Performance Leader Podcast: S3 Ep 6: Lewis Iwu on Purpose in Professional Service Firms

Ray D'Cruz
Performance Leader

Our guest on the PerformanceLeader’s podcast is Lewis Iwu, co-founder and CEO of Purpose Union, a social purpose strategy firm united by the belief that the world is better off when companies and organisations think, act and communicate with a defined social purpose.

Lewis advises organisations on how to devise and execute winning arguments and campaigns on social and environmental issues. Over the past 15 years he has worked with some of the world’s most influential organisations and individuals, and led campaigns and coalitions on issues such as racial injustice, climate change and education access. He is the author of Words that Win, a book about how to win arguments on social and environmental issues.  

Lewis was previously the foundingDirector of the Fair Education Alliance, a national advocacy coalition of almost 100 non-profits and businesses. Lewis has also worked at leading global corporate reputation agencies, Finsbury and Brunswick.

In this podcast we discuss:

-       The work of Purpose Union

-       The historical link between the professions and social purpose

-       How firms can resolve purpose conflicts such as which clients to represent

-       The connection between social purpose, organisational purpose and individual purpose

-       Building purpose into the employee value proposition

-       The role of leaders in advancing purpose

Ray: [00:02:00] Lewis, thanks for joining the Performance Leaders podcast.

Lewis: [00:02:02] Hi. Good to be here.

Ray: [00:02:04] Tell us more about the work of Purpose Union.

Lewis: [00:02:05] We are a social purpose strategy firm and we kind of move beyond maybe some of the traditional silos, such as PR or marketing or strategy or coaching. We take a more holistic approach to helping companies have a social impact and build their reputations for impact. So traditionally, there was a world in which companies especially would have a fairly superficial approach to building their reputations for being progressive and caring about their community and the environment. A press release or sort of a tactical kind of donation. The world has moved on. The world is more expecting of companies, but also at the same time a bit more sceptical. And so that creates a bit of a dilemma for a lot of our clients who need in-depth supports, the thinking space, as well as the capacity to actually do things in a more meaningful way. And so we help them do that.

Ray: [00:03:03] And so the work you do is presumably both proactive when a client is ready to really try and do something different and better. But also reactive, when something has come up and it's exposed that maybe something was more lip service than substantial?

Lewis: [00:03:20] Absolutely. And I think we we've seen in the last couple of years clients reaching out to us for help to react to developments in the world, many of which I'm sure we'll talk about. But actually, that's been the sort of springboard to help them think a bit more deeply about what they could do proactively. I think if there's anything close to a consensus in this space is that we are in an era which we're not going to go back from, which is companies are going to have to have a position on some of the big issues of the day and marry that with their corporate identity. That's not easy. But once you get it right, it makes decision making, like how do we respond to the invasion of Ukraine or how do we respond to Roe v Wade? I'm not going to say straightforward, but at least aligned and anchored and rooted in something that makes sense and not something that's a sporadic reaction to a one off event.

Ray: [00:04:13] Right?Because you're dealing with it from the point of strategy rather than a mere tactical response.

Lewis: [00:04:18] Absolutely. We often use the three A's, which is our way of helping unpick what particular problem some of our clients face. So the first day is about articulation, right? What do we actually say or do based on what the world expects of us in the social environmental space? The second is about attention. So how do we stand out? How do we build a sense that we're different from the run of the mill? And the third, and this is often the difficult one, is authenticity. So how do we marry what we do and what we say, to make sure that people know we're doing this from a place that is genuine, and this is not greenwashing or diversity washing. And I think the third question is where there's been obviously a lot of focus on the last couple of years. And again, our argument to clients is it's worth taking the time to think about this much more carefully than maybe they have done in the past.

Ray: [00:05:16] Lewis, many of the professions, as we call them, have had a historical link to social purpose. Does that make it easier for those firms today to discover, articulate and advance purpose?

Lewis: [00:05:27] I think it does. And I think it's you know, it's certainly a place to draw inspiration from. You know, I've done work with law firms, for example, and of obviously looking at the historic roots of the advice they give. The work with accountancy firms and their role in providing trust in sort of systems that people can sort of transact. There's a clear purpose there. Now, obviously, you know, like many sectors that becomes less prominent as sort of other factors in running a business and creating a culture take hold. They're not immune from, you know, in some instances, obviously not every instance being overly focused on billable hours or maybe neglecting the wellbeing of people or maybe not being as diverse and inclusive as they could be. And also, in the narrative that they talk to in terms of how they engage with clients or indeed their own people. And the purpose doesn't come out as strongly as possible, and that happens to all organizations. But I think actually if you have come from a place where purpose is really been part of your origin story, it's even more inspirational, I think, for people. It provides that link from the past to the future. And it goes back to actually what purpose is which I think is really important, which some people forget, even though it's an obvious point, it's a framework for making decisions about your business. It won't on its own, tell you what the right answer is. And so what that means practically is when you make business decisions, is making them having that framework as an important reference point. And also when you explain business decisions articulating why you've done something or you haven't done something in terms of your purpose, and I think, again, maybe the law, maybe other professional services firms have lost sight of that, as many other businesses have.

Ray: [00:07:15] I was watching a panel of managing partners a few years ago and the discussion arose about whether professional services firms are there to tell clients what they can do or what they should do. And there seemed to be some consensus that at least there was a movement towards the should. What's your view on that?

Lewis: [00:07:35] Professional services firms are in such a unique place. They often have the trust of their clients at all levels, especially senior levels of the business. They have the advantage of working across a number of industries, and it's a very special place they occupy. And I don't think professional advisors should wear that lightly. And again, I think if you have a purpose, and you use that as a way of framing decisions about your business, it also frames how you behave with your clients. And if you take climate, for example, we've noticed in the last couple of years, a big focus on the professional services firms who service carbon intensive industries and what their roles of responsibility is. And there's been a fair amount of scrutiny, rightly so. But also actually we've seen professional services firms respond, and either have a theory of change that they articulate which says, look, yes, we are going to have to work with some firms which aren't where we think they should be, and our job is to steer them in that direction, and to challenge them, and to offer them counsel, and to help them bounce off a number of competing interests. Other firms have taken the view, actually, we can't work with these firms at all, unless we believe they've got a credible plan, for example, to get to net zero. And so for me, I think it's incredibly important that you should see your job as steering your clients to a place which will help them financially achieve their goals, but also is aligned to your own purpose as well. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of, I think, beginning to talk about this agenda without actually changing how you behave as a business.I think the final thing to say is, you know, we hold ourselves to this standard. We're quite up front when we work with clients that we will challenge you. Our job is to be a critical friend. We're not just an organisation full of yes people. We're here to shape the thinking and shape the debate internally.And I think a lot of clients like that, and want to be challenged in a complicated world. So I would probably definitely lean on the 'this is what you should do', acknowledging that your business has a number of constraints and all that entails.

Ray: [00:9:44] And it fits comfortably with what you said earlier around having an understanding or framework around purpose, because then we're not leaving every adviser individually to manage this issue on their own. We're giving them some guidance, support, a framework, and it's aligned with their colleagues.

Lewis: [00:10:00] Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is why we talk about you can write a purpose statement, put it on your website, and it can look great and sound great. And people can sort to some extent feel inspired by it. The proof in the pudding is, do you have a culture where your colleagues can come around and debate and discuss this? We both come from a culture of competitive debating in our former lives, before what we're doing now. We seethe value of having that type of discourse. And I think a healthy purpose driven culture is one where colleagues come around the table and actually thrash it out using that purpose as a reference point. You're much more likely to arrive at a better outcome. But also I think it's good for colleagues to see that modelled. This isn't about on a case by case basis making individual judgement. It should be a collective effort and a collective endeavour.

Ray: [00:10:49] What do you say is the connection between social purpose, firm purpose and individual purpose?

Lewis: [00:10:55] That's a very, very good question. And we get this all the time. I mean, we would take the view that in today's world, when discussing an organisational purpose, that should be a social purpose. And we take a position on that: we think the best embodiment of why a company should exist is rooting it in the social value that it creates. There are differences of opinion there, but we think today, that's where organisations want to head. And it's for an organisation to articulate that: what it means. Now in terms of individuals, we all come to work for different reasons. We are motivated by different reasons. We live and exist outside of work, whether it's doing community service or actually engaging in politics or a range of other issues in different ways, because we're motivated by different things. And I think the best companies are able to take their social purpose, create ways of activating it, and creating the embodiment of that social purpose, and allowing individuals to participate and engage in a way that reflects their own individual purpose. So let me give you an example. We have a client who has a purpose, sometimes having a purpose is quite theoretical, absent to what you see day today in terms of decision making, which we've discussed. And actually, what you tend to see companies do is have a hero initiative, something that really embodies their purpose in an initiative form. So they tackle a social problem, they focus on it, they commit it to the long term. And there's a big red thread between that and the social purpose. What they then do it go 'our people are absolutely integral to making this initiative work'. And so we're going tocreate a number of ways and touch points for people to get involved and use their skills and skills in a way that aligns to their own personal agenda. AndI think that's really important. It sounds quite complicated, and you've got to co-create this often with employees. They've got to be part of it. But the best initiatives are the ones that are able to touch different people in different ways and people can see themselves in the story. The second thing I'd say is mostly outside of that, and again, it goes to the point about being committed to your community, being committed to a cause that you have outside of work is,I think, reflecting that in allowing people to obviously have time off to be able to do that, but not just see that as a completely separate part of their their life. But to bring that in. And I think what I really am keen on are internal meetings where people can check in and actually bring some of that experience from outside of work inside and actually explain to people, this is how I'm fulfilling my individual purpose. And I think that's quite exciting as well. So it's about celebrating what people do internally outside of work as well, championing actually giving people the space at work to talk about it and discuss it and bring pod themselves from the outside inside as well.

Ray: [00:13:46] Have you seen any examples of firms that have been able to build purpose into their employee value proposition?

Lewis: [00:13:55] You know, if you take a company such as Unilever, as an example that people are familiar with, they say to people, you're coming here to join a purpose driven company. And part of the deal is that you will grow as a result of that, you will fulfil your own individual sort of aspirations, sort of driving a particular agenda. We have a stable of brands, all of which are in various ways aligned to a particular purpose. And that's and we know from having done some work with Unilever and talking to them, being closer to them. We have a number of Unilever people. That's an important part of the effort to sort of prospective employees and current employees. You know, there is another organization that we're working with where part of your promotion and your success and progression in your organization is linked to you displaying purpose driven behaviours, and you get rewarded for that. And I think that's really important as well. So purpose is goes beyond just having the statement. It's about actually sort of integrating this into what it means to be an employee in this organization. Being proud of that and recognizing that and how people are rewarded and recognized.

Ray: [00:14:59] Lewis, what is the role of a leader in advancing purpose within their organization?

Lewis: [00:15:05] I think leaders are incredibly important in advancing purpose. Purpose can be quite theoretical, and it can be a bit aloof as a concept. So it needs to be modelled. It needs to be transformed into something that's practical and meaningful for people, and people need to be inspired by it. We've seen in some places, 'oh, it's another purpose project, yet another thing that we've got to think about'. And then you've seen people really be animated by it, and almost find a new lease of life inside the organisation.That comes down to leadership. And that comes down to leadership being able to be consistent about how they talk about it, being transparent about how it guides their own behaviour and be prepared sometimes to talk about the external world. And I think core part of having a purpose is that we're not just an inward looking institution. We understand that our business has an impact on the social, environmental world around us. And that means we all sometimes have to talk about those issues. And I think the best leaders are the ones who are able to find the right balance between talking about theory. What does it mean to us as a business? Being able to inspire people and make people feel that this is something that means they should stay and not just that they should stay, they should be infused, they should be creative, they should be proactive about how they apply this to some of the business challenges that they have.But also that they should be current and relevant and they should acknowledge whether it's Roe v Wade, whether it's Russia, the murder of George Floyd or a number of other social environmental issues, they should be able to have the dexterity to talk about those issues as well. And that's a tough ask. I think it's probably a different world from what it was like to be a CEO a decade ago.But I do a lot of work with CEOs one to one, in terms of helping them get more comfortable with this. I think there's a recognition that this is not just the core part of what it is to be a CEO and to be a leader in organisations, not just obviously a CEO. This is true for heads of teams, it's true for a middle managers as well. You know, this lives or dies by the people who lead an organisation really embracing this.

Ray: [00:17:08] There must be a lot of leaders who are just really fearful of getting it wrong and saying something they shouldn't say. How do you help them or coach them through that mindset shift?

Lewis: [00:17:19] It's a really, really important point. I talk to a lot of CEOs who are well-meaning and they want to do the right thing. They are afraid they don't have the right tools, the right language. This agenda is moving so quickly. They fear that they may upset people. They feel they're entering into a world that is politicised and therefore that they are taking a stance. I can completely understand those fears. I often say to them sometimes if you don't take a stance, that in itself is a political position and I think they some of them get that. I think what's really important is, first of all, just taking the time out to actually have the mental bandwidth to talk about this stuff. And it is you'd be surprised at how many leaders don't have that headspace to go 'I'm just going to take some time out, get to read and immerse myself in these issues and just actually have a space where I can practice talking about them'. So there's a couple of CEOs who recently have had a one to one conversation with where we've just talked about sort of the most pressing social issues of the day, help to work out their thinking about it and kind of how they insert themselves into that story. I'd say it's like a couple of hours a month, but it's really beginning to make a big difference. I work with a lot of leaders on helping them to sort of engage in that actual debate around these topics because as you know, they're there isn't just one side. People have different views on trans inclusion, on whether or not the term ‘white supremacy ’is a helpful to analyse what's happening with the police in a number of countries. We have to be comfortable accepting that not everyone's going to agree with you. And if the yardstick is, 'well, I'm not going to speak out unless 100% of my people or our customers or investors agree with this', then it's going to be pretty tough for you. So getting comfortable with discomfort and getting comfortable with people having a different opinion, I think is incredibly important as well. I think the final thing, which I think is important and we emphasize, is being exposed to a variety of different sources or sources of information. What are you reading? Which clubs are you part of? Where are you speaking at? Maybe you can be a bit more creative about all of that. To use the phrase of one activist here in the UK who asked this question of a very senior corporate leader, which I loved, was 'who's in your ear? And I think that's a really important question for leaders and the people who serve leaders.

Ray: [00:19:43] Lewis, in a professional services firm, partnership and firm, we might have a really diverse range of views, including views that are really against the idea of social progress and inclusion. How do you help leaders through that resolution?

Lewis: [00:20:00] I think it's tough. And, you know, as we've discussed a lot of these issues, that there is considerable debate. There are a couple of things which I think are important. One is to create the space for these conversations happen in the first place. And I say that because I don't think that's an obvious thing. They happen in side places. People shy away from having an openly. I think it's actually let's have and dedicate some time to talk about this. It's about also on top of that, having a framework, and that's where purpose comes in. I think it's much harder to resolve these tensions absent of said framework. It may not necessarily resolve that conflict, but it at least provides an understanding for why people are taking particular positions. And if you can't frame your direction of travel within your purpose framework, then then that should raise questions.

Ray: [00:20:51] We should all be able to agree on the idea of having a framework and a methodology.

Lewis: [00:20:57] Exactly, 100%. And that leads into being transparent about it as well. If we look at the fallout from Roe v Wade, there are a number of statements that were made which took a position one way or the other. Or, for example, and it's a position I agree with, offered to pay for health care for women who had health care removed from them. Now, I think that's important. But you've also got to explain the logic and the rationale for why, I think the why is really important, as well as the process to get there. And people will still disagree. But I think it feels a bit more transparent and a bit more palatable if you've been clear about the process and the why. The final thing, which I think is really important, is where we've seen an increase in these, and we're very keen on them, is having a rules of engagement set of principles. When we talk about these issues as a partnership, let's agree on how we're going to talk about them, in a way that we can disagree without being disagreeable, in a way that makes sure that the space is safe.

Ray: [00:22:00] Lewis, we've seen some examples in the last few years of professional services firms really struggling to resolve conflicts in relation to purpose. One example that springs to mind is the US firm Boies, Schiller Flexner, that represented Harvey Weinstein and Elizabeth Holmes. There was seemingly a lot of backlash from staff, a mass exodus of attorneys. Now, in that case, the law firm was representing a legal client and so it on the surface didn't think there was a problem. Is this a new world we're moving into, and how do professional services firms resolve these kinds of tensions?

Lewis: [00:22:39] I think it's a really interesting one. And I think this is where people's individual tolerance for working within their ethical framework or working outside of it comes into play alongside. Companies need to obviously make money, obviously. I think in a professional services world related to law, where there's a notion that everyone needs a defense, for the whole principle of the rule of law to work, certainly that's what I had drummed into me at law school and my brief stint in the law. And so I think it's a tough one. But for me, I think it is a new norm. I often say it's true with, you know, maybe a new generation of employees. And it's a group that we poll a lot. We do a lot of focus groups with under 40s. That for them, they want to bring their principles into work, and they want to also be proud of the place that they work. Exacerbated by the fact that you've got LinkedIn, and you've got Instagram where people bring their work to kind of their personal spaces too. So that's the challenge. And I think the way to resolve that is in part, you know, the justification you have for it. Have you kicked the tires on a particular decision? Have you factored in, crucially, how your employees think or what they think about this? Have you taken a long view of reputational risk on taking this client? Yes, there might be an immediate sort of financial gain, but what does this mean for the long term viability of your organization?If you take another professional services firm in our sector, Bell Pottinger, they did some work in South Africa, which they shouldn’t have done, and didn't kick the tires on it. They didn't have a purpose to reference to. They didn't fully factor in the views of their people and indeed society. And the firm didn't exist a short time after that. So, you know, this can be existential for firms. And I think whether it's on #MeToo, wherever it's on sort of corporate ethics, whether it's on climate change, the friends that you keep as a business will matter increasingly more. I think what matters is being able to articulate a reason why you're doing it.  Lots of firms have not been great at communicating to their own people on the most basic of matters, let alone key business decisions which relate to how they relate to big societal questions. And that, again, goes back to what we said about having the antenna that connects you to the outside world, that regularly helps you update yourself on where the current thinking is.

Ray: [00:25:10] And how can professional services firms incubate social purpose activities within their firm?

Lewis: [00:25:16] This is about purpose being a living, breathing thing that sort of doesn't have an end point. I think there's a couple of things which I think are important. I think one thing which I've seen a number of companies like Reckitt do, for example, is set up a purpose council. So almost a group of people drawn from across the business to be the custodians of purpose. And they've come from all ranks, all levels of service. They're the people who are most sort of champions for this agenda. They almost form a shadow board. The CEO, the leadership team really goes to them to help members keep them in check, but also to come up with proactive ideas and ways in which the firm could do things and innovate in a way to sort of live their purpose. And I think that's actually a really powerful way of tapping in the energy and the talent and the ideas of people in organisation who care passionately about this and integrating that into your governance structure. The second thing, andI touched upon this earlier on, what is having a hero initiative. How do you take what can be quite abstract as a purpose or something that happens day today behind the scenes; how do you make that a bit more tangible for people to hold? We think building hero initiatives around a social cause connected to your purpose actually is the way to do that. So, for example, Sanofi very recently launched a global initiative aimed at trying to close the gap in trust of marginalised communities in relation to health care. That was a hero initiative focused on a particular challenge that links back to their purpose of transforming medicine. And that can be a really important proof point for people. Again, it allows individuals to sort of feed into that initiative in different ways, but also as a way of expressing to the world what a very practical form the purpose is. I think there's also finally holding yourself accountable, and this might be in reporting. We have a matrix that we use at Purpose Union, four quadrants and the top quadrant is what's called the catalyst. This is the type of organisation who has embedded purpose in a really effective way and people use that framework day to day. But also it's a type of company that is that faces externally and looks at the system, the big system wide challenges and tries to use their business to address those. And catalysts are the ones who score highly on both those fronts. And I think it's quite useful to have companies every year that don't go, 'Are we a catalyst? Are we getting close to being a catalyst? What's stopping us from being a catalyst?' and reviewing that. And measuring this, taking a temperature inside the organisation and actually being prepared to sort of call it out and celebrate if you have made strides to get there is really important too. But also having a plan for next year, what are we going to do to defend our position as a catalyst in that space? Or at the very least get closer to that.And so I think those three together a really good ways of incubating purpose amongst obviously others.

Ray: [00:28:12] A final question, picking up on what you just said. You use the word measure success. How do organisations measure their success in relation to purpose?

Lewis: [00:28:22]  I think the first is let's ask our people, has it shaped and influenced our thinking? Are you using this day to day in decisions you make, in strategy, in operations, in finance and HR? Do you actually understand what purpose we have, and are you applying it? And then on a more societal level, again, if you have initiatives, are they aligned to that purpose? Is there a clear thread between the hero initiative, for example, and our purpose? And is that initiative having a social impact? Now, of course, as we know, sometimes social impact is quite hard to measure or it's quite easy to measure the outputs as opposed to outcomes. Let's measure how many children we've reached as opposed to what impact it's had on the children that we've reached. And so you may be prepared to have a long term view on that and to measure this (a) over a longer time horizon and (b) probably as part of a consortium or coalition of organizations working on that same challenge. But at very least, having a measure of the societal impact is important. So the story that you can tell is where an organization at the end of the day believes in purpose and our people know what our purpose is and apply it consistently. But also, we know that purpose has led us to do a number of things in our society locally, nationally, globally, which is having an impact. And we can at least start to tell a story of what that looks like and how that shapes. Now, clearly the final thing I'd say is you want to be able to translate that into reputational benefit, not because that's the sole thing you care about, but as I said at the start of our conversation, the business case is important as well. So how do your audiences perceive you as a purpose driven brand? It won't surprise you that when we ask this question of people in workshops or sometimes in polling, the usual suspects come up Patagonia, Unilever, for example, sometimes Nike. So how is this translating into the minds of audiences who we know care about this agenda? And actually, if they can see movement, they can put you into that catalyst category across time, and that's also a success as well. So it's about internal. It's about the social impact you're having. It also about how your audience is perceive you and how you build your reputation for being a purpose driven organisation.

Ray: [00:30:36] Lewis, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you for joining us on the Performance Leaders podcast.

Lewis: [00:30:40] Thank you for having me. I feel very privileged.

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