Interviewed by Kevin O’Neill
Q&A with Dave Allen
Purpose has emerged as a foundational element for businesses to compete and thrive in the 21st century argues Dave Allen.
Purpose is the reason “why your business exists — it’s your North Star,” says Dave.
It is getting a lot of attention and causing some great debates. Larry Fink, CEO and Chairman of Blackrock, wrote in his 2018 letter to CEOs, ‘Purpose gives your company its license to operate in today’s society.’
Dave founded Brandpie, a London and New York-based branding consultancy, in 2008 after a successful 22-year career at global marketing giant WPP. "In that time, I saw WPP grow from very small to very large — it was an amazing period.”
Over the last 30 years, Dave has mastered the art and science of helping boards and CEOs build strong brands. He has advised organizations around the world — helping Vodafone manage the world’s largest brand migration, rebranding BP as they acquired Amoco, Aral, Arco, and Castrol and most recently supporting Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO of professional services firm EY, to develop the firm’s purpose and tagline ‘building a better working world’.
Emergence of purpose
Dave: In the 80s and 90s, most mission statements I encountered read something like, “Our goal is to maximize shareholder value.” This board-level thinking was driven by the leading economist of the time Milton Friedman who famously stated, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to increase its profits.”
Whilst this was and still is a legitimate goal, what I found when I interviewed my clients’ employees and customers was that this certainly didn’t excite employees, help in any way to market a company’s products or services, or build a strong brand. A strong brand defined in those days by the premium charged over a generic product — 50 cents for a coffee $2 for a Starbucks!
At the same time, the world was waking up to the impact business was having on the environment and the poor employment practices being adopted by some companies as they moved operations to lower-cost countries. This made consumers want to know the philosophy behind their favorite brands. As the motives of companies came under wider public scrutiny, the face of marketing and brand-building changed forever — and fast. No longer could big brand owners trade behind anonymous corporate entities.
This was the moment some visionary entrepreneurs saw the opportunity: that ‘maybe’ there was a better way to connect with consumers and potential employees and still create value for shareholders. This is when the first ‘purpose driven’ organizations like Tom’s Shoes, Patagonia, The Body Shop, Runa, Seventh Generation, and many more emerged. This new breed of business was driven by motives other than profit, yet were often more profitable than established competitors. Consumers fell in love with them. Not surprisingly, they also became the most desired places to work.
Commitment to purpose
Dave: I worked with British Petroleum (now BP) and their CEO Lord Browne at the time. He was a great visionary and asked us to explore if a large energy company could tap into these changes – mainly because BP found it tough to attract the best engineers. We asked ourselves, “Could BP impact the planet less, yet meet the future energy needs of humanity?” By taking on this challenge, BP repositioned itself as a business for the future and not of the past.
Browne introduced this original thinking in a speech to much positive acclaim in May 1997. For the first time, the leader of an oil giant publicly acknowledged the potential link between CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and global warming — and that action needed to be taken now. It profoundly affected industry, politics, and the NGO community. It also provided the rallying cry for the best engineers to get involved in helping BP develop the science for reducing CO2 emissions.
From that point on, I began to challenge all CEOs, and in turn their boards, in a more fundamental way. Together, we started to get to the core of ‘why their business existed’. It provoked very different discussions from those about ‘maximizing shareholder gains’.
I committed to purpose. To using purpose to help my clients strengthen their reputations and so strengthen their brand, their business, and the world.
Power of purpose
Dave: I realized purpose was not only a great motivator. When combined with a clear ambition and smart strategy, it forms a brilliantly simple planning framework that any business can use.
My advice to any business is to forget vision and mission statements and just define these 3 things:
1. Why does your company exist?
2. What is your ambition?
3. What is your strategy for achieving this?
If you get it all on a postcard, then you will have the core elements you need to power any company forward — to attract talent, win customers, and reward investors.
If in addition to providing value to your shareholders, you put a high value on helping your communities thrive and your employees, customers, and vendors have better lives, you will have a good business. Good people will want to buy your products and services and work for your company.
When I started Brandpie back in 2008, I knew my purpose was to help businesses do it better. At Brandpie our purpose is “to create purpose-driven ideas that unlock performance.” We’ve proven time and again that these ideas can transform businesses, improve culture, and strengthen brands.
It starts with great leadership
Dave: Putting purpose to work requires brilliant leadership. If you cut to the chase, for me it comes down to one word: RESPECT.
I’ve worked with some great leaders (and some not so great). The truly great leaders spent their careers building respect — with their employees, customers, shareholders, and increasingly within society.
There are many smart people out there, so rising to be CEO of any company isn’t easy. My view is that the ones that get there do so by earning the respect of the people around them.
If you are truly brilliant at your job, people have to respect you. You build respect through your behavior. Your degree of toughness and fairness, your level of intelligence and common sense, and the way you make decisions are all judged every day. It takes time and consistency to build respect. You can’t do it over night.
In addition to generating respect, brilliant leaders have to be transparent and courageous. Leaders can no longer just tell people what to do. Today, leadership is about guiding and supporting people to do it — whatever “it” is to the highest possible standard. A brilliant leader is one who inspires his or her team to have the confidence to think and act and get on with the task in hand.
Purpose is a team game
Dave: All leaders face the issue of building teams and getting the best out of them. It is not unusual for the people who are the creative engines of an enterprise, the ones who generate the direction, to be weaker at other aspects of leadership. They need to compensate for their gaps by building and inspiring a strong team.
I’ve often thought the greatest strength of a leader is knowing what he or she is ‘not good at’ and then building those qualities into their team.
Managing a team of A-level players can feel a little like trying to connect several high-voltage electrical cables into a single socket. They want to keep shooting out! Often being the leader feels like you’re the one getting electrocuted! Great teams are certainly high voltage. But when a team clicks, it’s just dynamite. A common purpose and ambition help build that team spirit and drive.
When we work on creating an idea at Brandpie, we bring in some very smart and creative people to work through it. When we hit on the solution — that’s an awesome feeling — a magical moment. We all need more magical moments!
Brilliant ideas that inspire you
Dave: One of the best business books I’ve ever read was called “Built to Last” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. I read it from cover to cover on a beach in a couple of days — I couldn’t put it down. I liked it because it was just riddled with common sense — I think I was 33 when I twigged ‘common sense isn’t common’!
Brilliant people who inspire you
Dave: There are many, but I have to go back to when I was fresh out of college and in my first job at Kodak. My first manager was a tough Scot called Andy McGuire. He was an amazing leader, mentor, and motivator. At 21 years old, I knew nothing really and he set me on a great path. To him everything was a positive and an opportunity. Even if he told you off, it somehow felt like you were learning. I still apply many of the things he taught me to this day. He inspired me because he lived his beliefs every day. In his ‘Andy McGuire’ way I can now see how brilliant he was.
One final thought
Dave: I’ve always said to my kids “find something you love doing and then work out how to make a living doing what you love”. Recently I discovered the Japanese have a word for this type of thinking, ikigai, it roughly translates to ‘your reason for being’. It encourages you to think about what you’re good at; what you love doing; what the world needs; and finally if you can make a living filling that need. If you think about these as overlapping circles, then that space where they overlap is your ikigai. The people who achieve this alignment appear not only to be more content in life, but also live longer, increasing evidence shows. Purpose in life seems to be as important as purpose in business. I now use this thinking to help leaders I work with think about their ikagai.
Defining brilliance with Dave Allen
|why you exist.
|your ability to guide people to the right place.
|Brilliant leaders are...
|respected, transparent, courageous.
|defined more by happiness than money.
|I perform at my best when...
|I’m working on a complex challenge and figuring it out with smart people. When you think you're trying to tackle the impossible actually. You can't do it on your own. It’s an awesome feeling.
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