Why Your Brand Must “Lead With We” to Drive Growth & Scale Impact (& Even Survive)
For this post, the tables were turned as I sat down with Ian Blake Newhem, host of “The Operative Word” on KABC radio in Los Angeles. He dug into the thesis of my new book, Lead With We, and how any brand can unlock business value and societal impact by applying its insights and strategies. Here are some critical parts of our conversation:
IBN: What is the Lead With We movement? How should we think about it?
SM: Lead With We is a radical reimagining and reengineering of business based on the idea of collectivized purpose, showing how we live, work, and grow together in new ways that restore and protect the social and living systems on which all our futures depend. It’s a thrilling shift in economics and business. A universally applicable prescription with compressed complexity and critical versatility that makes the future we want for ourselves and the generations that follow, not only possible but inevitable — with business at the vanguard.
IBN: What forces are driving the Lead With We movement — generational shifts, investment changes, the pandemic? Are there legacy forces invested in continuing with business-as-usual?
SM: There’s still a lot of legacy thinking and behavior in business and among consumers that we need to overcome. Convincing those with vested interests in the way things have been done, to start doing things differently, is never easy. Nor are the practical matters of getting workable solutions to scale fast enough, starting with generating leadership alignment within organizations and retooling supply chains, products, and marketing in time to solve for looming crises.
Despite some notable holdouts still monopolizing, extracting, and destroying the natural world, a number of exciting changes are underway, which I’m categorizing as Lead With We. The C-Suite needs to care about this shift because media scrutiny on CEOs and companies is increasing dramatically. Overnight, you could lose trust that took years to earn. Businesses can’t attract the talent they need as Millennials and Gen Z want to work for companies that do good — endless surveys prove that. And on the investment front, which you’re right to bring up, we can’t conceptualize a We without looping in the capital, and recognizing the more recent broader influence of the investor class. More and more are agreeing with Larry Fink’s 2020 and ’21 assessments that “climate risk is investment risk,” and a more inclusive economy should be our collective goal.
IBN: What does the state of the world and prospects for our future have to do with the business world? Shouldn’t governments and NGOs handle the social, economic, and environmental issues while business makes money?
SM: That’s the key question, isn’t it? I think of it as the trifecta of stakes, stakeholders, and story that makes everything different this time. Here’s what I mean: For the first time in human history, we have together created a confluence of crises — environmental, economic, and sociopolitical — that threaten our own survival. Stakes. But during the recent pandemic, we all learned firsthand that when those of us in influential positions, like business leaders and consumers, exert a massive, shared effort, there is little we can’t achieve. Stakeholders. We must now extend the urgent and necessary COVID-19 response we undertook, to solve our other, equally imperative challenges, starting with the climate emergency and economic inequality. And that requires a radical rewriting of …
IBN: The business narrative.
SM: Right. So, Story. Why business? Well, in contrast to the NPF or public sectors, the private sector can leverage its extensive resources, reach, and global footprint to mobilize employees, innovation, supply chains — as well as billions of consumers — around the world to rapidly provide solutions at scale to the climate emergency, to social inequity, to economic instability. Foundations, non-profits, and NGOs do not have the resources nor infrastructure to supply global solutions at scale, and have historically been limited by inefficiencies, a lack of collaboration, and, yes, even some misappropriation of funds.
IBN: And governments?
SM: Just turn on the news. Governments around the world are now riddled with corruption, partisanship, and rising nationalism, rather than embracing their mandate to address common issues like the climate emergency at a sufficient pace. They’re also constantly changing with each election cycle.
No, to get solutions at scale, we must motivate both consumers and citizens to think and behave in new ways, and only business can incentivize that through the marketplace.
Finally, isn’t business greatly responsible for the mess we got ourselves into in the first place? So, doesn’t it share the responsibility to help with the cleanup? The good news is that this is not a punishment, not a burden — It’s an opportunity. Yes, this is the challenge of our lifetime — and the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had. After a decade of increased public awareness, pushback from consumers and employees, stricter regulations — not to mention a continual compounding of our interrelated crises — it will be not only incumbent upon business, but necessary for business to survive at all, no less thrive.
IBN: But aren’t business leaders primarily responsible to their shareholders? Doesn’t a business stay in business by growing, succeeding, and prospering? I’m not arguing the validity of “Greed is Good,” but —
SM: Shareholder primacy is a dinosaur about to experience an extinction-level event. Business should be responsible to all the stakeholders in the ecosystem. Which means we need to rethink the traditional idea of “stakeholder.” Maybe we should even reconsider what “shareholder” means: all parties with a share in the future, which includes, well, everyone. Yes, everyone, from our investors to our line workers and everyone in between — they all count. But so does our local community. So do the citizens who are not yet our customers and might not ever be. So do other species. So does the planet itself. So do the next generations we’ll never meet. All of these entities deserve a share of the abundant benefits.
But remember, all these stakeholders also share accountability and responsibility With us.
IBN: So, practically, day-to-day, at my business, to Lead With We means what?
SM: It means that in every decision, strategy, and practice, we ask, “Is this With” one or more of the constituents beyond the traditional shareholders? Or better yet, “Who is this With?” The more constituents and levels our business can reach, the better. Are we working With our consumers? With competitors? With environmental goals? With cultural trends and needs? With positive political influencers? The “Breadth of our With,” or the extent of our collaboration, is rapidly becoming a determinant of corporate health and growth.
And by the way, study after study shows companies that Lead With We this way experience much higher shareholder returns over the years. The vast majority of the research bears that out.
IBN: What’s the number one change that companies of any size must make to be part of the Lead With We movement you’re proposing? How about the real-world obstacles to adoption?
SM: I’m not proposing it. It’s happening. The train has left the station. The number one thing business can do is to collectively (meaning along With their communities, internal and external) shifting their mindsets and practices from profit-led to purpose-led (Me to We). After which, they have to get to work. Bringing their entire supply chain to net positive strategies, reengineering company cultures that are driven by shared values, creating products and services that either solve issues or trigger contributions of all types to address them, and positively serving communities on a local, national, and global scale.
IBN: Isn’t this just the same old purpose-based business advice we’ve been seeing for more than a decade already? What really distinguishes Lead With We from the other major business models and paradigms out there?
SM: No, it’s not the same. Because what we have been doing for a while now — simply shifting business from profit to purpose — is a great step in the right direction — yet not nearly enough, fast enough. All our economic “purpose” efforts to date have taken us from “do no harm” at first, to a net-neutral impact at best. But we must now progress from our remedial mentality to a proactive stance, where we prevent problems before they emerge. I see the best way of doing that is by embracing a revolutionary new mindset, narrative, and practice of capitalism we’re calling Lead With We. Which turns on the power of collectivized purpose, in which all stakeholders work together to protect the integrity of the whole — social, economic, and natural ecosystems — so that all constituents may thrive.
IBN: I’m going to get back to that phrase, “Collectivized Purpose” soon, but it seems like you’re defining “Lead With We” in a couple of different ways. Is that right?
SM: Yes. Lead With We serves at once as a new point of departure for all stakeholders in our future; a process prescription and decision-making engine that redefines the role of business leaders, entrepreneurs, and consumers; and a higher order aspiration that reconnects humanity and the Earth on which it depends.
IBN: But aren’t you espousing socialism or even communism? Isn’t the whole Western culture based on capitalism and democracy? And why are you advocating constant collaboration, even across sectors — even with competition? Won’t we lose our market edge or even worse, our intellectual property?
SM: Let me handle those two parts of the question separately. The Lead With We movement collectivizes purpose. Which simply means the process becomes the purpose. And I’m learning that it’s important to clarify that I’m not advocating communism or even socialism. I’m a diehard capitalist. This is just a far better form of capitalism, and a more just and fair democracy. A We First framework will preserve a more equitable capitalism. The Lead With We evolution mends and protects capitalistic society for the next generations, the doubters, and the disenfranchised. And let’s remember there’s a huge, missed opportunity in the upside of optimizing capitalism to better serve more people and the planet we all depend on.
Now, you asked about competition, and I love this question. An exhilarating area in industry transformation has been dubbed “pre-competitive collaboration.” I like what my colleague, Harvard professor Rebecca Henderson, writes in her book, Reimagining Capitalism: “We need to build strong, multi-stakeholder collaboration around pressing global challenges that can only be addressed at the industry level.” Exactly.
The Pre-Competitive Collaboration (PCC) movement, well underway now, was arguably born out of the greater Open Innovation movement, which itself was a natural offshoot of the Open Source Initiative. Along those lines, we’ve seen, for example, IBM’s Call for Code (CFC) Global Challenge created with a charitable partner, UN Human Rights. It’s one of the most impressive of a series of businesses inviting developers and other problem-solvers around the world to build innovative solutions to combat the most pressing, interconnected problems of our time, such as the climate emergency. Together with the Linux Foundation, top solutions are open-sourced — AI, the cloud, and the Internet of Things — and deployed quickly for everyone to use at scale across the world.
It just makes sense: Say you’re a pharmaceutical giant wanting to get to market quickly. Why not consider taking the minor risk of working in an open consortium of other companies? Or at least one or two of your ostensible “rivals?” Each company would share its knowledge and experience With others, rather than hoarding patents on molecules in the hopes of maybe someday developing a breakthrough drug. When each collaborating partner is invested first in the purpose of the undertaking (in this case, solving some scientific conundrum) rather than its commercial potential, then the group (the We) can go further, faster. And everyone, ideally, can share a piece of the crowd-crafted pie. We share the burden. We share the benefits.
That’s the secret behind how several wildly effective COVID-19 vaccines came to fruition in astoundingly record-breaking time in 2020 and 2021, with many more in the pipeline — having saved who knows how many millions of lives? Did it cost these companies to “give up” their precious IP? Go ahead and look up last quarter’s earnings of Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, or Johnson & Johnson. None of these companies is crying.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella states it well in his most recent letter that opens the company’s annual report: “No one company, industry, or country can solve these challenges alone. While our own actions are important, our most critical contribution will come from sharing our learnings and helping other organizations achieve their own goals for a better future too.”
IBN: I see in the book lots of references to “circular” and “regenerative” practices: How is that goal different from the sustainability mandate that we’re all already used to?
SM: Regeneration is simply the next level of sustainability many companies are rightly aiming for. Every year scientists discover more details about the myriad ways that nature is sustainable because of the regenerative/circular dynamics that make nature — when undisturbed by human footprints — thrive. Actually, nature’s not merely sustainable — it’s regenerative. The business world can stand to study interdependent life-support systems at the heart of the natural world: compassion, healing, solidarity, diversity, and resourcefulness. The perpetual adaptive cycle of birth, death, and renewal in dynamic loops. I’m at all the first to suggest this.
Indeed, this kind of thinking — which many call biomimicry, with credit to my colleague Janine Benyus — has begun to saturate the business world. Companies great and small are taking the Lead, together, in an act of restorative ecology enabled by business. Adopting business systems that imitate more natural diversity across all supply chains. We saw this time and again during the pandemic, when companies of all types and sizes adapted on the fly in both production and organization, each fulfilling a different critical need based on its nature. Continuing to expose generative and regenerative — rather than extractive and destructive — forces in the natural world will allow us to imitate them, to leverage them for good in the business world. Sequestering carbon and other regenerative agricultural initiatives. Pulling carbon out of the air with your floor tiles or your vodka distilling process. Paying your employees and supply chain partners a living wage so they can feed their children. Clean energy. Fair and just labor practices. Real Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Those are the secrets to achieving a flourishing resilience for your business. That’s the story people want to hear, and want to see made real.
IBN: You also talk a lot about stories, the business narrative. Why is storytelling so important in reshaping the role of business and how can it help all of us rewrite our future? How do the marketing, advertising, and sales departments have to change the story they’re telling customers and consumers?
SM: New voices are telling a very different story about business leadership than we heard in J. P. Morgan’s or J. P. Getty’s time — or even just a decade ago. There’s an entirely new and more effective way of looking at and understanding how business and the economy can serve the collective. We must tell that story to ourselves and others starting now, until it’s embedded and practiced daily by all of us, across all our boards, departments, lines of business, communities, etc.
We’ve changed the story of other major cultural phenomena before — now we must change this one to Lead With We. Initiate this new story of business, wherein We all approach our shared responsibility for our future with optimism and hope and employ our empathy and excitement to inspire others to join With us and this movement.
SM: How do you tell that story? There are a few ways we can do this but most of them come down to this: Humanize your business by sharing people-focused stories that remind us all of our shared responsibility, agency, and impact, while also securing and scaling engagement by all stakeholders and partners. So, don’t look inward, face outward. You’re not the celebrity here, you’re not the star. Instead, celebrate your community. Show your impact on the real people in the real world with real challenges. Move from advertising to advocacy, from marketing to movement-making, from selling widgets to solving problems, maybe even saving the world.
IBN: You say “save the world.” But how in such a polarized world? When should companies take a stand on societal issues, and isn’t that risky? Isn’t it safer to stay quiet or at least neutral on issues likely to be social or political hot buttons?
SM: This can be complicated. The short, maybe glib, answer is … never. Consumers interpret neutrality as complicity. And not taking a stand for or against, say, racism, homophobia, gun control, plastics in the ocean, immigration, the erosion of voting rights, whatever — is taking a stand. Trust is at stake here. Not to mention the pragmatic bottom line: Consider how recently the climate emergency is demolishing corporate supply chains. Or the effect of global health on business and the economy. The most dangerous thing a company can do is try to play safe. We only alienate loyalists on both sides of any issue, and risk atrophying hard-won reputation capital that can take us years to recover. Take a stand. Deepen the commitment of brand loyalists. Shore up your relevance to the future. Just do it with authenticity. Be prepared to defend your interest in whatever issue it is — and why it matters to you and the communities you serve.
IBN: Thanks so much. Where can people learn more about the Lead With We movement?
SM: LeadWithWe.com — you can buy books there, too! Thanks for helping to spread this word, Blake.
You can order the book here, and for a deeper dive into Lead With We companies, check out our podcast here, so that you too can build a company that transforms business culture, consumer behavior, and our future.