John Featherby

Humility, purpose & the pursuit of adventure

Today I speak with John Featherby, the founder of Shoremount, a business that helps organisations to become more purposeful, adaptable, human and regenerative.

As one of the UK’s founding B-Corps, and awarded Best For The World: Changemaker by B Lab, Shoremount models how businesses can achieve the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. And as a certified member of the B Corp movement, they are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

With an MA from CASS Business School, and having grown up around dialogues of change (with his parents having funded the first social impact bond), these influences contributed towards founding Shoremount, an endeavour seeking to put flourishing back at the centre of the workplace.

As well as sitting on the investment committee for the UK’s leading impact investment funds, John also holds various Ambassador, Investment Committee and Board roles.

Key themes

Ritual, rites of passage, business, sales cycle, life, death, humility, trust, meaning, purpose, relationship, B-corp, adventure

Reflection prompt

“It’s easy to forget that it was literally only two or three years ago that we were being laughed out of corporate meeting rooms, talking about things like purpose and meaningful work… It becomes mainstream because enough people talk about it, and it creates a social permission, and then it becomes socially accepted, and then it becomes socially expected.”


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Nathalie: John, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s a real pleasure to be talking with you.

John: Absolute pleasure.

Nathalie: So I’m going to open by asking what you think is happening in the global human psyche right now as we talk in the end of December in 2020.

John: Wow. What a question. Yeah. I could have gone in a number of different directions there. I think there probably will be some quite serious repercussions emotionally from this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some kind of… I don’t know if this even exists, but collective PTSD from a year like this.

I mean, there are people like me who are fortunate enough to have space in their house and outside the house, and I live in open countryside, so psychologically it hasn’t actually… And I worked from home prior to the year anyway. So psychologically for me it hasn’t been a huge shift, but I can imagine for an awful lot of people, it’s been an enormous weight to carry.

But I also think two things, I think. The first of which is, we need to have a much better conversation about death. And I mean that in the physical sense, but I also mean that in the sense that I think we’re in the process of something new being given birth to. And one of the things we don’t talk about much in the corporate change arena is this idea that for the new thing to begin, something has to die for that to turn up. There’s a letting go, or a processing of the old, which we’re not very good at, I think in part because socially in the West we’re not very good at this bigger discussion about the end of life.

So that turns into that we’re not very good at that, that life is a constant dying and rebirth. So I think going forward, for this to have happened at the end of a decade and the start of a new one, that actually that’s probably subconsciously what’s going on too, but we haven’t really figured it out yet. But something has gone, and something is turning up, and we’re not quite sure what that is, but we do need some sort of, even if we don’t like what we were leaving behind, we still have to process the fact that it’s gone because it was safe, so to speak. So yeah, that’s a very big, heavy answer to your question, but for me that’s what’s partly going on, anyway.

Nathalie: That’s an incredibly rich and unexpected answer, which I certainly wasn’t anticipating, but I’m really, really glad that you shared. I’ve been reading recently about the cyclical nature of life and death within life, something which many of us have become very disconnected from, and how our inability to recognize these cycles as complete in and of themselves, to split them out and to ignore one half is to deny ourself the full potential of the creative aspect.

And I wonder how this also connects, especially this year when there’s been so much introspection, with our ability to use rights of passage and ritual to mark the ending of a specific passage or a specific era, or whatever it might be, or a cycle, in order to make way for the new. Is this something which speaks to your experience with business or with the way that we need to change how we want to be in the world professionally, and also, I guess, societally?

John: Yeah, 100%. I think the secular West has, the pendulum swung too far and we threw off too many things thinking, “Oh, we don’t need that anymore,” or, “That’s not relevant anymore.” But I think we’ve, in the decade just passed, realized, “Oh, maybe we did.” And on the rights of passage front, I have four children, the eldest of which is 13, and I had a conversation with him at the beginning of the year, before all this happened, to say, “Look, I know this isn’t a very common thing to happen as our society, but I want to co-create with you a rite of passage from childhood to young adulthood.”

So we started thinking about what would that look like in Hertfordshire, just north of London, for a 13-year-old in 2020, to go through something that was akin to a rite of passage. And what should it include. And we haven’t done nearly as much on it as I’d hoped to have done by this time, because I wanted to spread it over the year, and for me a lot of it involves engaging with other people which hasn’t really been possible.

So on a personal level, 100% agree, and in a professional level, definitely. I think rhythms of life, building stuff around the seasons which is a sort of coming and going, isn’t it? And rites of passage in the workplace. For me, the stuff I’m often really most interested in is a thing that people talk about over lunch by themselves but don’t talk about in the boardroom. And you can start to tell when that is becoming an issue that is eventually going to find its way into the corporate psyche.

It’s easy to forget that it was literally only two or three years ago that we were being laughed out of corporate meeting rooms, been talking about things like purpose and meaningful work and that kind of stuff. Now everybody talks about it like it’s always been there, and they were always interested. But it’s total nonsense. This topic was woo-woo and out there, and it’s not what serious businesspeople did. And then it becomes mainstream because enough people talk about it and it creates a social permission, and then it becomes socially accepted, and then it becomes socially expected.

For me, I’m interested in what is that thing now? And I think what we’re talking about at the moment is one of them, that is too fringe for the average corporate, or the big four consulting firms, to run around talking about, but in three to five years they’ll all be jumping up and down saying, “We were always thinking about this,” et cetera, et cetera.

Yeah, I 100% agree and I think it’s linked to the business conversation around purpose, because I don’t think you can have a conversation about purpose and this stuff not to rear its head. Human beings have just tried to explore this for thousands of years, and you can’t pick and choose which parts of what does it mean to be human, and think the other stuff isn’t going to come bundled with it. So I think that’s what’s coming down the road over the next decade.

Nathalie: That’s very thought-provoking. I think also, the bleeding through, perhaps, of our fundamental needs which are expressed in our private life. So the rights of passage that you described wanting to create with your son, which, I actually find that very, very moving. Oh, actually, and there’s a book that may be interesting to you, it’s by Sandra Ingerman, The Book of Ceremony. And it’s more to do with shamanic rights of passage, but it’s to do with ceremony and ritual, and it has some lovely ideas within it.

And something else that I was reading recently that I’m about half-way through, it’s this book by Byung-Chul Han who’s a Korean-born professor of philosophy and cultural studies. He teaches in Berlin at the University of the Arts, and it’s called The Disappearance of Rituals. It’s outrageously good, and I have a feeling that you might like it. It’s connected with more of a philosophical idea about how we approach existence, but also it taps into this idea of consumerism. I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on this. He talks about how, in the absence of ritual, of a symbolic, of experiences which we craft to punctuate and hold time and to mark the passage of time, that being ritual, that we end up in this undifferentiated, indistinctive flow of ceaseless time, which can be very disorienting. Which encourages us to seek an emotional sense of society through endless consumption.

And now, of course, with so much of consumption happening in a digital form, what we’re consuming is not necessarily the item that’s in front of us, the virtual image, but the emotion attached to that item. So the kick that we get out of getting extra likes, or whatever it might be. And how the antidote to that is maybe finding ways to work individually and as businesses, to create experiences that are lasting, that are enduring, that have symbolic value. What do you think about that, just as a general idea?

John: I absolutely love it. Yeah, no. I’m definitely going to read those. I completely agree. I think people’s annual rhythm has become the sales cycle. It’s Boxing Day sales, and Black Friday, and summer sale, which is pretty shocking. And I think consumerism has its flaws, but there’ll always be a marketplace. So I think with all these things, you have to recognize that there is always something beautiful and meaningful in these things. And we create things to sell, and we depend on one another’s skills, and the marketplace allows that relational flow to occur. And I think that’s healthy and positive, because it puts us in a position where we all need one another. We can’t be independent.

I think in the context of rhythm, we’ve lost way, way too much of that. We eat whatever we like all year round. It’s not connected to the seasons. Really, apart from the year end, the business cycle is just the same the whole year round for the most part. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And I think how you layer those in through individual acts of ritual, which can be as simple as a morning routine up to what is the whole organization up to and how do we synergize ourself with what’s going on with society? Is a really interesting topic, and I think it’s going to become more and more popular.

The other thing, of course, with consumerism is, it’s where we sought our meaning. What do we own, what do we buy, how often do we buy it? And that’s fundamentally a lie of sorts, that that is where we should be couching our worth. If we’re going to unpick consumerism, people aren’t going to put down the question of, where will I find my meaning? They’re just going to try and attach it to something else. So we have a job to think about, what is that other thing?

Nathalie: On that note of meaning and how that connects with work, and before we dive into your fascinating work with Shoremount, I’d love to ask you about your involvement with the B Corp movement, or if there’s a leader and a founding business. Can you tell us what a B Corp is and what moved you to become involved?

John: Yeah, so as a company you have to be a for-profit business to be a B Corp, so you’re a company that has committed itself to this idea of independence and the need and the want to be more socially and environmentally responsibility than the norm. To try and push this idea that the system needs changing, and we can join a community that is doing its best to do that.

And to become one effectively requires two component parts, one of which is to make a change to your legal articles that says you’ll be accountable to all your stakeholders, not just the shareholder. So we’re not reducing the role of the shareholder, we’re just raising the importance of the other issues to have more harmony.

And then, the second of which is to get through an assessment. But it’s not an exam, it’s more like an online resource with a long list of positive ideas, and once you’ve done enough of them, you cross a threshold. And at that point you can label yourself, you can have the Kitemark, so to speak, and join the community. So that’s what a B Corp is. And there’s now three and a half thousand of us globally. I think we turn over about $90 billion as a collective.

Nathalie: Wow.

John: And everything from multinationals down to startups and everything in between. It’s an awful lot of fun, but it’s really taken off, particularly in the UK over the last, probably, 18 to 24 months. It’s an exciting time to be involved.

Nathalie: Been obviously a huge amount of change, and even prior to the pandemic there was some interesting conversation being had around the move away from CSR towards ESG, the move towards really walking the talk towards taking responsibility. What were some of the key trends that you were observing in the time before the pandemic and how have those been impacted by the crisis?

John: Well, it moved from being a fairly fringe idea to something that was suddenly becoming much more mainstream. So that was the first thing. When we say trends, I mean, the thing is I would say a lot of this stuff is on an exponential curve rather than a linear one. So they’re already there. They’re just gaining momentum at a slightly different pace.

We could see that B Corp potentially had legs, and this idea of how you bring the “responsible business bit” from the margin of the business to something that’s done by a small team or the writing of a cheque at the end of the year, to being part of the strategic DNA of the business, is something that’s certainly evolved over the last 10 years.

What drives something to the point at which it takes off on this exponential curve is hard to pinpoint, but I think there’s just an awful lot of planets aligned over the last 24 months that made people feel like, “Okay, I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of the status quo. There’s obviously a problem and we need to do something about it.” And it’s a mixture of changing workforce, and political workforces, and climate change becoming more apparent, and eventually you have a movement on your hands.

Nathalie: Yeah. That seems like there are quite a few movements that are interconnected which are suddenly now being seen as they are, which is an ecosystem which reveals a much deeper issue of disconnect, maybe.

John: Yeah.

Nathalie: On that note, I’m really interested to ask you more about your work as the founder of Shoremount, which is an award-winning consulting firm that helps organizations to be more human and purposeful and adaptable. From your perspective in this role, and in the light of all the challenges that we’re now facing, what do you feel are the most important qualities that make for a resilient business and a resilient brand?

John: Humility would be right at the top. Businesses are effectively just a group of people, and they do end up with a mind of their own. This is certainly true. And you can have a conversation, for example, about should we be a B Corp with all the individuals involved, and they might tell you over coffee, “Yeah, yeah, I’d love to do it, I’d love to do it.” But stick them in the boardroom, collective think takes over.

So there is certainly a difference between individual and institutional, but the ability to stop and reflect and think, “We haven’t got this nailed. Where might we be going wrong? What do we need to change? What should we be willing to let go of? And where can I learn?”, importantly, is absolutely key. And a lot of this change stuff really comes down to a question of the individual, and their relationship with their heart and soul. It’s not really a question of data.

We could give boards data till the cows come home. Fundamentally, if they haven’t engaged with the issue on a deeper level, they won’t do it. And that can be a whole load of different reasons. So I think being humble enough to listen to the marginal voices, to the quiet voice of yourself that’s saying, “You need to be doing something differently,” I think has to be at the top.

And then, the willingness to pursue adventure. We’re not selling safety, here. We’re not saying, “Become a B Corp,” or, “Pursue this new way of doing business and everything will be okay.” It’s more a question of, “We can’t stay where we are, and we have to leave. Are you coming with us? We don’t know what’s downriver, but we know we can’t stay here. And we’re going to have to innovate the bejeezus out of everything on the way down.”

And that’s really what it is. And I think going back to what we talked about at the beginning, this life and death thing, letting go of something that’s run its course, and being willing to step into a world where stuff isn’t safe all the time, it’s not sterile. We’ve got too used to this idea that everything just works, and it always has been like that, and a job is always secure, et cetera, et cetera. That is a complete historical misnomer. And I think we have to recapture this spirit of adventure that is what humanity is really so good at, and bring it back to the workplace.

Nathalie: And it’s language that we don’t often hear, which is why it’s quite captivating language to hear you speak.

John: Thanks.

Nathalie: This idea of connecting with and listening to one’s heart and soul. Some might say, “Well, what place is there in the work vicinity for the heart and soul, and are we just now trying to get work to fulfill that role that maybe religion once did, or philosophy once did, which is to scaffold our sense of meaning and understanding of what it is to be human?” But I think there is something interesting here in the sense that, if we can bring more of ourselves, the best aspects of ourselves, and maybe also the messy aspects of who we are to the work that we do, then surely it’s going to be a much more enriching experience and therefore probably the outcome of that is going to be more wholehearted and better.

How might you encourage people to find ways to listen to heart or soul, or to be more adventurous? Are there certain practices that you’ve found to be helpful in that regard?

John: Yeah, a whole load of things. I think it’s important to have a group of people around you that you feel will encourage you in this direction. I have groups of friends that keep me “practical”, but then also groups of friends that allow me to just wander in really unusual directions philosophically. I think time spent in nature is really powerful. That’s not necessarily for everybody, but I do genuinely believe that our disconnection from nature has disconnected us, in part, from this wilder part of ourselves.

Yeah, it’s amazing how many people say, “I was on a walk and this came to mind,” or, “This problem I’ve been wrestling with has been resolved,” or, “I found myself at the top of a mountain,” et cetera. I think connecting with those haunting moments, we’ve all got those, a piece of music, or sat by a babbling brook, or whatever it might be, that connects us into some bigger thing beyond ourselves. Those moments are important for us.

Being parts of communities, obviously. If you have a spiritual worldview, and investing in that, whatever format it might take. None of this stuff is, not new. You’ll often hear people quoting stuff in business books on conferences that wisdom teachers said thousands of years ago, and then people have continued to just repeat over and over again, and then a bigwig says it like someone’s invented it in the last five years. This stuff is there in the human cultural memory, and I think we just need to get better at tapping into.

You know, it’s always interesting to ask what people are reading, and what they’ve read. And the books that are still here 1,500, 2,000, whatever it is, years later, are still here for good reason, and I think we can spend way too much time reading what’s on the Amazon bestseller list and not nearly enough time reading, “Well, why is that book, 2,000 years later, still being read by people?” Or, “The thing that was read and written 1200-whatever still being read by people?” Read those things too, and connecting with those things.

The other thing for me is putting myself in social situations that are totally alien. I think we’ve became way too professionalized and narrow, particularly for people like me who’ve spent time working in the city. You end up with a very strong specialism. You run in a very narrow lane, and you just don’t know what’s going on anywhere else. And the rest of the world doesn’t think like people who live in a borough in London and work in Canary Wharf. They just don’t. I mean, we’re as unusual as anywhere else.

So connecting with what people think in Accra in Ghana, or Jakarta in Indonesia or wherever it might be, I think is really important, and that goes back to the humility point. It makes you realize, okay, our worldview isn’t the only worldview, and maybe there’s something wrong with ours, too.

Nathalie: That point around humility, then. I think one of the things that’s been interesting as we’ve seen responses on a country bases to the pandemic and lockdowns and public health, et cetera, was the difference between leadership styles. And I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are around humility and leadership in terms of being a model for the change that you wish to espouse in your organization, and in the culture. What are some of the most important qualities, do you think, that a leader has to have?

John: Well, I think the one’s thing just to remember is the board knows almost the least out of everybody in the organization. The mistake we make is when we think, “Oh, because I’m at the top I can make all the best decisions, because I have all the information.” Almost the opposite is true. It’s the people at the fringe or the people who are dealing with the issues that actually have the best idea, and their finger on the pulse, of what’s going on.

We don’t have a business as a force for good change movement on our hands because boards decided it was a good idea. Boards have been forced to the negotiating table, not the other way around. And if you read all the material that comes out now, it comes out of the large consulting firms, all the business schools, it’s all based around the idea of how do you use the board to make change?

We do obviously need that, but it really conveniently forgets that the board has been the last group to get involved. But we’re still addicted to this idea that we are placing the future into the hands of the people that didn’t put their hand up. So being humble to think, if you’re at the top, “Okay, maybe we’re not the best people to be making the decision. Now, we might have to be the people that make the decision, but who do we get in the room to listen to? Yes, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but maybe 25 years of that experience is no longer relevant.”

There’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom. People throw their hands up and think, “Oh, there’s another scandal. How on Earth did that person, who’s just so bright and has all those letters after his name, go and do that?” Because they have all the knowledge in the world and no wisdom. And if you look at the traditional personal development stuff that is spewed out by corporates, it’s all about knowledge retention, gaining new knowledge, doing courses. It’s not the sort of things we’ve been talking about, which is, how do you build wisdom? How do you reconnect with yourself?

That’s because some of it is difficult to measure and difficult to source. And okay, going and spending an afternoon in the woodland is not the sort of thing that the average person is willing to buy, or the average corporate is willing to buy. So you could write, well, there are books and books about the importance of humanity, but some of those are some of the issues, I would say. So what about you? What do you think?

Nathalie: I think the humility piece is fundamental. I think the question that then that raises for me is, what leaders or people in positions of power would be open to relearning ways in which to communicate? To receive feedback? To change tack? And I wonder, much in the same way that we’re seeing a lot of pressure being applied on businesses by younger people to make change, and then a willingness of older people to go along once that dam has been burst, I wonder if there are existing leaders who are older, more experienced, who can be convinced to change the way in which they’ve done their role for the last 20, 30 years. What do you think needs to be in play for that to be a possibility for people? What needs to happen, or what can encourage leaders to change their tack?

John: I mean, the slightly flippant answer is, I think we spend way too much time worrying about how can we change other people, and not enough time on, how do I evolve myself? Because fundamentally if we all focus on that, then we’d solve the problem. And there are people you’re not going to change the mind of, and there are people who aren’t going to catch up, and there are people who have reached the end of their careers, and it’s just not worth making the change.

The other thing is, you remember, is we’re asking a lot of people. If you’re younger in your career, and you haven’t built the thing you’re now trying to unravel, there’s no emotional attachment. This is the whole death and life thing again. You’re not killing something that you love. And if you’re longer in the tooth and you’re now being told by the system, “Not only have you caused a problem and built a system that has been extremely damaging, but there was a better way of doing it that potentially meant more for the whole not less. It wasn’t a simple cost exchange.” But also, “You’re never going to get that time back with your family. You chose to sit at work and just keep doing the status quo even though some part of you perhaps deep down felt this doesn’t quite feel right, you carried on going. You didn’t put your hand up.”

That can be quite difficult, late on, to then be told by someone who’s in their early 30s, “We are actually finding a way to do both. I can see my family and do the job you did, and save the planet at the same time.” That is quite a big, bitter pill to swallow. We have to remember that there’s a huge amount of emotion tied up in all these things, which is why the data alone is not enough, and which is why being willing as a person to engage with, “Do you know what? Maybe we made a mistake, and I paid a pretty heavy price for it.” And stepping into that pain, recognizing it.

That’s not true for everybody, but I have seen this crop up in committees of listed company, when people are reluctant to open the doors to new things, and you can tell this is partly what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s, “Oh my goodness, what did we do?” And, “I can’t get the time back.”

Nathalie: It makes my heart really hurt hearing that, actually, because that is a hard, hard thing to hear.

John: Yeah. I think it’s real. And I think this is partly because we’re very, very focused on the environmental cost of the status quo. And rightly so. We do need to rectify the problems, and we do need to change our ways. But the social cost of it has been huge as well. We’re very disconnected. We’re very lonely. The mental health crisis is rampant. Huge rates of divorce. A lot of sickness through stress. Poor life expectancy in certain industries. We have very, very serious social problems, that are also partly a consequence of the way we’ve designed how we’ve worked together.

People ask me why I’m passionate about the land, and my parents have a small farm. The environmental thing really matters to me too, but I’ve chosen to focus more on the people. For me, it’s because I grieve over the people issue like Greenpeace grieves over the whales. I think that cost is very real too. And part of the first stage is accepting and recognizing what have we done? Because until you do that, it’s very difficult to really seriously and authentically build the new.

One of the benefits, of course, is that people do retire. So a lot of the people that may have to deal with that potentially are leaving anyway, and it’s perhaps you could argue not their problem any more. But nevertheless it’s still there. Again, go back to the humility thing, it’s not a case of pointing the finger and saying, “Look what you did. I wouldn’t have done that.” I think we all have to be willing to recognize that we may have done it too.

Perhaps most of us are on this train, not just simply out of courage, but because other people made it possible for us to do that. The vast majority of people involved in this are doing it because somebody went before them, and that includes me. So we shouldn’t just point the finger and say, “You bad, me good.” I think that’s way too simple and too judgmental, and that’s not a humble way to approach it.

Nathalie: I think also, it’s probably not the most integrative way to approach it. I know that in therapeutic practices, a lot of the healing process comes from turning to look at the hurt and the grief and the loss and the rage and the sorrow, and all of the things that we prefer to turn away from, to give them voice and then to find a way to relate to them and to converse with them until we can learn what’s there and integrate that into who we are, as opposed to chop it off or blame it for some reason, or whatever it is.

Do you happen to know of any kind of therapeutic equivalent for businesses, and people in businesses, people listening to this, thinking, “Wow, you’ve really touched on something there. How could I begin to start creating a space or a process that allows us to look at the things that we’re in pain over, so that we can find a new way together to move forward?”

John: Sadly not. I mean, I’m sure there are people out there who have it, and I’m in the process of working towards it. I’m a big believer in the power of small groups, and small group dialog. Pretty much every memorable social change movement began with a small group of people who said, “No,” or said, “Yes,” to the new thing. So I think being in small group dialogs with people where you can be really vulnerable, open, transparent, hold one another accountable, ask probing questions, be willing to receive that, sit and listen, facilitate that kind of discussion, I think is really, really important.

I’ve started writing a whole lot of materials to support that which I call Teylu, T-E-Y-L-U, which is Cornish for family. And my work outside of Shoremount, which is called the Great Reawakening, this is what this is all heading towards. This idea of how do we keep pushing on with some of these discussions that people might be having over coffee, or by themselves with their friends, but not really having in a professional space?

So the idea is, eventually, someone asks a question like the one you just did, the answer is, “Yeah, go to our resource center and here’s some ideas.” But a bit like with the purpose thing, I don’t think you’re going to find it in the business space. It took businesses going beyond the business sphere, and looking to the arts, looking to philosophy, looking to religion, looking to sport, looking to conservation, to really start to find new ways through the problem.

When businesses were only looking at businesses and asking, “What are you doing? What course are you taking? What are you recommending to your people?” We were going absolutely nowhere. So that’d be my first encouragement, would be if you’re a business asking this question, I wouldn’t default to looking to other businesses for the answer. You need to look, a bit like you’ve just picked up on therapy, look to other disciplines. I know therapy is run as a business, but you know what I mean. Look to other disciplines for good ideas, I think. Again, back to the humility piece, we’ve turned business into the pinnacle of good ideas, and that is far from the truth.

Nathalie: In terms of other ways in which we can create change, we’ve touched a bit on leadership, we’ve touched on humility, we’ve touched on looking outside of the sphere of business to create change, the power of small groups. You also sit on the investment committee for the UK’s leading impact investment funds, and I’d love to know if you’re seeing any changes, or growing interest, in this kind of investing.

John: Yeah, absolutely. Very much so. The numbers become pretty mind-boggling now. I think one of the challenges we have is a merging of mainstream investing that is changing its investment philosophy towards something that is more holistic. And the impact investing, social enterprise space, which was really the first outlet for people who wanted to do something different, but the mainstream wouldn’t listen. This is partly why I’m involved. This is what my parents did during the ’80s, ’90s, 00’s, they were trying to drive this conversation in the city and use their means, not just to use ethical screening, but how do we use investment potential to create positive change?

The only option was to do something new, because nobody else was willing to engage. So I think there’s coming together, and there’s confusion in the middle about where the boundaries are and how that works. And there are certainly businesses that are starting to fall between the cracks that are too mainstream for the impact funds, but still doing good, and too impact for the mainstream funds. But yes, and all the big money managers that make a lot of noise about it but don’t really do very much, also just basically put wind in the sails of the movement. They created a rod for their own backs. They’ve fueled the momentum, unwittingly or otherwise.

Yeah, it’s a really exciting time, and I think we have to move the capital markets for us to go past the point of no return, and for it to become really ingrained in the system, because basically that’s the system we built, that the real economy works with financial services, not the other way around, and we need to turn that on its head a bit.

Nathalie: Yeah. So for people who are listening to this who are thinking, on whatever scale, that they want to redesign their business models, or maybe assess them in a different way to better align with their values, to create a more equitable, sustainable and regenerative system, what one or two resources have you come across that you’ve found valuable, that you would suggest they explore?

John: Sure. I mean, well, the B Corp impact assessment that we use to review all the people who want to become a B Corp is an open, free public resource, and it’s really user-friendly. It’s fun to engage with, and it’s intentionally designed so that anybody can just open an account and just start ticking off positive ideas, or investigating what are the B Corps of the world doing?

You know, you asked earlier about how do we change people and that sort of thing, there’s a reason, unfortunately, why the same names like Patagonia and so on, always come up, is because there are so few examples on that kind of scale. But these sorts of resources are listening to what those companies are doing. We get a huge amount of user feedback. As I said, there’s three and a half thousand B Corps but over 100,000 organizations use the B Impact Assessment just to think. Not even necessarily to apply. You don’t have to be applying to use the assessment.

And you don’t even have to be a business to use the assessment. Whilst you have to be a business to be a B Corp, you could be a government department and use the assessment tool just for a creative list of ideas. And it molds to your size or your sector, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a four-person outfit making vegan leather goods or something, right through to multinational doing all sorts of other things like a mining company or something, and everything in between.

So it doesn’t matter how good or bad you think your business is, or how big it is, or what sector it’s in, that’s a great resource, and I think it’s the best one.

Nathalie: Brilliant. That’s super useful, because that’s something very tangible that we can all go ahead and explore. And it gives immediate suggestions on how to change what we’re doing.

John: Yep. Definitely. But the most important thing is before you start using resources and things, my best piece of advice is just sit down with your team and talk about it. Who do we want to be as a business? Who do we want to be as people? Why do this? And have the confidence to believe that as a group of people, you’re sufficient to answer the question. Don’t believe that there’s all these people out there like me who’ve got this sorted, and we’ve worked it all out, and if only you knew the blanks that we could fill in for you. We’re all just trying our best by trying things.

And yes, there is established wisdom on certain things, and a growing body of knowledge, but we’re very early on this shift, and we’ve got a long way to go. So I really would encourage anybody listening to this, or reading whatever it is that you put together, just to have the confidence to have a go, and that your humanity and the integrity and the dignity that you seek in terms of what does it mean to run a meaningful business, will answer all the questions for you. And you’ll find what you need.

Nathalie: Brilliant. I like the idea of starting with those questions, and turning that inwards as well. There’s another connected question which, I guess it connects with our competing desires. Because obviously we’re in business to make money, and also we want to be involved in business that at the very least doesn’t damage others, and at the best adds something. So when we have these competing desires, whether it’s for profit or for purpose or both, or for short-term pleasure versus long-term benefit, are there techniques that you’ve found useful in helping to bridge that gap? To helping us decide, okay, might be an example of chocolate. I really want chocolate, but instead of buying something wrapped in plastic I want to go to my local store and get something that I can take away in a reusable bag. So I get pleasure and purpose, both of those needs met in a very simple example. Do you find that there are other ways of bridging those maybe competing or conflicting desires?

John: I think firstly to go easy on oneself. The world is never going to be perfect. There’s always a cost. There’s no such thing as a perfect choice, really. I drive a diesel car, my house is heated by oil because of where we live, and yeah, I have an electric one too. But I still eat meat and friends with lots of farmers. I’m sure there will be people listening who would think all those things are bad choices, but maybe I, A, have more to learn, B, some of the things I like to do just aren’t possible. You can’t use that as an excuse, but I think you can certainly… What we don’t want to end up is with mass communal anxiety over every single choice we make.

I think that I would use two metaphors, as well, for the competing thing. Because you kind of asked two questions. You asked the question about how do we deal with those competing choices we have to make, but also the idea of business being in competition. The two metaphors that I’d lean on are, the first of which is to see business as a form of rivalry rather than dog eat dog. So if you think of Federer and Djokovic, or something, they’re not literally trying to wipe one another off the court, they believe that they’re better tennis players for the competition, and they can play against one another. They can train with one another. And every now and then they can compete with one another properly to try and see who wins something. But they both have a desire to honor the game, improve the game, push the boundaries, do new things, in addition to, “How good can I be?”

It’s a bit like that in our B Corp movement, where there’s an awful lot of collaboration, but there’s also a lot of industry competitors. But I prefer to see them as rivals. And the second thing is, in nature, you know, is the lion competing with the springbok? No, it’s just the ecosystem is just, different companies have different roles to play, and nature is not so much in competition with itself. It’s just constantly shifting. And I think when you see business in the community business arena is more like that, more like an organic ecosystem that is constantly shifting.

And just being comfortable with the things that, not every business is going to survive. We’re not promising a landscape where if you do this, the business will thrive and it will never end. That’s just fundamentally not going to be true. Businesses will fail in this new landscape just as they did in the old.

Nathalie: And looking now to the future, what do you anticipate, or imagine, the future of work will look like?

John: Well, you tell me what you think and then we’ll-

Nathalie: Take it from there?

John: Yeah.

Nathalie: I think it’s going to be a hybrid of what we’ve previously had and what we’re starting to realize is possible now. And I’m thinking of that across various different domains. So structurally we’re not just going to have simple hierarchies, although we’ll still need some sorts of hierarchical structure, but maybe it’ll look a bit flatter. I think from an organizational and cultural perspective, people might be more intentional in terms of how they design cultures. What to look for, how they use values and principles to orient that. I think there’s going to be an interesting interplay of the hybrid workplace between physical and virtual presence. So creating teams from around the world that can work remotely, but then come together to create meaningful experiences, so that that sense of community and vision can thrive. Because obviously, it becomes a bit trickier to do that if it’s only virtual.

And then in terms of things like profit and purpose, as we’ve seen also in the finance sector, that this idea of responsible investing, well, shouldn’t investing be responsible? Because otherwise we’re responsible for the decline of the world, and then no investment is going to be possible. So I think there’s also that change in the ways in which we’ve seen what norms should exist, based on the health of the planet and the health of business as a result.

John: Yeah. Wonderful. That sounds like a good place to go and work, both. Yeah. I agree with all of that. I think we’re heading in all those sorts of directions. Plus I think there’s no doubt some wonderful unknowns that are yet to show up. And the reality is, living and working in the world you’ve described, on the ground in 10, 15 years’ time, that was to become the norm, it’d be a very, very different social experience.

Nathalie: Yeah.

John: And it would totally upend a lot of social norms that would go well beyond the workplace, because this is a systemic shift. It’s not just how we redesign the business down the road. And I don’t think we can probably imagine just how deep and far this could run. And when you look back at the way that society reorganizes itself every now and again, over a period of time in history, it would probably be impossible for feudal England to imagine what life is like today under bureaucracy and living with the meritocratic processes we live. Even if you started to see the early shift in that, you probably wouldn’t really have understood what would that eventually look like. And I think that’s what we’re at now, is don’t really know some of what that will do.

And also, what problems will it bring? As I say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I think that’s true a lot of the time, and that’s the sort of thing that keeps me awake. And again, that’s the humble piece. What are we unleashing that we don’t know is there? And that shouldn’t hold us back. I think we should keep going as fast as we can. But we need to be realistic about watching out for unintended consequences. And also remembering that a lot of the discussion we’re having is only held mostly in certain parts of the world, amongst certain people groups. So we need to really open it up, and this stuff needs to be as relevant to the person pulling the Extinction Rebellioner off the top of the tube as it is to the Extinction Rebellioner. We’re only going to get there if everybody’s involved.

Nathalie: If you had to choose one thing that you felt was absolutely vital to the long-term success of the business in the future, what would it be?

John: High-quality relationships. Trust, basically. If you can’t trust that you are seriously in it for one another and for the bigger purpose, you’re always going to run aground in some way. Almost all problems stem from a lack of willingness to trust that we care for one another and the greater good that we’re in pursuit of.

Nathalie: So maybe building from that, what kind of world do you want to build?

John: I think we need to restore our faith in ourselves and one another, in the commons, so to speak, whether that’s the common good, land. You know, it’s a really deep question, and that’s a question that I think people have wrestled with forever, and will always be answering that question. Basically, and this, again, maybe it sounds too esoteric, but I really do think love wins. If you think back to when it was, it was around Easter weekend, wasn’t it? When lockdown happened, and people started clapping to the NHS, and the government policies were about protecting the old and protecting the NHS.

I remember thinking, “Well, basically the whole nation is currently engaged in an act of love.” We were all doing things not for ourselves. It was pray for Boris on the front of The Sun, and people getting clapped out of the NHS, and everyone was on their doorsteps, and the whole point of the process was to protect people that may have died in the next six or 12 months anyway. And I think that changes a nation. At the moment I think we’re under the cloud and we’re in the middle of it, and we can’t see it. But I think love is more powerful than violence, and I don’t think that you can unleash that on a nation and not change it.

So that’s my hope for the future, is that actually, all this stuff, the purpose thing, the conscientious business, compassionate capitalism, whatever it might be, whatever you want to call it, fundamentally it’s all an act of love. It’s an act of love towards your fellow human beings, an act of love towards nature. It’s an act of love towards family, towards your colleague. How can that not change individuals and the community? So, what one thing can you do towards that? Go and find out what love means.