Company Health (Beyond Profit)

youdo talks to James Kirkham about all things company culture. Episode 7, Part 3

Luke - I've been following a lot of the content you've been putting out on LinkedIn. Recently you’ve been talking about something very interesting, that is the change that has happened over the last few years in terms of where people are placing their trust. One of the points you make is that, sadly, we don't necessarily look at acknowledged institutions, like governments, for that anymore. And you talk about the younger demographic now looking to place their trust in individuals like athletes, artists & musicians. Where do you see brands and companies fitting into this landscape?

James - I guess there’s the perspective of me in my 40s and then someone like my 13 year old son who thinks nothing of a football player like Troy Deeney - who has a relatively low profile in comparison to a Raheem Sterling or a Marcus Rashford - speaking with genuine legitimacy about diversity in the school curriculum in the UK. What Rashford has done is so well documented, and rightly so. And Raheem Sterling was a nominee for the figurehead against racism. Sterling never set out to do this. He was just taken apart by some parts of the tabloid press in about 2016. And a few businesses like COPA90 got together and using the voice of the fans said ‘this is disgraceful' and they elevated that fan voice. Raheem is very natural and brilliantly eloquent on this subject. He’s very outspoken, and it's that outspokenness that appeals to the young.

I guess my point is that people like Sterling and Rashford and Deeny are so natural to coalesce around for a young person. So any young person thinks ‘I feel like that person, I look like them, I'm from that part of London, wherever it is’. At exactly the same time, they've never found politics more - frankly, comic. You know, young people saw Trump and Johnson - and I'm not even talking about where anyone sits on a political spectrum - but they see them as clown-like buffoons. They're outspoken in a different way, doing things that are abnormal for a young mind, like wall building and creating division. So when those two things are coinciding, then very naturally, they go, ‘Well, I know where I’m going to go for my answers. And my leaders look like these guys’.

Artists and athletes are now commonly more culturally symbolic. Stormzy is another brilliant current example. Absolutely iconic as an individual. Merky FC is the very latest in a long, long line of brilliant initiatives.

Merky FC

Where does the company piece fit is an interesting ask, because I'm not sure there's a brand in the land worth their salt, that doesn’t know that they need to adhere to a policy of purpose, and a sense of where they stand and how far they are prepared to go, I think is an ongoing journey for companies. Are they prepared to cross the line? Are they really prepared to put their money where their mouth is on this issue or that issue? That's why Patagonia and the like are elevated to godlike status. Their output is good and prolific and stands the test of time, and they deserve all the plaudits and credits that they get.

I think other brands don't know. They need businesses, they need experts, they need consultants, whoever it might be, to help them on the journey. For them it’s more like ‘So for the issue, we should say this, but I don't know if I'm going to piss off the government or a client or similar’. We're in a very polarised society. Everything is very, very polemic. It's hard to be nuanced and right and with a set of shared values these days because you will get accused of being on one side or the other and there’s so little middle ground. So you can imagine the CEO with 150 staff, and a 20 million turnover or a publicly listed business, for them this is a big gamble to be taken. Now I believe that it’s the right gamble, but I also understand the parameters that business leaders have to work within.

Luke - So what’s the right level of expectation for the corporate sector? A company’s primary purpose is to build this product or deliver that service….

James - That’s a great point. Look at General Motors, one of the biggest companies ever formed. Their purpose was to build cars. Should that now change to something like “our purpose is to build cars but not at the expense of the world around us”?

Luke - Something like that, maybe “we have to do it in a way that is mindful of our impact as a business”? I think that mindfulness is the key caveat and from a product perspective that can be truly inspiring. The founders of Allbirds didn't set out to make the most sustainable pair of shoes ever made at that time, they set out to make a really, really good pair of shoes.

James - I’m not sure why this thought has popped into my mind as we’ve been talking about shoes but I think it's the use of the platform that is so key. We're having this conversation today with the World Cup happening (editor's note: it was when we did the interview!), in a place with a more than questionable human rights history and background. And there's this question about whether you should be there at all? And there are lots of commentators who’ve gone and are speaking out because it gives them a platform to do so. I think I err on the side of that being the right approach.

My example is someone like Sky who I think do an unbelievable job with the climate issue using their own platform. It’s their broadcasting, it is all over their content and their office(!). Now I guess my point here is there's a healthy, genuine debate to be had over whether the owner of Sky has been great for the world or not? BUT is what’s most important that these brands and companies use whatever platform they have to educate the planet? I feel like as long as there is that effort on their part, then that's the most important thing of all.

Luke - That feels like a beautiful moment to end on! James, thank you.