S2E13 - Will Gardner

An experienced strategist, marketer and change leader, Will Gardner supports leaders in making their businesses Purpose- and Values-driven, from the inside out.

He believes Purposeful business is the key to unleash the full potential of employees, customers, and partners to do extraordinary things for people, planet and profit. It takes logic and magic to do it brilliantly: the logic of a well-crafted strategy and disciplined execution; the magic of compelling storytelling to draw people in and inspire them to action.

He is a B Leader, a Vistage speaker, an RSA Fellow and an Ambassador for the Positive Innovation Club.


W.R: (00:08) Welcome back to the Green Element podcast where we feature business leaders and innovators transforming their operations to be more environmentally and socially sustainable. I’m your host Will Richardson and I can’t wait to meet our guest today and help you on your journey of sustainability. 

W.R: (00:28) Welcome Will Gardener to the Green Element podcast. Thank you so much for coming on today, Will. You are a speaker and sustainability and purpose driven consultants. That was a weird way of putting it, wasn’t it? A consultant within the purpose driven world. Thank you so much for coming on today. I’m looking forward to hearing more about you and how you help people.

W.G: (00:50) It’s a pleasure.

W.R: (00:52) So, Will, I guess let’s start by just understanding a bit about you and where you work and what you’re currently working on to give us a bit of an understanding. 

W.G: (01:02) Yeah, sure. So, look, thanks Will for inviting on this. So, I work as you say, independently as a consultants and speaker focusing fully on helping business leaders to make their businesses purpose and values driven from the inside out. I’m a marketer by background and I guess I’m fascinated by people’s motivations and behaviors and of course, for in a commercial sense that that’ll be, I suppose, links to marketing but I think in the space I’m in now, I’m excited by, you know, how can we achieve good things for the world by tapping into people’s motivations and by effecting their behaviors. 

W.R: (01:49) And do you find your marketing background really helps in this? 

W.G: (01:53) Yeah. I think because a lot of it’s about, you know, being really curious and insight driven, really trying to understand what makes people tick, what makes people want to step towards something and being engaged in it. And I think that the challenge that we’ve got within the sustainability area and business is one of, you know, I think it is almost as if we know exactly what we need to do, but we need to find the right ways to engage, persuade and cajole each other and everybody to play their role in that and so I sometimes think of my kind of purpose in this phase in my career as being, to make the long term common interest more exciting and more attractive than short term self-interest. So, it’s almost like a, it’s like a, a marketing job on this kind of concept of kind of common interest and what’s good for business in the future world. 

W.R: (02:58) And what sort of businesses do you work with? 

W.G: (03:01) So, when I’m working on my own, kind of independently, I work mostly with SMEs and startups as clients and they range across different sectors. So, recently, professional services, financial services. I’ve worked in executive education, food, biodegradable plastics. So a reasonably big range and, but then, you know, I also have a number of kind of affiliations which takes me as different areas. So, for example, I’m a speaker on a network called Vistage, which is all about peer groups of CEOs of small, medium sized businesses around the country and so I go and speak to these peer groups about purpose driven business and how they can move their companies towards that. I’m a B leader, which is common affiliation with the B Corp Movement and I also sometimes partner with agencies and consultancies on bigger projects with bigger clients where to be honest, if I was working on my own, it would be in piping or barnacle on the side of an oil tanker but if I can combine with other people we can do more things more quickly.

W.R: (04:09) That makes a lot of sense. I’m curious to know about Vistage and the sort of questions that come up and how you feel that the appetite is for purpose driven businesses within the, that kind of arena within the SME market because you’re primed to be able to understand that. 

W.G: (04:28) Yeah, it’s really intriguing. I mean I suppose as, as everything kind of purpose related, people come at it from very different angles and I think that part of the challenge that, with the opportunity I have is to kind of almost meet people where they are and then kind of guide them to what they can do next. So, for example, I think there’s a lot of SME, small, medium size enterprise CEOs who are quite aware of and thinking hard about values and culture. I think that’s very common. So, that’s a really good starting place in terms of how they can run a business where they’re kind of seeing the human potential in their employees and helping them to kind of step up and, and work both in a way that’s highly engaged in [Inaudible 05:17] but also ethical. I think we’re seeing a lot of that. There’s less immediate, I suppose, interest, in terms of people coming from an environmental perspective because I think a lot of these companies don’t see their footprints as being particularly big. So, the only kind of angle there is if a certain company feels this could be that differentiator. [Inaudible 05:42] sometimes find that, but, but often they don’t see that as being the big thing. So, yeah, I think what I tend to do is I’ll have say 10 CEOs in the room. By the end of spending a few hours with them, I’d say everybody is intrigued. Maybe three of them are saying, yeah, I’d like to do something with this out of who one is maybe going, wow, you know, this is the future for my business. 

W.R: (06:07) Right. How do you think we’re going to change that? Because you do hear this about sustainability and saying, oh, my footprint is not big enough. I’m probably not going to do much about it But that whole adage of look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves, absolutely fits into this and we really do need SMEs to be thinking about that environmental footprint.

W.G: (06:31) Yeah. Well it’s, it’s, it’s a really big question and I think a lot of the, a lot of the challenge is that this feels too, you know, a busy time-pressed, small company CEO to be a kind of, potentially, almost, a big and quite complex kind of new area to get into where, I’m afraid to be frank, they’re not necessarily seeing there’s going to be a financial benefit to them. So, you know, not that, that particularly kind of helps us, those of us who are, you know, wanting to move the entirety of the business world on a sustainable footing. But I think that there are a number of keys to unlocking that. I think one of them is about the kind of demystifying and de-coding. So you know, obviously you’re very involved in particular in, in the whole area of carbon emissions and CO2 reduction and how we can make that just really simple and kind of modular for people to understand what they need to do. 

W.G: (07:35) I think the other part of it is helping people to link it where they can to, you know, the bottom line benefits, which sometimes, of course, is simple because it’s just cost related and it’ll actually be cheaper if you do it in a more simple way. And sometimes, and this is what I spend more of my time doing, it’s about saying, you know what if you do this, but in the context of being a more purpose driven enterprise, you’ll be able to, you know, differentiate in the marketplace with your customers, you’ll be able to recruit passionate purpose driven people, et cetera. But I think it’s, it’s setting in the context of growth that, that makes the link. 

W.R: (08:20) Yeah, absolutely and it’s that staff and colleagues and employment. I really do think, and maybe I live in a naive optimistic world, but I think that graduates and people are not going to want to work in an organization that hasn’t looked at and reduced their environmental impact in the short, I think in the short period, in the short future, not even long-term. 

W.G: (08:49) Yeah, I agree. No, and I think that we’re seeing, you know, hugely more examples of where, you know, there’s real pressure, especially within big companies from the employee base for getting leadership to get their heads around that agenda and to be much bolder and much faster on what they do. 

W.R: (09:18) How do you engage your customers with a mission and purpose? What are some ways that you can do that? 

W.G: (09:17) Well, I mean, you know, what I normally find is that the first big challenge in any company is all about, you know, board and executive team buy-in. And you know, I’m guessing there might be a lot of listeners in this podcast who will be thinking to themselves, look I’d love to do more of this work, but I’m just working in a business where there’s too many people at the senior level who just don’t get it yet. Really typical. So, I might well have a conversation with, maybe it’s a CEO, maybe it’s somebody else who’s on the executive team and they’ll say to me, here’s where we are, you know, there’s a least half of the executive team have got no interest in this. So, how can we get this off the ground? And that becomes a kind of a first project step really often, you know, kind of dumb grasses to, you know, have the client be able to step in without sharing out to that stage of work but, and for me, the message is that in a most businesses ,often without even almost realizing it, are actually going to extracting value from the kind of the system and the stakeholders on which they depend for their future growth and livelihoods. So, for example, they’re kind of unconsciously or sometimes consciously eroding trust of their customers by, you know, kind of taking them for a ride. They’re de-motivating their workforce, you know, by again you know, not looking after people, not empowering them and not seeing their potential. They’re damaging the environments. And so you know, this first stage for me is all about spending time with the executive team and board and helping them to understand what the purpose driven business movement is about and why it not only makes, you know, clear long term sense that this is where capitalism as a whole has got to move to, but also actually makes reasonably short term sense for that company to make a big move. 

W.G: (11:20) And what normally I suppose when the, you know, the penny drops for people when they see the, a lot of the work that they’re sort of feeling they have to do anyway kind of comes together. So they might be working on compliance, ethical compliance policies that they find dreadfully boring and dreary and, but they know they have to do it somewhere else, they will have an environmental manager who’s desperately trying to kind of get business interest in it, but everyone just sees him or her as just kind of working away on the necessities. They might be doing an HR on agile working and what they don’t understand until we really get into it is that actually being truly purpose-driven brings all these things together into a world of, of potential and of participation where different people in the business can say, wow, you know, this is the kind of business we want to become. I’m putting my hand up, what role can I play? 

W.R: (12:16) That’s very interesting. And it is all about that senior leadership isn’t it? And it’s all about how to help the organization from top down with that kind of stuff?

W.G: (12:30) Yeah. And, and I think the, you know, the other, the next kind of almost unlocking part of this is, you know, a lot of companies think about the kind of what’s our purpose statements and sometimes there’s a bit of cynicism and kind around these things that, you know, people see businesses with purpose statements and they kind of go, well that looks like some kind of, you know, Ad Agency or marketing kind of schmozzle that doesn’t really mean anything and it seems to be an expensive exercise for little benefits. For me, it is not really about the kind of the statements as such. It’s about the idea that your putting together a kind of a narrative that explains the role that your business is playing in the world. 

W.G: (13:19) So for example, it starts with saying, this is what we as a company think that was going on in the world in our sector. It’s I’ve kind of world view and here’s a problem that we see that we think is a real problem in this sector, where maybe customers are suffering or the environment suffering, et cetera. This is how we believe that the world could be made better and therefore this is our purpose as an organization because we decided that we’re going to stand up for that thing and lastly here is how we’re going to go about changing it. So there’s a kind of a golden thread that runs through that narrative. And what I’ve always seen is if you have a CEO leadership team they can thread that together really powerfully in a way that everyone can see is exciting for employees, make sense for customers, has lots of kind of co-benefits maybe for the environments or for the community. Then suddenly unleashes this enthusiasm and energy because it just makes sense. 

W.R: (14:26) Yeah. Yeah, that’s really useful advice. Can you offer one piece of advice to my listeners that could help them with that purpose and what would that be? 

W.G: (14:38) The most important things to do, going back to something I said earlier on, is to get into this question of motivations and to, almost as a starting point for purpose, just to really curious about what it is that makes your different stakeholders tick and that, you know, that’s definitely, of course, different people know, kind of, so called leadership team, its employees at large within the business is your customers. They could be other partners, suppliers, regulators, you know, all sorts of different stakeholders within your overall system. But also depending on the kind of sector you’re in, go and talk to the critics of that sector. It could be NGOs, activists, people who are criticizing what’s going on and understand from them what that criticism is about and how that sector could be made better. So, digging into needs, wants, motivations is incredibly powerful place to start because, you know, purpose is all about like a shared ambition and you’re never going to get that sense of kind of shared excitement about a purpose between different stake holders unless you first get curious about them. 

W.R: (15:59) Yeah, that makes a huge amount of sense. So, how did you end up in this space and you’d been working in this space with, what, eight, 10 years now and your earlier career was in marketing. What was that transition? Were you always interested in more purpose driven, sustainable businesses and it just ended up, what’s your story? How did it all come about? 

W.G: (16:27) I started my career as a graduate trainee in Mars, the chocolate company there was, I was actually working in their lesser well-known pet care division. That’s things like whiskers and pedigree chum that, yeah, Mars is the world’s…a little known fact that Mars is the world’s biggest pet care company. So yeah, I was in Mars, European pet care division as a grad trainee and then yeah, I wants to get into marketing and that was what I did. But you know, it came to the end of the 90s and I actually, I, I left Mars and I went into starting up a, a kind of dot com starts up, back in that first wave and I had an amazing time where with the [Inaudible 17:09] there were 5 of use and then there were 60 of us and then there were 5 of us again after the crash came. But it was a moment where I thought, okay, you know, pause point, I’ve been made redundant or made myself redundant, what do I do next? And, and I was kind of scratching an itch because I sort of decided already that fighting for more customers, more market share just for its own sake, wasn’t really doing it for me anymore, but I wasn’t quite sure what was going to suddenly reignite my passion. So, I spent a lot of the next few years consulting. I was helping clients with their strategies. I was building capabilities and maxing workforces and I enjoyed that but again, I hadn’t really decided that this was the thing. And I suppose the kind of the big pivot point in came in 2008. I’d been doing some consulting work for Unilever and the then chief marketing officer, Simon Clift asked me to join his team and I was just hugely fortunate that it was literally three months later where Paul Poleman joined as CEO and started a course, a huge program of exciting change and Unilever and I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time to be at the center of that, that journey. 

W.G: (18:29) So Keith Weed took over from Simon Clifft as their chief marketing officer and Keith’s big challenge really was to bring together Unilever’s brand portfolio and the stable living plan and say, how can Unilever brands deliver sustainable living, single consumption as well as grow at the same time. And I was helping Keith to think that through and then leading a lot of the delivery of that in terms of how that would be brought to life by 6,000 and odd marketers around the Unilever world. And I got the purpose bug. I just loved it. I love that for kind of almost intellectual challenge. I loved the feeling that when done brilliantly, the brands and business really could create positive change 

W.R: (19:21) And we’re seeing that massively in Unilever, aren’t we, with the who they’re now buying like Parker and, various other companies. I mean, I guess we saw it first with Ben & Jerry’s and the fact that they are really left to their own devices. It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant what you’re seeing at Unilever and it’s really interesting what you’ve just said about how that and how you’ve ended up helping so many other organizations and I guess working with you, you get such a massive amount of experience as an SME because you’ve seen, you’ve kind of been there, done that, got the t shirts across lots and lots of organizations and industries.

W.G: (20:04) Yeah, I mean it’s, it was a great place to start to kind of get my head around what business and brands with purpose was all about, and I think that, you know, whilst nobody or Unilever would claim that everything they do is, is perfect. I think there’s a genuine excitement and passion there to kind of, well, for at least a huge multinational business perspective carry on, you know, pioneering and kind of pushing the boundaries of what it is.  I was particularly lucky towards the end of my time there because I was given the opportunity to, to start a new social impact business called collectively and the idea of collectively came out of the World Economic Forum, where there were a bunch of big that said, how can we mainstream sustainable consumption in particular amongst young people around the world. And so this was Unilever, Carlsberg, Coca-Cola, BET and MNS were the five companies that put their hands up into the let’s collaborate on this. 

W.G: (21:06) And I was lucky to be kind of in pole position to kind of lead that collaboration and pull it together and it started as five companies. By the time we launched it was 30 companies, including the big tech giants like Google and Facebook and Salesforce and others and we spend a lot of the next, you know, two and a half years trying to say, trying to ask the question how can this amazing group of companies with also some NGO partnerships and beyond, I suppose, sustainable excites people in the possibility of sustainable lifestyles and consumption. And it was very experimental. We learned a lot from it. That was very much [Inaudible 21:44] about 2014, 2017 at which point I then went to independent after that. 

W.R: (21:51) So interesting. How do you see the future? I’m trying to work out how to, how to word it, but just wondering like where do you see us going with the knowledge that you have and the experience that you’ve got? Where do you see us going in the UK really and as businesses? 

W.G: (22:11) Well, I think we’re an exciting but also challenging phase right now. It’s exciting because I think there’s suddenly, especially in the last three years or so, huge amount more conversation and that’s thanks to, you know, David [Inaudible 22:24], you know, all sorts of the extinction, rebellion and that’s, of course, particularly in the stability space. And then in the kind of the linked area around purpose, I think there’s, all the research suggests that there’s a lot of companies, especially bigger companies that are now thinking about how to execute purpose, you know, deeply and authentically. But I think it’s also a challenging place because what almost always happens when these things start to gain traction is that there are some organizations and people who really genuinely want to do it well and authentically and then there’s a lot of others who are just looking at how, you know, in a short term tactical way, how I can build that bottom line and they’re not really serious about doing the job properly and hence there’s been a lot of talk about work-wash and purpose and greenwash and the danger with those things that people who want to be cynical have a lot of substance and the evidence to back up their cynicism. So where do I hope it’s going to go? I hope that we’ll get better and better at almost is being able to codify and substantiate really firm foundations for purpose and sustainability within companies and that comes from science based targets. It comes from Bee Corp certification and these kinds of things. Then people can start to, I suppose, tell the difference between when it’s being done really well for people and planet and when it’s all just a bit of you know, wash. So, my prediction is that I think that will happen. I’m really excited and confident about it but and I think over the next five to 10 years, this place of kind of almost exciting but foggy place that we’re in now, I hope we’ll start to crystallize and clarify where the language and the evidence and the certification all starts to kind of bubble up properly. 

W.R: (24:39) Yeah, yeah. I mean you brought up two of my favorite topics, science based targets and Bee Corp. I think science based targets are as just amazing. They are such an intelligent way for the whole world to join together and try and reduce their emissions working together. I mean the whole premise of science based targets is phenomenal and people listening to the show will know we’ve talked about science based targets before and I implore any organization, however big or small you are to, if you’re not going to go through the verification, to absolutely set those targets because they will be in line with the rest of the world, then it’s…I love it, love it. But I mean Green Elements have got them and you know, we’re a very small organization and we did it because we wanted to prove to the world that you can do it in any circumstances. 

W.G: (25:32) Yeah, I’m completely with you. And you know, the thing for me is that always, there’s two things, right? There’s the nature of the work you do and things like science based targets is the right way to do the work and then there’s the way in which that gets communicated and a lot of that is where the communications professionals and the marketing professionals have got a really big role to play, but also a really big kind of, you know, like ethical responsibility to use their skills to genuinely and deeply kind of engage people in the challenge, the difficulties, the reality, but also the exciting possibilities of it. Rather than use, kind of, communications and marketing skills to yeah, to make things look better than they are or to kind of cover stuff over and to, you know, smoking mirrors, you know, point people’s attention in the wrong direction. I think it’s a really big responsibility but as a kind of very, you know, sort of current marketer or as a genuine ex-marketer, I feel very passionately about that. 

W.R: (26:40) It’s that transparency isn’t it? It just gives transparency to everything you do. And I think we’re seeing more and more of that with people’s websites and the fact that just putting up targets and objectives and you can ask more within the tendering process as well and I think we’re seeing more and more tenders with such intricate questions and I do wonder sometimes if anyone’s actually reading the answers to these questions, but the fact that they’re asking them is almost sometimes is good because it means that someone’s got to answer them. 

W.G: (27:12) Yeah. And I do agree with you. I mean transparency is vital. I think there’s another marketing task over here, which is about participation because I think, you know, as we’re trying to be a more sustainable world, we’ve also becoming, of course more in a digitally enabled world and that has meant that, you know, when I started my career, a lot of the, the way in which companies relate to their audiences in averse commerce mean the word audience sort of expresses it, it was very much one way. It was kind of, here’s what we’re saying and listen please, you know, we’re going to buy a bunch of TV eyeballs or radio ears to kind of plug our messages into. And I think that the, the opportunity now is to, and some of the best companies doing this, is to treat your customers as kind of members, as participants, as kind of co-creators and collaborators in what you’re trying to do. Of course, companies like Patagonia are brilliant at that, at making people feel like they’re members of a kind of a, you know, a club of people who really care about the environment. But equally, for example, Bulb here in the UK as an energy company, you know, are great at being able to not say to that customers while you’re a customer, pay your bill please, but you’re a member of a movement and we’re trying to green the UK energy sector and here’s your contributions to that and here’s, here’s what more you can do. 

W.R: (28:36) Hmm. They’re an interesting company aren’t they, Bulb. 

W.G: (28:39) Very much so. Yeah, I kind of wished there were more companies that could, you know, take on some of those challenges and methods of seeing their customers as collaborators because if you can do that, also you can bring your customer base with you when are trying to do something brave and bold. 

W.R: (28:55) Absolutely. And I’m maybe on the back of listening to this podcast, people will do more . On that, how do we connect with you and how can we learn more about who you are and how to work with you? 

W.G: (29:08) Yeah, well thanks for asking. I mean I have a website. People can find that on willgardener.co, so .co and we’d love to connect with any of your listeners on Linkedin or on Twitter, where you’ll find me there as well. 

W.R: (29:24) Brilliant and all those will be on the show notes on our websites. Thank you very much for today, Will. It’s been absolutely fascinating listening to you and understanding more about how an organization can move towards being more purpose. So thank you so much for today.

W.R: (29:42) It’s a pleasure. It’s been great talking to you. Thanks Will. 


W.R: (29:47) Thank you so much for listening to the end of this episode, the Green Element podcast. Do take a moment and share this with your friends and colleagues and rate and review the podcast, wherever you get your podcasts. I’d love to know what has been your biggest takeaway from this conversation. What are you going to do differently? Please share your thoughts across social media and tag us so we can see them too @ge_podcast. For links and show notes for this episode, visit our website, greenelement.co.uk/podcast. Thank you again. I hope you’ll join me on the next episode and together we can help create a better world. 


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