future and what we each feel we need to help navigate this time more effectively. Simply by creating that space, which allowed us to be honest, vulnerable, and human with each other, everyone felt better. It actually allowed the team to feel even closer. And it sent a critical message to everyone that it’s all right to not be okay. We have maintained this feeling ever since, that every employee, every team member has complete permission to show up and share when they’re struggling on either a personal or professional front. It’s one of the hidden gifts of the tragic time and a powerful lesson in the importance of listening, empathy and humanity in leading a team.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Like every entrepreneur there are countless times when you feel like giving up. Sometimes you’ll be financially struggling to meet payroll, struggling to grow the business, or sometimes you’re simply exhausted because of the demands that running a business puts on you. In addition to family life, sometimes you feel like your self-set goal is impossible because there are too many forces working against you. Like many, I draw my inspiration from others. The people that truly inspire me are JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama. Those three have always given me strength because of how they use the power of words to rally people around a new vision of our future. Each encapsulated a feeling, a latent desire, something that people wanted for themselves, and gave it expression through their words. And that in turn unlocked people’s innate ability to execute against those aspirations. So, when I get tired, when I get exhausted, I look to their words of that literally changed history through the power of language. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say that family is a constant rock for me, and especially my wife. Where I constantly go home after a long day, I’ll share how I’m feeling with them. They’ve been a constant source of encouragement, fun and support throughout my We First journey.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of speaking around the world and have been in close proximity to a lot of leaders who are sharing or demonstrating their thinking. Across all these experiences, the one thing I’ve take away is the power of listening. When a leader listens, they better understand their own team and how to inspire them to show up at their best. When you lead with listening, you better understand your clients and can solve their needs more effectively. When you lead with listening, you better understand the marketplace and what citizens and consumers across all demographics are looking for and how you can inspire them to co-create movements that will drive and scale change. When you lead with listening, you open up the door to pattern recognition that will allow you to predict the future with some accuracy and better position your company and its actions for greater success. And so, I deeply believe one of the most powerful attributes of leadership is listening and that the one quality that will distinguish the brands that will lead the future is their quality of their listening.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?
The future has been more uncertain in the last year than ever. In terms of boosting morale, I often find a change of state is absolutely critical. When your team is tired, you give them a day off. When your team is in a rut, go out and have a shared experience that is fun. When your team needs restoration, go and have an experience in nature. But it’s the interruption of the routine, it is the input of a fresh context, it is the thinking and conversations that this new environment engenders that creates a sudden and powerful shift within your team. I would also add that inspiration and motivation and engagement of your team is not a one-time act, but rather an ongoing process. I believe that consistently challenging your team and recognizing when they rise to the occasion is critical. And that your role is reframing your job as empowering them to grow and become leaders in their own right. That’s the most powerful way to boost morale. I believe fulfillment is an inside out job and that by giving your team members an opportunity to grow and succeed, they fill themselves up by what they achieve. And that is far more effective than anything anyone on the outside could do.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Like every business owner or individual, we get concerned when you’ve got to communicate bad business news and we try lots of different strategies. Some of which avoid the issue, confuse the issue, or will simply dance around the issue. In my experience, the most effective way to communicate difficult news is to be direct and go straight to the heart of the issue. Explain the situation or the stakes, the decision that has been made, and the consequences. Then open the room up for discussion. If it’s a decision that needs to be made together, I choose to approach it in a collaborative way where we raise the topic and ask each person their point of view on the situation and how it needs to be handled. No one is allowed to interrupt that person when they are speaking and only when we’ve heard the points of view from every person in the room, do we then have a collaborative discussion about what to do next. Only then are we fully equipped with a clear understanding of what everyone else thinks. We then make a joint decision and based on that insight, and we can accept some bad news for ourselves or decide what bad use we’re going to share with others.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
At We First, we pride ourselves on positioning clients for success, not just now, but in the future. To that end, we don’t think about building on the past incrementally when we think strategically or on behalf of our clients, but rather reverse engineering out of the future. So, we invest a lot of time looking at the trends, the data, the case studies, and any other indicators that allow us to throw into relief our best guess as to what the topography of the future is going to look like. Based on that projection, we then reverse out our plans, plotting strategies and milestones to achieve that envisioned goal. In my opinion, the past has less to do with the future than ever because so much change is happening on so many fronts, so quickly. And the future is here much faster than we think, in which case we need to back out of the future because it’ll be here much faster than we think.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The overriding, indispensable and determinative principle that can help companies navigate turbulent times is the purpose of the company. The purpose of a company is why you exist. It is not a communications or PR exercise, nor is it a CSR, philanthropic or impact initiative alone. Rather, it is something foundational that informs all aspects of the company. It’s so powerful because it serves as a filter as to what decisions you should make throughout your entire value chain, from how you make your products, to how you engage your employees, to what products you make, to how you take them to market, to the community and impact you create. It allows you to decide not just what to do, but just as importantly, what not to do. And if you do the work to authentically define your purpose in a differentiated way, it will ensure that you are not only unique among your competitive set, but you’ll stay relevant to the future as you execute your purpose in new and novel ways that connect with all stakeholders. So, I see your purpose as a company as a compass for your future. It’s something you should return to on a daily basis and periodically both in terms of your business, planning, your brand strategies and your engagement and the role you play in the world.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
There are many mistakes companies make when it comes to leading with purpose. The first, is despite their best intentions, they talk about their purpose in a self-directed way. For example, they share how many hours their employees have volunteered, or how much they donated to a given cause. As well-intended and as meaningful as this is, it falls on deaf ears because the company is still talking about itself. In contrast, they should be the celebrant rather than celebrity of their stakeholder community. By that, I mean, they should get the focus off themselves and celebrate the impact their employees, customers, or industry is having on the world. A second mistake is that companies say different things at different times across different channels and effectively end up broadcasting their schizophrenia. The problem with this is consumers or customers have no idea what they stand for and that applies equally to employees who lose sight of what the company is about, why they should work there, or how to advocate for working at the company to others. Worse still, what happens is the precious capital and time they invest across different channels is wasted; the sum is never greater than the parts, the brand fails to grow, and the company fails to build a reputation that takes on a life of its own and that equips all stakeholders to share what the brand stands for and grow the business with them. The third and perhaps most obvious mistake, is when a company pays lip service to being a purposeful brand. We live at a time when the stakes could not be higher in terms of the existential threat to humanity, the degradation of our planet and the social inequities that are playing out all around the world. As such, every company and the leader is now facing a much higher expectation as to the role they’re playing in the world and how articulate they are about that role. A leader can no longer hide behind the boardroom door, a press release or a job title. They need to be clear about what they stand for, even if that means polarizing their audiences. Too often, leaders simply pay lip service to being purposeful. They put out a well-intended advertising campaign while not changing their company. As we’ve seen from so many examples from Theranos, to Wells Fargo Bank, to the VW Emission scandal, employees, consumers, and the media at large are poised to expose disingenuous behavior and call out purpose washing and cause washing. As a tonic to this, every brand must be purposeful in authentic, meaningful, and measurable ways and embrace increased transparency and accountability to make themselves defensible in public.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Over the last 10 years I’ve come to learn that perhaps the most under-leveraged tool that a company can use in difficult times is collaboration and partnership. Too often, we are either consumed by the daily demands of running our business or by a hesitancy to reach out to partners because we hold our business too close to our chests. We fail to unlock the exponential growth that partnerships and collaboration can bring. This means unlocking fresh partnerships within your own team, across your own industry, and even with competitors, because when you’re a purposeful company, you can align with like-minded leaders and brands that want to work with you to raise awareness of what they are doing but also upgrade the industry as a whole. So, rather than putting more burden upon yourself at a difficult time when your resources are stretched, my advice would be to look for partnerships within, across and outside your industry on the strength of your purpose and leverage those to better achieve the role that you want to play in the world. You will inspire greater productivity in your employees, greater advocacy from your customers, and greater mindshare in the marketplace as a result.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
The first thing any purposeful leader must do in a time of crisis is to lead with listening and that applies across the board. You should listen to your employees. You should listen to your customers. You should listen to larger market forces that are all shaping culture. When you do that, you will not only get a better sense of how to respond to crises, but you’ll avoid the mistake of rushing to an action or response that may do more harm than good, because it’s purely reactive. By way of an example, we saw this after the Black Lives Matter protest played out across the country where so many companies, well-intentioned as they were, rushed to market with messages of support for diversity, inclusion and equity only to discover that their employees, consumers and the media quickly challenged them as to whether they had their own house in order. Instead of congratulating them on their messaging, they said show us the constitution of your board, show us your pay scales, show us your reward and incentive schemes to make sure you’re walking your talk. When you listen first, you’ll be able to gauge the marketplace more effectively. You’ll be able to conduct a self-audit as to how your company is showing up specific to that issue, and then you’ll be able to respond in a meaningful way.
The second most important thing a leader can do in turbulent times is to be accountable. No company gets it all right at all times. The smartest way to not only navigate turbulent times, but also to protect your reputation, is to maintain control of the narrative. The way to do that is to be clear-eyed and open as to how your company is showing up in the world. This preempts any consumer or media activism by sharing what you are doing well and what you also need to work on. Then invite all stakeholders to engage in a dialogue around how you can improve what you’re doing. A great example of this is a company like Patagonia whose Footprint Chronicles campaign allows consumers to look at the carbon footprint of a certain item of clothing that they purchased. The company itself reports on what they consider as good, bad and what they are working on to improve that product. In doing so, they’re maintaining the control of the narrative whilst still being accountable for how they’re performing.
The third key attribute that a business leader should exhibit during uncertain and turbulent times is their fundamental humanity. Gone are the days when a leader can hide behind their title. Instead, leaders must lead with empathy and compassion, not just for their employees in a professional capacity, but for all stakeholders as holistic human beings. We saw this so clearly over the last year during COVID, in which the life and death stakes that everyone was facing created a wellspring of empathy across the country and around the world. At the same time, the daily cycle of Zoom calls interrupted by kids, pets and unexpected happenings demystified our professional personas and allowed us to connect on a more human level. The more human a leader can be, the better they can serve internal and external stakeholders. By revealing their own humanity, they’ll not only unlock greater loyalty and productivity, but a leader can build an even more resilient culture in the midst of a pressing crisis.
The fourth trait is to be optimistic. This is not just because it’s always preferable to be positive in life, but because optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you believe you can get through these challenging times, when you believe that you can work together to keep the company alive, when you believe that you can collaborate to better support your customers and partners, then everyone rises to that occasion and together makes that aspiration real. That success then inspires further success, and you create positive momentum that justifies that optimism. By the same token, if you feel all is lost, that is equally a self-fulfilling prophecy. People become disengaged, passive, and disheartened, and that in turn compounds and you effectively confirm your worst suspicion, which is that nothing can be done. So, a business leader, no matter how difficult it is, must stay positive and optimistic because that is the only through line to navigating a difficult crisis and inspiring everyone to work together and come through successfully.
The final attribute a business leader must exhibit in difficult times is to be collaborative. When a company or leader is challenged by forces far greater than itself, I is unrealistic to think that you can navigate them successfully on your own. Instead, you must look to collaborate in new ways with your existing stakeholders, such as employees, but also think about new ways that you can collaborate within your industry with competitors, or with other industries based on shared values. This can unlock innovation opportunities in unexpected ways. We saw countless examples of this during COVID-19, whether it be Pfizer and Moderna working together to accelerate the development production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, whether it was furniture and flower stores sharing rental space to minimize overhead or whether it was the restaurant industry collaborating around an initiative called ‘The Great American Takeout ‘to remind people that their favorite restaurants are still open for business. These and so many other examples show how you can not only navigate a crisis more effectively through collaborations and partnerships, but you can also maintain and accelerate growth better than you could on your own.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of the quotes that has always stayed with me is that famous and often quoted statement by Theodore Roosevelt whose quote reads as follows, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better, the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but it does not actually strive to do the deeds who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions who spends himself in a worthy cause who at the best knows in the end, the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.” For me, the concept of the man or woman in the arena that inspired me. It taught me that no matter how difficult the situation, the solution is always found in the doing, and that your luck or success will always be a function of the work that you put in, that failure and disappointment comes with the territory. And if you come up short or fail, you will never suffer the regret of not trying. So, whatever challenge I face and whatever difficult circumstances I find myself in, I embrace the idea that this is what it means to be in the arena and let the consequences play out as they may.
How can our readers further follow your work?
If you are interested in my new book, which lays out a new vision for the future of collaborative leadership that drives business growth and impact, visit ‘LeadwithWe.com’ and enter your email. If you’d like to hear more from me about how the world’s top business leaders and entrepreneurs are leveraging their purpose to drive growth and impact, listen to my podcast at ‘LeadwithWe.com’ or on Google, Spotify or Apple Podcasts. If you’re interested in seeing the work of my company, We First, visit ‘www.WeFirstBranding.com’.