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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we speak to Simon Mainwaring, CEO of We First, on Bringing Purpose to Life, Growing a Brand Movement and Nailing a Pitch.
Simon is a brand futurist, global keynote speaker, and bestselling author. He is the Founder and CEO of We First, a strategic brand consultancy based in Los Angeles, California, that has helped companies like Sony, The Coffee Bean, Timberland, and Toms, to accelerate their growth and impact.
His first book, We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, was an Amazon, New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, and was named the Best Business Marketing Book of the Year. His latest book, Lead With We: The Business Revolution that Will Save Our Future, was voted the McKinsey Top Business Bestseller on Workplace & Culture.
Simon started his career as a writer and Creative Director at agencies including DDB (Sydney), Saatchi & Saatchi (London), Wieden & Kennedy (Portland) and Ogilvy (Los Angeles) winning awards at all major advertising festivals on clients such as Nike, Toyota and Motorola.
Simon has been named one of the top keynote speakers in the world, is a regular columnist for Forbes, and in 2015 was a finalist for Global Australian of the Year.
Thanks to James Whittaker of Win The Day for introducing us to Simon.
In this episode we talk about:
- The 3 things you need to nail a pitch and convert the naysayers
- Leading with We, and shifting away from Me First
- How the role and responsibility of business has changed, and
- The evolution and power of a brand movement
Connecting with Simon Mainwaring
Books and resources
“I will not live a life unlived.”
On early career lessons
- I had no plan. It was like hidden hope and I was way out of my depth all the time, but I just kept going because I was too dumb to know any better, quite honestly.
- Don't say, “Oh, I could never get a gig there, or I could never work at blah blah in London”. And it's something I've really taken to be true. And I think unless I'm terrified of what I'm doing and unless I'm really testing the courage that I have within me, I've never really been satisfied. And I've got over that a lot now, but for a long time, that was the driver. It's like, oh my God, I'm not scared enough.
- I also think I was driven by a lot of insecurity and issues that I haven't resolved in terms of growing up. I don't think the motivations behind what I was doing were necessarily healthy or helpful. And since then I've come to have perspective on them and what were those identities driving them or what was that itch I was trying to scratch that was informing that sort of work. And at different times, I was competitive in a punitive way. I wanted to crush the competition or I didn't have any sense of self-worth if I didn't win that Gold Lion at Cannes, or I didn't get whatever the campaign for Nike was because you're competing with the other teams inside the agency to see whose campaign gets selected.
- I was trying to make up for something that I didn't think I had. I didn’t fully value myself. And I think a lot of us suffer that on the way through. And it is a very effective driver, but I don't necessarily think it's healthy because you're not really answering the root causes of a lot of these things. But in the end that's what drove my ambition for a long time.
On making the leap into his own business
- I put myself in enough rooms for a long time to realise there's nothing special going on. There's just good people giving it their best, they're smart, they're applying themselves, they have good days, they had bad days. And I realised, I sort of demystified this idea that someone who just did this fancy pants thing in some industry knows something that I don't know. And I think just getting in the room with the people rather than always wondering and being pigeonholed of something less than was one of those.
- The second thing is I had some disappointments on the way, very heavy disappointments that I then had to think through why am I doing something? And then you go, why? What's motivating me? And why am I doing these things? And what does it really mean? And what does it say about myself? And was it really about the work or was it about, so disappointments were very, very helpful on the way, and I'm really grateful for them.
On stepping away from a busy life
- And then the third thing I'd say is I think a lot of the time we look outwards, we're looking at how we are perceived by others or we're sort of benchmarking ourselves about what's out there. And that outer work is a fraction as important as the inner work on yourself. And I've done a variety of things from doing a lot of reading, I've done a lot of speaking and being around really kind of people that I admire, who've done a lot of thinking themselves and really learning from them and also taking experiences. Stepping away from the world that we're in and really going back to fundamentals and connecting with nature at a very deep level and really trusting yourself that you're going to show up in new ways because you've removed yourself from the narrative, the story, the expectation, the projection of others, and really allow yourself to reveal yourself to yourself when you strip away all of that as sort of unhelpful context. I read the saying the other day where someone said, if you stop looking at your phone, you'll be able to receive all the text messages, TikTok videos and emails that the universe is trying to give you, deliver to you. I mean it sounds a little odd, but when you do really step into stillness and silence in nature, there's a lot of clarity that comes with it ar around issues that really plague us all at a deep profound personal level.
On the moment that changed it all
- I was professionally at sea because I didn't feel challenged anymore. And then I was personally destabilised because dad passed. And for the first time in my freaking life, Greg, I got out of my own way.
- I just heard this voice in my head, said, “You're going to write a book”. And I stopped and went, oh. And then I was like, “You're going to write three books”. And I was like, what?
- And when you have those moments and you have knowing and you know it to be true in every cell of your body, and it just happened. And so now I've had two books done and I wrote, We First and then Lead with We, and that all started really, it was catalysed by this moment, again, kind of going into a place, a remote place, where I finally got out of my own way. And whatever was meant to show up revealed itself. And that changed the course of my life.
On nailing a pitch
- If you want to convince somebody of something that they otherwise might not be predisposed to do, there's three things you can do very well. The first thing is to show them the research, the data. So by reputable, credible sources. So whatever the issue may be, show them what the latest data is saying.
- Number two, show them the competitive landscape. So if they're not going to do something, at least show them what their nearest competitor or an adjacent competitor is doing because that taps into their competitive instinct. They're like, “Oh, well they're not idiots and they're doing it, or maybe I should have a look because we don't be left behind because they're doing it”.
- And then the third thing, which is the most important thing is you do a cost benefit analysis, which means you look at the cost of doing something, “Oh my God, we've got to spend all this money and re-engineer things”. And also the benefit of it, “Oh, this is great because it'll do X, Y, and Z”, but then you've got to do this piece that most people don't do, which is the cost benefit analysis of not doing it. Which is what will it cost you not to do it?
- You know what, you'll save time, you'll save money. It may cost you anxiety and fear about relevance and risk and so on, but there's a true cost and what is the benefit of not doing it? I've typically found that it really does move the needle, if not immediately, very quickly in the next week or two as people kind of get to reflect on it. They'll self select what lens they look at it through
On the power of story
- You could intellectually understand that, sure, story is important and marketing is important, but when you actually do it and you see the results, you go damn, this is a superpower if applied the right way. Then the global economic meltdown happened in 2008, 2009, and I read Bill Gates' speech called Creative Capitalism where he said the private sector's got to play a bigger role in social change. And I said to myself, well, wait a second, none of this is going to work if you don't have a story that's going to inspire people to think and behave in new ways.
- If you have the old mindset but you want people to do new things, they're not going to do it because that mindset shapes their behaviour.
On his latest book
- I wrote Lead with We the Business Revolution that will save our Future as a book that really codified all the practises that we developed over the last decade that were really force multipliers for impact inside organisations and Lead with We simply to put is you choose to lead, not follow, not wait for somebody else, not to go third with that is the greatest number of stakeholders possible inside your own value chain outside with competitors, cross sector in service of the greatest we, that is people in the planet.
- So it's mobilising as many stakeholders as possible to the greatest collective benefit as quickly as possible. And then it really gets very, very granular on how you do that with research and case studies and strategies and tactics. And it lays out a complete roadmap for that.
- I don't think we're in, at the end of times, I don't think this is the end of something. I think this is the beginning of the most extraordinary renaissance re-engineering, re-imagination of business that any of us will ever see in our lifetimes. And we're at that necessary painful point of transition, but we're well on our way to where we're going to go and where we're going to get to is going to be something really extraordinary and very, very positive.
On 4 ways to bring your purpose to life
- Do you mean it? Do you want to do this? Are you doing it for real? That's the number one thing. If you're just doing it because everyone else is doing it or you feel obliged to or you feel regulatory pressure, you're wasting your time. It really comes down to the integrity of your intent.
- What are you the only of? Because there is only one company like you with your team at this moment in time in your market with your product, with this kind of cultural context, what are you the only of?
- When you are at your best, what are you doing when you have that day where you are crushing it and your team of two, you high five each other, your team of 10,000 high five each other, what were you doing where you just nailed it, your sweet spot?
- What is your enemy? So what do you get out of bed in the morning to solve? What pisses you off so royally you cannot help but solve for it.
- How do you bring it to life? The way that we approach it is firstly, you've got to do a fundamental shift in your mindset, which is a lot of companies right now, especially here in the states where there's the great resignation, quiet quitting, all of this stuff going on is, “Oh, what has leadership or management done for me lately? Should I stay here? I mean I could do like $5,000 more and just leave and we've been remote for so long, I don't really attach to the people. So what do I care?”
- That mindset is foundational to the problem because the culture you create has to be fundamentally co-creative in the sense that the presumption of a culture is that the company, its culture, and as an engine of that business is a function of who shows up every day and how they show up in person or virtually. And when actually your starting point or your presumption is that everyone has a shared responsibility to foster and maintain that culture every day. You have different ideas, different communications, different ways to engage with them, and it builds in the buy-in and the resilience of that culture because everyone's on the hook.
- Have you shared your purpose in a way that they understand that purpose is prioritised as much as the profit, and in fact they're symbiotic, they drive each other. And then have you given your employees the opportunity to animate that purpose and to give ideas peculiar to their functional role or their department or the region they're in or the product lens, so they can bring it to life, they can take ownership of it and then you can share those stories and cross pollinate with inside the organisation and almost create a competitive landscape the same way you have for profit specific to purpose.
- And then do you create the rituals and traditions to keep it alive?
On companies that are out of alignment
- They haven't created the context that allows them to reframe their role and their contributory role with others to create a culture or a company they want to stay at and be a part of.
- They're robbing not only the company of their greatest best use, but they're also robbing themselves of the satisfaction of that part of your life where you feel good about, where you work every day and you wake up every day and you feel like you're glad to work there. It really does atrophy your whole life and there's nothing worse than being in a job that you don't like or you don't believe in the leaders or you don't believe what they're taking to market.
- Employees and especially younger demographics are getting so choiceful now, especially here in the States. There's such an activist mentality now, which is what does working at your company say about me? And do you embody the badge value that I want to say about myself when I tell someone where I work?
On creating a brand movement
- The way that we're showing up in business globally right now is coming at the cost of the whole, that is the natural living systems that make life possible.
- And also as a subset of that, the social systems that affect so much of our lives, whether you look at homelessness, pollution, disparity of wealth, whatever it might be. And so it doesn't matter what your opinion is if the whole breaks down, the parts can't thrive. But when you shift your perspective and say, “Hey, we're all in service of the larger whole”, then business can thrive within it. And it was interesting when I was in the Amazon and I talked to through translators, some of the shaman and indigenous folks there, a couple of things stuck out to me about this.
- One was they consider anyone who takes more than they need a sign of mental ill health or madness because it threatens the wellbeing of the whole. So you're literally hurting yourself, killing yourself. So they see it according to someone who's trying to hurt themselves. And the second thing is they consider wealth when you have enough to give something away to others.
- The first vertical in that effort is leadership and strategy. You've got to define what your purpose is and your goals to that end and be very, very clear about it. The second vertical is really around employees and culture. So how do you mobilise your employees in a co-creative way like I mentioned, to execute against that higher order purpose and the goals that were set by leadership. The third vertical is the brands and their communities. So consumers or communities and so external, if the employees are internal, this is external and this is really about inspiring consumers to buy your product because of the role you're playing in the world and also advocate on behalf of your brand and help you sell stuff and grow your business because you're doing good in the world.
- And then the fourth level is this higher order level of society where brands now speak to larger issues.
- I mean, there is no limit to the responsibility of business now, but the movement is built when your purpose as a slingshot that not only is brought to life authentically in each one of those four verticals, but through all those four verticals. And when you do that, it has a multiplying effect, a force multiplier effect that you will never understand until you really execute against all four verticals. And when you do, it takes on a life of its own and you've got a brand movement.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- What gives you hope? What is something you can share with us about hope? And I think the question should be framed differently, which is you need to be a course for hope. Nothing's coming. No one else is coming. It's not someone else's responsibility. What gives me hope is me, because I'm showing up and I'm giving my heart and soul to this. And you need to be a cause for optimism. You need to be a cause for hope. So what gives me hope is how you are going to show up, how you are listening to this podcast, how listening to me and so many others will inspire you to double down on what you are already doing and not tolerate business or points of view that don't support this idea that we've got to sharpen ways they're going to of course correct our future.
- What gives me hope is how each of us choose to show up because it's a force multiplier. One of us can't do much, but as more and more of us do, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or takes on a life of its own. And then the market forces will be rewarded and it'll accelerate exponentially. And I tell you, those legacy mindsets, practices, behaviours, and companies will drop off the edge like a cliff.
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