Beyond Mission Spin
Time to move from the what (mission) to the how (delivery)
Simon Milton, founder of Pulse Brands, has spent the last 11 years advising leading global organisations on how to use their brand to connect employees and key stakeholders and to move from talking about a new mission to living it. Here he explains how great leaders and leadership teams of the future are those who are able to hold up the big idea and then deliver it. It’s time to move from the ‘What’ to the far more challenging task of ‘How’.
Breaking down corporate silos
Great brands connect at a very human level. They connect in exactly the same way great leaders inspire others to lead or follow. To understand great brands you need to look no further than great leaders. Churchill, Mandela or Gandhi, to name a few, were able to capture the imagination of their people at those particular moments in time. But could they have led a multinational or a small light engineering business on the outskirts of Birmingham in the 21st Century? Probably not. And why not? Because they just would not care enough.
My formative years in work were shaped by my time working for three of the world’s leading PR agencies. My very first boss said ‘you can’t bullshit a bullshitter’. At the time I never fully appreciated what felt then like a crass comment, but in reality it captured the spirit of the world of PR and spin.
Fourteen years later I set up Pulse. I realised reputation is created by how organisations behave and not just by what they say. Reputation and notions like living the brand collapsed because HR, Marketing and CSR worked in silos. This is as true now as it was then. Enlightened CEOs needed help. The process of purposeful branding helps to break down the silos.
Prior to setting up Pulse I was obsessed by the idea that business should be doing more to support society. Having worked for the UK’s then biggest emitter of CO2, British Steel, and the manufacturer of Agent Orange, the Dow Chemical Company, I realised that the people behind these businesses were no different to anybody else. They all have their strengths and insecurities. But they all ran businesses that the world valued and needed. Steel. Plastics. Fertilisers.
So, at a very basic level I knew the importance of business and how capitalism can create opportunities for people to progress and improve their worlds. At the same time the devastating impact of high carbon industries, corporate greed and the breakdown of institutional trust in the West seemed to be putting capitalism out of kilter with our desire as humans to do something meaningful.
In my mid 30s I found myself on a mission. After fourteen years in corporate PR I’d had enough of spin. Some might have described me as driven or possibly a little over indulgent! Definitely naïve. But at the time it’s what drove me. Even with two young children, an overdraft and no clients. I was driven to do something that felt a little more important.
Twelve years on and I now have the advantage of having met and worked with 20 or so CEOs of Permira’s private equity-owned businesses. I was able to understand first hand why they were regarded as some of the leading CEOs in Europe, if not the world. I was also drawn to leaders within BP, the emerging markets with Aureos Capital, the automotive industry with Jaguar Cars and Japanese electronics with OKI Electric. And, most recently, leaders in Iraq (Rumaila), climate change (CCP) and social enterprises (Moneyline & the Social Business Trust). I have met some inspiring leaders and they all have one thing in common. They are driven by the need to make a difference.
I’d also like to think I am now a better leader from my own personal journey. Nothing unique I am sure, but I’ve had my road blocks along the way and a highly competitive instinct to keep going. And now not just for my own personal gain, but also for a large team and clients that need me. I now feel a little more grounded in reality. Out of my own brand bubble has emerged a deeper understanding of the reality of running a business.
Building trust through compassionate leadership
For me there is one key characteristic of the leaders I meet and that is the ability to win and maintain trust. When I believe in somebody I will go to the ends of the world to deliver. And this trust is built from high levels of authenticity, compassion and, finally, a compelling vision.
I am sure there are some leaders who through luck, timing and dogged determination drive things through. But without a level of compassion for the people they employ or a compelling vision that inspires, they will get found out. And in the long-term, when things get difficult and they will, you need your allies and supporters.
Compelling vision beyond mediocrity
Leaders are largely driven people. They have an energy and desire to succeed, to not be happy with mediocrity. They hold a compelling vision of wanting to do things better.
This compelling vision for a better future both inspires and sets a sense of direction. Neither Churchill, Mandela or Gandhi had a 100 day plan a road map. They had a mental picture of a better world and a belief that it can be created. And, for business leaders this is not about world peace but about the basics of an enjoyable and exciting working environment where customers are delighted and talk about you in glowing terms. Simple? Clearly not!
Moving from the ‘What’ to the ‘How’
The energy and drive of the leader is critical to success in any organisation. And there is no shortage of compelling ideas or things we need to address in the world. The challenge for the future leader is making them happen on a sustained basis. Mission, purpose, mutuality and shared value are now all common place in the corporate boardroom. CSR has moved from the room down the corridor to the monthly agenda. The ‘What’ is clear but the ‘How’ is far more challenging. The ‘How’ is the new agenda.
You don’t need a McKinsey study to have a sense of what your business will need to be doing in three or five years time. It is largely self-evident. Consumers will expect you to be more responsible. Investors will expect you to be more relevant and profitable. Employees will expect you to be more purposeful and caring. And, communities will expect you to be one of them. Some might expect you to jump over the moon but most are happy if you can remember their name.
The world of private equity teaches you that it ultimately comes down to delivery. Ideas are just ideas. Written words stay on the page. A great speech remains in the room. Great leaders and leadership teams are those who are able to hold up the big idea and then deliver.
Capitalism will need to be different. It does not need to be profoundly different but enough to ensure your employees and key stakeholders believe in you. And that’s where compassion makes the difference. It is the very thing that enables you to really touch the pulse of your own organisation and the customers you service. Compassion helps you listen in new ways. It helps you see the world for what it could be and motivates people to support or just do more.
Without a purposeful brand that connects and engages all audiences, organisations will talk about their purpose without actually delivering the change. Reputationally this is a disaster. Better the business that is honest, than the one that talks a good game.
Ultimately, leaders, like all great brands, deliver the reputation by what they do and not by talking about what they will do. Capitalism has always been about better delivery. But the future of capitalism will be as much about how you do things, as it is about what you do.
Simon Milton, Corporate Brand Strategist