Will sees purpose as a catalyst for change. He’s not aiming for the communication of a glossy purpose statement in HQ lobbies and annual reports. For Will, purpose enables businesses to make the shift to a new model – one that prioritises people and planet.
Talking about the role of business, Will quotes academic and author Colin Mayer, of Oxford Said Business School: it is “to produce profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet, and not profit from producing problems for people or planet.” “I love doing this work” says Will – “helping business leaders see how their company can do important work that benefits the world, and do it profitably”.
The work is deeply participative: beginning with lots of interviews and conversations. It embraces the wider organisation at every stage, engaging teams in a rich creative process.
Will talks of the joy of “seeing the threads and helping others to see them– there’s huge satisfaction in being part of, and witness to, these lightbulb moments”.
Will brings breadth and depth of experience to the work. Graduating in English Literature, Will joined the Mars graduate scheme and subsequently became a marketer. In those early years of work, Will came to realise fighting over the last 0.1% market share for a European petcare brand wasn’t lighting his fire. Following an early dotcom startup and several years consulting to top multinationals, he was offered the chance to join Unilever, shortly before Paul Polman took the reins. It was perfect timing.
“Paul had no interest in CSR, ” Will says. “He wanted Unilever to prove a new model of sustainable business. For more than 8 years I was lucky to be at the heart of this work – working with Keith Weed, Unilever’s CMO, to bring together the world of brands with the world of sustainability. Purpose was the link between those two worlds. It enabled Unilever and its brands to unify and mobilise employees, consumers and other stakeholders around common ‘sustainable living’ goals. It was such an exciting time.’
Being part of this period of reinvention in Unilever proved to be pivotal for Will. “I built my insights there”, he reflects, “communications, strategy, internal change – some key skills which I’ve since put to use in helping other companies, big and small, become Purpose-driven.”
“Every corporate journey of change is made up of hundreds or thousands of individual change journeys”, Will says. “Our decisions and actions are driven by our worldview and mindsets, and we need to be open to unlearn and relearn”. Going on the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership’s Prince of Wales’ programme was a reappraisal moment. “The teaching staff shared some compelling data about the state of the world, which at that time weren’t being shared in the media: some of those presentations are still in my mind today”. He also embarked on training in coaching with Helen Sieroda at Wise Goose. “It’s a privilege to get to know yourself better and understand how to help other people change, at a 1-to-1 level’.
In 2014 Will took time out from his Unilever role to launch a bold collaborative venture called Collectively. Originating from discussions at the World Economic Forum, Collectively has trialled different forms of digital storytelling, campaigning and collaborative innovation to inspire the shift towards sustainable living and consumption. “We were working with thirty of the world’s biggest multinationals, but the real learning was the value of starting with small experiments.”
Will feels strongly that purpose-driven business, done properly, represents a much-needed paradigm shift in how business is done. However, a lot of corporate purpose work falls far short of this, with companies using it more to look good than to do good. “My goal is to bring rigour to this, ‘says Will, ‘ – to codify it, to bring an approach and methodology, to make sure it is tested, measured for impact and is shown to work for all stakeholders”.
This matters because there’s a danger that poor or superficial work will hasten to fading of interest, making this work a fad: “it’s so easy for discredited work to overwhelm the good work”.
If you’re looking to use purpose as a catalyst for positive change, setting a truly ambitious ‘north star’ and engaging all stakeholders in achieving it, Will may be exactly the thinking partner you need.