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Business ‘First Responders:’ How Can Companies Thrive While Solving for Relentless, Real-Time Crises?

In his new book, “Lead With We,” Simon Mainwaring urges business leaders to adopt a ‘first-responder’ mindset — and provides a blueprint for a proactive, ‘prepare for anything’ approach that enables them to lead with purpose in an increasingly challenged world.

Renowned author, speaker and branding consultant Simon Mainwaring and his agency, We First, have been advising some of the world’s most successful and impactful companies on how to lead for the triple-bottom-line future we need for over a decade. His just-released second book, Lead With We, digs deeper into the theme and provides a blueprint for purpose-driven businesses that thrive while tackling some of our most pressing societal challenges.

We spoke with Mainwaring to learn more about how business leaders can adopt the 'first-responder' mindset necessary to navigate an increasingly challenged world.

Your book, podcast and blog have all recommended business become a ‘rirst responder,’ especially after what the world learned from the pandemic. Why is it up to business to solve social and environmental challenges?

Simon Mainwaring: My argument is that only business has the reach, resources and, yes, responsibility to respond at scale to the interrelated social, environmental and global challenges we now face as a species. Our ‘next normal’ will continue to be characterized by the co-existence of destabilizing challenges, with business positioned on the front line. And those companies that endure and prosper — “sustainable brands” — will be the ones that have thought deeply, prepared extensively and rolled out appropriately a “first responder” strategy. We’ve all just seen many, many companies such as Dyson, PayPal, VF Corp, GM, Ford, Unilever — as well as countless smaller businesses and startups — whose leaders and employees have responded directly to crises while simultaneously fortifying their business growth and brand reputation.

Critics could argue that business can’t survive yet another burden: What’s the counter to that argument?

SM: That the state of the world provides business an unprecedented opportunity wrapped in an ostensible burden. But think about it: Emergency workers don’t dread the 911 call. They rely on wide-ranging preparation — endless training for every scenario. They run drills to make sure they’re ready for whatever happens in the field. So, too, should business. Build and templatize a first-responder plan based on successful past responses and best practices, so they can innovate and spin it up more quickly and effectively moving forward.

In other words, carry through lessons from their COVID response? Assume that in general, things might not stabilize for a long time?

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SM: Exactly. Because the next global crisis is inevitable. Business can either hope for the best or prepare for the next problem coming down the road. I’m saying the ones best prepared are stacking the cards in favor of their survival. Plus, the kinds of responses I’m talking about provide a huge amount of good in the world, as well.

What kind of good, specifically? Practical things, such as PPE during a global health crisis?

SM: That’s a recent great example of businesses large and small putting the health and wellbeing of people and the planet before profit. This whole ‘first responder’ premise might start with that simple shift in thinking. You know, become a sustainable brand by helping society, somehow — because business can’t survive in societies that fail. So, social good companies such as Beyond Meat and Lyft provide obvious examples; but revolutions are also underway in clean beauty, food and fashion, practicing “revenue through reputation” in times of crises. Other companies, such as Walmart and Home Depot and lots of others are undergoing comprehensive clean and renewable energy transitions — necessary as the cornerstone of climate action, the number-one priority for any business intending to maintain relevance and prosper over the long run.

So, sure: Repurposing products and services to solve for critical needs in real time is a great example. But the spectrum of ways that companies have not only responded appropriately to immediate needs — PPE equipment, meals for hospital staff and first responders, etc — is most relevant when considered in the context of them having done so in alignment with their unique company purposes, products and partnerships. It’s a lot like the way nature works: Everyone does their own part, and the sum is greater than the individual parts.

And we’re seeing it far beyond the US — Colombia’s Daabon; the NetherlandsVanderlande; Spain’s Inditex; Switzerland’s Mammut and Nestlé; France’s Danone, Sodexo, Lacoste and Sephora. Mexico’s Orbia. There are Indian companies, Chinese, South American — the list goes on.

What’s the first step in evolving your leadership into this first-responder mindset?

SM: Well, after committing fully to putting people over profit — which by the way, a lot of research shows is one of the most surefire ways to increase your bottom line — I recommend that companies back out of the future, rather than build on the past. The better business understands the compounding challenges hurtling back from the future, the more effectively it can prepare for those eventualities-inevitabilities. In fact, companies of all sizes will soon face a hockey-stick of expectation in terms of their responsibility — and stakeholder expectations — to address social and environmental challenges. That’s already happening with new generations of employees and more scrupulous consumers, not to mention new regulations and other scrutiny. I’m thinking of companies like TOMS and Dr. Bronner’s that are now shifting their long-standing impact models to respond to the environmental emergency in line with their business response to COVID-19.

What else do you see coming? What’s the future you’re recommending businesses back out of?

SM: At the risk of sounding too shrill — I see great cause for hope and optimism — we’re in real trouble. A catastrophic climate “Code Red,” as the UN just put it. A yawning chasm between the so-called 1 percent and the rest of the world — gross economic and social inequity. Democracy itself is under massive attack. Shall I go on?

So, why are you optimistic? Why should we all be?

SM: Because this movement of movements is well underway. As I said, large companies — such as IKEA, Novo Nordisk, LEGO and Procter & Gamble — have all pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from their operations and value chains in relatively short order, revealing ways that smaller companies — even Mom & Pops — can scale such efforts to their size and resources. There was a time when such environmental proactivity was “nice to do” by only the best-resourced companies. Now, as the IPCC's Sixth assessment detailed, it’s a five-alarm fire that we all must respond to post haste. We’re seeing it through Sustainable Brands™’ mission and the evidence of its effect. We’re seeing it in the B Corp movement. In a plethora of new industry alliances; new, unified ESG metrics. Amazingly innovative, ethically directed tools in more people’s hands.

I think we’re seeing more inclusive messaging to bridge deeply polarized people, issues and politics, and build social movements that shift thinking and behavior. Cross-sector collaborations as we’ve never seen before. So, yes, I’m optimistic. But the situation is no less urgent. We have to continue to tell a new, more urgent and optimistic story that’s emotionally resonant. This revolution won’t work unless “We” all join together — that’s why I call the larger movement Lead With We. It’s inspired by the emotional power to drive behavioral shifts by tapping into instincts hardwired within all of us — our connection as a human family, our deep bonds to nature, our intuitive understanding of the value of coherence, and unity versus separation and division.

How can brands strategize real-time scenarios to protect their business and support others?

SM: The glib answer is “Prepare for anything and expect the worst.” If you’re a small or medium company, study the fascinating and effective “crisis plans” in place at major corporations such as Unilever and Toyota. Remember that no matter how well they plan and how creative their imaginations, emergency workers constantly encounter thorny problems in real-world emergencies. From a business and brand strategy standpoint, you can anticipate problem types (civil unrest, public health crises, social/cultural movements, terrorism, environmental/climatological catastrophes, infrastructure degradation), so you can adapt your planned responses accordingly. Were we talking in our 2019 board rooms, C-Suites and factory floors of global economic shutdowns? Major supply chain logjams? Panic buying? Huge unemployment? Mass, nationwide protests? Whole sectors decimated? Millions of people dying? All from a bat or a pangolin or a slipup at some lab somewhere? Anything can happen.

You mentioned collaborations as key …

SM: Right. That’s the “With” and the “We” I’m talking about. Partnering in new ways to scale your response and impact. High-level partnerships, including precompetitive collaboration and cross-sector alliances — maybe best exemplified by IBM’s “Call for Code,” will be the key to effective crisis response — call it “mutual aid.” That’s the only way we got effective COVID vaccines in record time.

Final advice for companies to evolve and prep this way?

SM: First responders spend as much or more time proactively working on preventing future emergencies than they do in responding to the ones right in front of them. Leading your business during a pandemic might seem like a burden — but it’s providing the critical training every brand needs to secure a better, stronger and faster crisis response to not only survive in the face of relentless crises, but also to strengthen the relevance, resonance and returns of their companies.

For an actionable blueprint of how your company can become a first responder and ‘Lead With We,’ order Simon’s new book at