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How to Serve Humanity with Business

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Toby Mildon: Hello there. Thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. Today, I’m joined by Iyas AlQasem, who is the Founder and Managing Partner of Beyond the Quarter. So Iyas works with businesses to help them grow, but have values and purpose at the core of that growth. So Iyas, it’s great to have you on the show.

Iyas AlQasem: Thank you very much for inviting me to it, looking forward to it.

Toby Mildon: Okay, so Iyas, can we begin by you telling us a bit more about yourself and what led you to setting up Beyond the Quarter consultancy?

Iyas AlQasem: I started my serious working life in technology consulting. I was helping companies do business intelligence, which is essentially analyzing data and sort of coming to conclusions with that. And I did that through a consultancy that I co-founded. We grew that quite well. We got to about 40, a team of around 40, a turnover of sort of somewhere around sort of 3.5 million or so, and then got acquired by one of our investors. And what I didn’t know when we got acquired was that they actually had a bit of a staff churn issue. Their team was basically churning at around 40%. They’d come out of the dot-com boom or the dot-com crash. They’d figured out their sales message, so their sales numbers were going through the roof, but meanwhile, the team was walking out the door. And after a couple of attempts for us to sort of fix that, in a drunken conversation with one of the founders, I was given the dubious responsibility of taking that problem on. And so having joined the board of the company that acquired us, I took on that turnaround and led that, and essentially, took that churn down from 40% to 6%. So over the space of sort of a few years, we went from a team of 60 that was losing 24 people a year to a team of around 200 that was losing 12 people a year.

Iyas AlQasem: Now, interesting thing was that I found in doing that, there wasn’t really any particular magic. I wish I could just sorta say, “Here’s the formula, and here’s the… ” And there was something, some big secret that nobody knew anything about. What actually happened was quite simply, I made it pretty clear what I was hoping we would stand for as a team and as a company, and I was very clear about what we were about. And then probably the more difficult bit was having said that, I then went and demonstrated it. ‘Cause saying it is a relatively easy thing to do, then going and doing it is… Takes a little bit more discipline. And it was essentially that, that turned the team around. It was the fact that they saw that there was actually a set of core values that were being adhered to, that weren’t just posters on the wall or bullet points on an About Us page, but were actually how things happened. And we continued to grow. We grew up to it. We grew to around just over 300 people. We got acquired by a big American corp, and then I took on sort of a consulting team across Europe, Middle East and Africa of about 500 people. And eventually, left there simply because my values and purpose, and the way that I believed in things was different from the organisation’s.

Iyas AlQasem: And I’m fairly keen to make the point that it’s different, not that it was better or worse. It’s anything ’cause a lot of the people who were with me who had grown up with me and were part of the acquisition, there was a lot of discussion about, “Oh, well, this company’s bad, and it’s a bad culture, and it’s bad values, and it’s bad this, and it’s bad that”. And my perspective, it was actually, I don’t know if it is. It’s just not my values, it’s not my purpose, it’s not what I believe in. And so I’m leaving because it no longer resonates. It’s not the right thing for me to be here because I am misaligned with what this organisation is trying to do.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: And the interesting thing was having sort of done that myself in terms of growing consultancy that was around technology, I found out that the magic source wasn’t the technology at all. It was actually putting the values and the purpose into the organisation. And that’s what really led me to start Beyond the Quarter was really, I was looking down saying, “Well, actually, this is what companies need to be looking at more. They need to be looking at how do they put values and purpose at the heart of what they do”. And really, what worked for me was, yeah, the way that I ran things rather than the core proposition actually now turned into the core proposition, which is helping companies to recognise that, and recognise that that’s a good way for a company to grow. It isn’t the only way. If we were sat here as… I run into a lot of people who say, “Well, you absolutely need purpose and values, and you know, if you don’t have that, your company won’t grow, and it’s doomed, etcetera, etcetera”. Well, I call BS on that. Otherwise, how can British American Tobacco exist?

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: If you’re making your money off selling tobacco to kids that are… Where you can get away with selling it to kids maybe in the Middle East or in the Far East where the law isn’t as tight, I’d say your values and purpose are probably pretty broken, yet you are insanely profitable. So for me, it’s not so much that you have to do it, but it is a choice that every CEO and leadership team can make with regards to: What kind of a company do they want to be leading? What do they wanna go home and tell their kids, their other halves, their parents about the companies that they work in?

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah.

Toby Mildon: And so at its heart, really, what this is about is about getting to a place where humanity is no longer serving business, but business is serving humanity. ‘Cause I think we’ve flipped the means and the ends around. We’ve got ourselves to a place where capitalism is the goal, and we’re all the fodder that goes into the machine that feeds capitalism. Whereas, the reality is even in capitalism’s origins, that it was about making the world a better place for humanity, and we seem to have lost that and swapped things around. And that’s what Beyond the Quarter is about. Sorry, really long story, but that’s how I got to where I got to.

Toby Mildon: That’s really cool. And from what I’ve read, the younger people are attracted to more purpose-driven organisations, so Millennials and Generation Z. And that’s a huge generalisation, but that seems to be the trend for employees.

Iyas AlQasem: It is definitely a trend for employees. Again, to your point, it is a huge generalisation and we sometimes need to be careful about that because I also… Sometimes, I look and I think, well, actually, I don’t think it’s just… It isn’t just Millennials. There’s a bunch of middle-aged people who are now seeing this as an important thing. I think actually, we’ve probably just got to a place in the evolution of society and the capitalism where people are looking at and are thinking, “Maybe this has just gone a bit too far, and we need to put it right”.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: And as far as the Millennials and Gen Z are concerned, that’s all they’ve known. They’ve grown up in that environment and so perhaps, their take on it is a little bit different just because that’s all they’ve known. But the reality is I think a lot of society is heading that way ’cause it’s… We can’t go on with the kind of crony exploitative capitalism that we’ve been busily building over the last 40 years since the wonderful Milton Friedman preached that the only social responsibility of the company is to its shareholders. That’s just taken us down a really bad path, and I think everyone’s realising it, not just the Millennials.

Toby Mildon: Do you think the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on organisations shifting towards being more values-led or purpose-led?

Iyas AlQasem: I think it has. And it’s interesting, when it first kicked off, I think there was a lot of fear that we would all retrench into, “Well, we just must make money”. Businesses at threat. “So forget everything else, let’s just go back to what business is supposed to be about”, and I say “supposed to” with my air quotes going up, “Which is making money”. And there was a lot of fear about that. It was quite interesting, my response was quite different at the time. My response was, “We are about to shake up the whole system. Coronavirus is about to shake everything up”, and it is. It’s proven that it is shaking everything up. And for me, I look back at any system, and any system, whether it’s a physical system or a social system or a business system that’s in flux is a system that can change enormously and where you’ve got the scope to be driving it in a certain direction. For me, when coronavirus happened, I looked at it and said, “Okay, well, a lot of things are gonna change”. And now, rather than sitting and waiting to see what that change’s gonna look like, we need to be active in driving the direction of that change. And I think a lot of organisations have been doing that.

Iyas AlQasem: I’ve been fascinated that even the most… If you were the most rabid capitalist classes in private equity and in an investment, have been looking a lot more at ESG funds. There’s been a real growth in them. And so actually, I think that there’s been both a realisation that humanity is important. It isn’t just about bottomline, and COVID forced that on us. If you’re a CEO, you were no longer looking at a downturn that was just about your money going out of the bank. It was about your people. And so we were dealing with lives as well as livelihoods. And I think that made people think of things in a different way. And those that were prepared to take a stance and see the opportunity to reshape things have also been very vocal in saying, “Okay, let’s look at this and let’s shape a better form of capitalism coming out of it”. So COVID, I think, hopefully, will leave us with one gift, having extracted so much from us along the way. I’m hoping it’s going to leave us with a gift where a lot of us have woken up to what business should be about.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah. I’m always fascinated by the disconnect, sometimes, between the stated values of an organisation and the lived values because I remember, I went to go and do some training for a client, and behind the reception desk was this massive billboard listing their values. And diversity and inclusion was, I think, the second one on the list. And I felt, “Oh, we’re off to a good start. They believe in diversity, and they believe in inclusion”.

Iyas AlQasem: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: Then when I did the training session with the staff, they were complaining about what a terrible place this was to work, and how the senior leadership team was far from diverse, and the behaviours they were exhibiting were far from being inclusive.

Iyas AlQasem: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: And I just thought, “What on earth is going on here?” [laughter]

Iyas AlQasem: Yeah, and that’s a real thing, actually. So there’s a fascinating study that was done, I think it was by the European Institute of Economic Research, on the correlation between values and company performance. And what they found was that there was… As you and I and anyone who believes in values would expect, there was a positive correlation between positive values and an organisation’s performance. So much so expected. And so, yeah, dull, if you will. What I found more interesting was that they showed that the companies that had articulated values, but then done nothing about living them underperformed the market by about as much as those who’d articulated them and lived them were overperforming. And so you very quickly get to the conclusion that in fact, and I’ve seen this with a couple of clients that I’ve talked to, where I’ll talk to them and say, “Well, if you’re not prepared to actually do values rather than just articulate them, then I’m not interested in doing the work”. Because where it leads you to the conclusion is that you’re actually better off not saying anything at all about values if you’re not prepared to then go and do the work of living them.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: And I think that’s what happens with the case of companies. It’s interesting, there’s an organisation with core values. There was one company, a famous company. Its core values were respect, integrity, communication and excellence. They sound like reasonable enough values, right? Respect, communication, integrity, fantastic. That was Enron.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, oh, yeah. [chuckle]

Iyas AlQasem: A spectacular case study where the values… And the values were plastered all over the place, all over their offices, everywhere, but clearly, just not what the leadership and the organisation believed in. Just an absolute case study in what happens when there’s complete dissonance between what you say your values are and what you go and do.

Toby Mildon: Yes, I suppose as an organisation, you need to have your stated values, but you need to work really hard to make sure that people are living those values day-to-day.

Iyas AlQasem: Yeah, absolutely. And that actually is a lot of the work that I engage with. Because you need to make that happen, but you also need to make that happen in an enterprise that is commercially viable, which means it has to be both profitable and cash-flow positive. We can look at purpose and values and say it starts there, and it does start there. But it can’t stop there. And I’ve been guilty. So in my past, one piece I didn’t mention in my story of how I got to where I got to was a startup that I had that failed. So I did start up a company that was about getting children to engage more with the physical world and with social activities, and do things that weren’t essentially online. And I used the online paradigm, it was essentially a social network, but gave them rewards for doing things in the offline world, whether that was teaching a friend 10 words of Japanese, or how to curl a ball into the top left corner of a goal post, or drawing some art, or whatever it is. And it was very much purpose-founded. I had four young children and I saw how engaged they were in machines and I was like, “Okay, the machines are good, but they need to be doing the other stuff, too”.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: Absolutely about purpose and values, couldn’t get the commercial model right. And it ended up, the company failed, took a lot of my savings with it. But that was, for me, a prime example of starting purely with saying, “Here’s a great purpose and I wanna serve this purpose, and I wanna make it happen”. If you’re doing that in a commercial enterprise and you haven’t figured out the commercial model, then you’re actually gonna end up underserving your purpose. So for me, it’s about: How do you do those things? How do you do the purpose and values, but embed them into a commercially-positive organisation? Which is essentially what I did previously in the consultancies that I had. And that means doing the hard work of figuring out: How do you lead with them?

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: How do they get embedded in your processes? How do they get impacted across your stakeholders? There’s ways to do this, as you well know, because that’s absolutely what making D&I real in a company is about. So there are ways to do that, but you have to be explicit in addressing them and making sure that they are embedded.

Toby Mildon: I try and get my clients to think more strategically about diversity and inclusion. So I show them a picture of a pyramid.

Iyas AlQasem: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: At the top of the pyramid is purpose and vision. In the middle of the pyramid is objectives or their key results. At the bottom of the pyramid is their values. And then at the bottom, right at the bottom of the pyramid is basically your diversity and inclusion strategy. And I get my clients to think about: How can your diversity and inclusion strategy enable and empower all of the above?

Iyas AlQasem: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: So if you have a value around innovation and creativity, we know that with diversity, you get an increase in innovation. You get out of group-think, you get people coming from all sorts of backgrounds with different perspectives, and that helps drive innovation. So therefore, that will drive that value. And that value might then drive a goal around innovating new products and shipping new products, which might help you fulfil your purpose. So is that a kind of thing you’ve come across before?

Iyas AlQasem: Yeah, no, no, absolutely, absolutely. And I think for me… I told you upfront, I’m not a D&I specialist. When we drill down into the absolute detail of how you would go and implement D&I, that’s when I would say to them, “Go and speak to someone like to Toby ’cause you wanna get absolutely into the heart of how this happens, rather than just have somebody who’s helping you execute an overall business strategy”. But it is absolutely about that. And I think it’s interesting, it is about the perspective. We talk about diversity, but the reality is that the business performance comes out of, more than anything, it’s the cognitive diversity. And that cognitive diversity is what allows you to innovate, what gives you strength and depth. And that cognitive diversity comes from people having diverse backgrounds and having diverse experiences and… But where it actually turns into the business benefit is around cognitive diversity, and it’s incredible how overlooked that is, still. I don’t think people realise, organisations realise enough either how this is… The opportunity cost of not doing it or how to actually make that happen.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. So I think one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you was because I felt there was this connection between what you do and what I do. You help organisations grow through values and purpose. And then I talk about inclusive growth, how organisations can grow by being more inclusive and having a diverse workforce. So what’s your perspective on what inclusive growth actually means?

Iyas AlQasem: I’ll come back to the cognitive diversity aspect. I think if we… So we can look at an inclusive organisation, but if we’re looking at, explicitly, at inclusive growth, how does your organisation grow through inclusiveness and diversity? For me, that turns into not just, “Have you got people at the top who are from diverse backgrounds?” That is important. It doesn’t get too much focus, but I think other areas need to get as much focus. [chuckle] And the other area, specifically, is: What does your pipeline look like that allows people to get there? I think it’s very easy to have the headliner, “We have X percentage women on our board”, or, “X percentage people with disabilities or of ethnic backgrounds”, or whatever. And it’s great to have that as a headline. But more often than not in a lot of companies, they’re in the headline because almost they’re outliers rather than they’re a consequence of the system that’s got them there.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: And so for me, inclusive growth is about having a system in place that allows people to develop through the organisation and get there so that you’re not… And I don’t think it’s unfair to call it tokenism, but sometimes, it feels like that. But you’re not getting isolated cases that are at the top and taking that as a tick in the box that, “Therefore, I’ve done diversity ’cause I’ve got a black woman on my board, and I’ve got someone who has XY disability and an Asian man. And I’ve now done diversity, tick the box”.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. [chuckle]

Iyas AlQasem: It’s like: How did they get there? How? What does it look like through the whole of the rest of your organisation? What have you done to promote that? What have you done to allow people to face that? What are you doing in the boardroom? It’s interesting, I sit in the boardroom and it’s… The types of discrimination, as you all well know, they surface in ways that are sometimes incredibly subtle and hard to spot.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: I’ve sat… The number of times, and this happens, I see this a lot with women, and I hate to stereotype, but so I’m stereotyping men as I am women with this. We’re sat in a leadership team and the hot debate kicks off. And invariably, the blokes all dive in with their various view points. And I don’t hear much from the woman in the room. And then when the blokes have calmed down, the woman pipes up with a very valid opinion, but gets dismissed at that point because it’s perceived as if, “We’ve had the debate, it’s all over. Why you’re now bringing this up again?”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: And so it’s a double penalty because, A, not engaged in the discussion in the first place, but, B, then when you are… When it is brought up, you’re almost sort of beaten down for having brought… Before having brought it up. It was only, I saw this sort of three or four times before I suddenly clicked that there was a pattern here. But these things are just, they’re there in the culture, and the culture doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Toby Mildon: That’s the thing, it’s very small micro-behaviours. We know about micro-incivilities, so that there’s small acts of behaviour that undermine people.

Iyas AlQasem: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: And they can be directed towards a particular characteristic like your gender or ethnicity or disability, that kind of thing. But we also know that things like unconscious bias, it’s very subtle, it’s very unintended, and it’s automatic behaviour. It’s just it’s a product of social conditioning. It’s a product of the way that our brains are designed and wired and… Try unravelling that. As a senior leader, you’ve got enough to worry about without having to unpick all of that.

Iyas AlQasem: Absolutely, and I think… But there’s a couple of things that sort of that brings to mind for me. One is I do think we’ve moved. We’ve moved so far. I came to the UK in the late 1970s. And the things that I was called in school at the time, because I am a Palestinian Arab and I have an Arab name, are… They’re words that you just don’t hear in society anymore. [chuckle] I remember when I was first going for work after university. The employment agency that I won’t name ’cause they still exist, that I went and registered with, asked me to put a photo of myself with the CVs. Now, this was in the days when photos were taken with cameras with film, and you would go and you would print them out and you would cut out the square, and that would be your photo, that would be your passport photo. And I was told to staple one to my CV. And I found it really odd ’cause I’m not, it’s not… I’ve never been a particularly handsome man. [chuckle] What’s that gotta do with anything, right? And eventually, I figured this out. I spoke to an HR, someone in an HR department in a company that I was actually temping at, at the time, and they said, “Actually, it’s quite easy. When people see your CV with your name, they assume you’re Pakistani. They will want a photo on to see that you’re actually white”. And I’ve found that offensive at so many levels. But that was the mid to late 1980s.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: And now, we’ve gone completely beyond that, and that’s a great thing. But also for me, the other point and you mentioned this about leaders and the ability to deal with, I think there’s a… I think we’ve got a bit of a crisis of leadership going on at the moment anyway. For a variety of reasons, we’ve got to a place where there’s a much higher expectation of there being black and white answers for everything, that there’s a binary answer that I can look at this topic and I have an answer, and therefore, I can make that decision based on that answer, and it’s indisputable, and it’s… I can almost trace it through a spreadsheet formula and find the input variables, and I’ve got my answer in terms of how I lead in what I do. But the reality is there’s a massive amount of grey in leadership, in humanity. And that’s actually what makes humanity magnificent. If there wasn’t that grey, we wouldn’t able to be so curious.

Iyas AlQasem: And so I think there’s a bit of crisis in leadership in that we are looking for a binary answer when actually, in the end, it comes down to wisdom and judgment that comes from experience and from humanity. On D&I, just like on most other topics, there isn’t a… I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer. There is a view, a perspective that you will have, a view or perspective that I’ll have, a view and perspective that anyone has. There are some basic core values or basic ethics that I think ought to be adhered to. But above that, we’re all trying to find the answer.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: And in doing so, we’re just on this endless journey, which I think is the same journey that’s taken us from a place where I was being told to put a photo of my white face on a CV because it might help me get a job, to a place where now, we’re actually looking at blind CVs.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Iyas AlQasem: And it’s just that same journey. We’re just constantly shifting the conversation forward and upward. And that’s a good thing, that’s a really good thing.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. Well, yes, thank you ever so much for joining me on today’s show. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, ’cause they like the sound of the work that you do, how should they do that?

Iyas AlQasem: So there is two ways. The best way is to find me on LinkedIn. One of the really bad things about having a name like Iyas AlQasem, which I’m sure will be in the show notes, is it’s terrible to spell. One of the great things having about it is that there’s no other that I’ve ever met. [chuckle] So you can find me on LinkedIn or just go to beyondthequarter.com.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well, thanks, Iyas, for joining me today. It’s been lovely to chat with you. And thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. Hope you enjoyed my conversation with Iyas, and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode, which will be coming up shortly. Until then, take care. Thanks very much.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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