Organizational Change
Q&A:
Simon Mainwaring on Teaching Companies to ‘Live to Serve Life Itself’

Join us in Detroit this June for the largest global gathering of brand and sustainability leaders at SB'19 Detroit.

Simon Mainwaring has an “all-hands-on-deck” sense of purpose — and that purpose is to help us find ours.

This is one of a series of interviews by students and alumni from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) with practitioners from the Sustainable Brands community, on a variety of ways organizations can, and are, Redesigning the Good Life.

Simon Mainwaring, founder and CEO of We First, has an “all-hands-on-deck” sense of purpose — and that purpose is to help us find ours. He led attendees of SB’18 Vancouver, in June, through a hands-on, collaborative “CMO Accelerator: A Crash Course in Redesigning Brand Purpose.” Meanwhile, for those interested in jumpstarting their impact through purpose, the new online educational platform, [We First Works](http://www.wefirstbranding.com/we-first-works), can help.

We recently caught up with Mainwaring to learn more about his purpose and connection to “The Good Life.”

This is the third year Sustainable Brands’ theme has focused on “The Good Life.” What does “the good life” mean to you?

Simon Mainwaring: I think the good life is one in which the way we live our lives serves life itself. It’s not about doing less bad anymore — it’s about doing more good. We see that in the form of companies becoming net-positive, energy-wise; in the form of product innovation that takes things that are harmful to the planet, such as ocean plastics, and repurposes them into products that consumers love; we see it in the form of company cultures that celebrate the human being — each employee. I think the good life is really about living in a way that celebrates life and adds value to life, rather than taking away from it.

What would you redesign to “live our lives to serve life itself”?

SM: I think I’d redesign people’s mindsets. Everything is a function of how we think — that forms our behavior and in turn defines our impact. I’d reconnect us with many of the insights from indigenous people and first nations around the world — and with our symbiotic relationship with the natural world. We are just one part of a much larger ecosystem of species and plants that are all one — fundamentally, codependent on each other as we all share one fragile planet — in which case, we should play a meaningful role to that end, rather than thinking that somehow we are absolved from our responsibilities to care for other things.

One of We First’s brand beliefs is that “Social technology is teaching us to be human again.” How might this belief contribute to “the Good Life”?

SM: I believe that social technology is teaching us to be human again because it has facilitated a dialog between institutions and citizens, brands and consumers — so the monopoly on media channels that were held for a long time by corporations and institutions is no longer the case. As a function of conversation, you need to give both people air time — both need to listen — and if you’re an institution or brand, you need to win over a citizen or a consumer and build trust. After that, you need to lead with a quality and make sure you share values that are meaningful to [your audience] and bring those to life in ways that demonstrate authentic commitment and measurable impact. If you do that, then all parties experience a deeper relationship — and over time, your stakeholders and consumers will build your business with you.

What is We First Works and who can benefit from it?

SM: We First Works is an online platform that takes best practices in terms of defining your personal and company purpose, and bringing it to life in a way that anyone — from any organization, of any size — can quickly understand and apply to their business to unlock value to that business. All of the insights that we’ve learned from working with wonderful companies … and brands have really been built into a very easy to follow, step-by-step process that allows you to unlock the value of purpose inside your organization and to get the most out of your people — to make sure you’re as relevant and resonant with consumers and younger demographics today, so they are inspired to build your business with you. This is a business-building tool because we find ourselves working in a marketplace where people want to know the good that a company is doing, and they want to support companies that are doing good.

At We First, we are passionate about taking the insights and learnings that we’ve gained through our work with many of the top global brands and making them available to more people — not just in isolation or individual companies, but as a collective — so we can work individually and collaborate collectively to scale our positive impact, at a time where it is needed more than ever.

Simon Mainwaring leads a CMO Accelerator at SB'18 Vancouver | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

How did the idea for We First Works come about? What drove you to build this learning experience?

SM: We First Works was a result of hearing from many entrepreneurs and organizations about the challenges they were facing to define, integrate and scale their purpose and their appetite to make a difference. So, we took a lot of the work we had done inside of many corporations, startups and high-growth companies and codified it into a practice. We married the best of it to a learning platform … so there should be no barrier for any company of any size to understand how to define their purpose and how to activate it. By doing so, we can have more people rise to this challenge of using business as a force for good. When we do so, it not only enriches our own life but everyone’s lives — and I think, hopefully, that will become the new normal moving forward.

Since the launch of your bestselling book, We First: How Brands & Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, what changes in the landscape of social technology and brand/consumer relationships have been inspiring?

SM: There have been a lot of circumstances that were inspiring, from the initial engagement around Arab Spring movement, and the ability of citizens and consumers to not only find out the truth, but share it more readily with each other. There have also been countless examples of consumers leading activism against brands that have been behaving poorly — or saying they believe in one thing and doing another.

There’s also been some frustrations. Platforms…are currently being challenged as to how transparent they are about the data they’re collecting, how they use it, and what they’re doing in terms of selling it to advertisers. Every technology is a double-edge sword. In some way, it connects people and makes our lives richer; in other ways, [it] is being used to target and manipulate audiences in ways that are not necessarily healthy. The world has changed a lot, as a function of sophistication and maturity of social media. What we’re seeing right now is a watershed moment where institutions, citizens, consumers around the world are saying you need to be more responsible and transparent about what you’re doing with our data.

What current challenge or opportunity sticks out as something to consider further, as people and companies aspire to creating a better world together?

SM: I think we are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges we face and how they’re much larger than anything one company can do on its own. In which case, the challenge moving forward is how we work together to scale our impact. We’re going to need to partner more, become more collaborative in nature and work together to serve issues higher than ourselves.

I suppose there is always a tension between necessary self-interest for companies — especially if they are public and have shareholders — and the collective wellbeing. There’s an ongoing dialog as companies try to thread this needle between growth and contribution. As the world becomes more and more challenging — and more people are suffering the consequences or becoming more displaced — it’s going to become more and more important for businesses to play a positive role.

What thought would you like to people to take out into the world?

SM: There’s a very powerful through-line when you are aligned with your personal purpose and your company’s purpose, too. You transform your experience of life, because who you are as a person and what you do on a daily basis are in alignment. And that’s when you find the fulfillment and satisfaction that so many people want in their life. That is a true gift we can give to ourselves as well as others. I think that is a great opportunity for all of us.

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