How to Serve Humanity With Business

Iyas AlQasem is the Founder and Managing Partner of Beyond the Quarter. Iyas works with businesses to help them grow and to have values and purpose at the core of that growth.  I began by asking what led to Iyas setting up Beyond the Quarter consultancy. 

I started my serious working life in technology consulting helping companies do business intelligence. Essentially this was analysing data and coming to conclusions from that. I co-founded a consultancy for that work and we grew to a team of around 40, with a turnover of 3.5 million or so. We then got acquired by one of our investors. What I didn’t know when we got acquired was that they had a bit of a staff churn issue 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. After a couple of attempts to fix that, in a drunken conversation with one of the founders, I was given the dubious responsibility of taking that problem on.

Having joined the board of the company that acquired us, I took on that turnaround and led to reducing that churn down from 40% to 6%. Over those 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 only 12 people a year.

The interesting thing that I found in doing that was that there wasn’t any particular magic. I wish I could say, “Here’s the formula” and it was some big secret that nobody knew anything about. What actually happened was quite simply that 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. The more difficult bit was having said that, I then went and demonstrated it. Saying something is relatively easy. Going and doing it takes a little bit more discipline. That was what 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.  The values weren’t just posters on the wall or bullet points on an About Us page, it was how things happened. And we continued growing to over 300 people. We got acquired by a big American corporation, and then I took on a consulting team of about 500 people across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Eventually, I left because my values and purpose, and the way that I believed in things was different from the organisation’s.

I’m keen to make the point that it was just different, not that it was better or worse. My perspective is that if something does not fit my values it’s not necessarily bad it’s just not resonating with my purpose and what I believe in. When I am misaligned with what an organisation is trying to do it’s best to leave.

Bringing Values and Purpose to Life

Although I’d grown 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 which is what led me to start Beyond the Quarter. It was about that belief that companies need to be looking at how they put values and purpose at the heart of what they do and recognise that it’s a good way for a company to grow. It isn’t the only way though. 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?

If a company is making its money selling tobacco to kids that are 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 want to go home and tell their kids, their other halves, their parents about the companies that they work in?

I’m talking about getting to a place where humanity is no longer serving business, but business is serving humanity. 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, long story, but that’s how I got to where I got to.’

I reflected to Iyas that, from what I’ve read, younger people like  Millennials and Generation Z, are more attracted to purpose-driven organisations. Of course, that’s a huge generalisation, but it certainly seems to be a workforce trend.

Iyas agreed. ‘It is definitely a trend for employees. Again, to your point, it is a huge generalisation. We sometimes need to be careful about that because I think it isn’t just Millennials. There’s a bunch of middle-aged people who are now seeing this as an important thing. We’ve probably got to a place in the evolution of society and 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.”

As far as the Millennials and Gen Z are concerned they’ve grown up in that environment and so perhaps, their take on it is a little bit different because that’s all they’ve known. I think the reality is that a lot of society is heading that way. 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 believe everyone’s realising it, not only Millennials.’

Effects of the Pandemic

I asked Iyas if he thinks that the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on organisations shifting towards being more values-led or purpose-led?

‘I think it has. It’s interesting. When it first kicked off, there was a lot of fear that we would all retrench into, “Well, we must make money. Businesses are threatened. 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”. There was a lot of fear about that. It was quite interesting.

At the time, my response was different, “We are about to shake up the whole system. Coronavirus is about to shake everything up” and so it has proven to be. I look back at any system that’s in flux, whether it’s physical, social or business because that system can change enormously, particularly when you’ve got the scope to be driving it in a certain direction.

When coronavirus happened, I looked at it and said, “Okay, well, a lot of things are going to change”. Rather than sitting and waiting to see what that change is going to look like, we need to be active in driving the direction of that change. I think a lot of organisations have been doing that.

It’s fascinating. Even if you were the most rabid capitalist classes in private equity and in an investment, looking at ESG funds (funds with environmental, social and governance factors integrated into the investment process) there’s been a real growth in them. So I think that there’s been both a realisation that humanity is important. It isn’t just about the bottom line. COVID has forced that on us.

If you’re a CEO, you were no longer looking at a downturn that was solely 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. 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, 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.’

Living Values

I am in agreement with Iyas here. I’ve always been fascinated by the disconnect, sometimes, between the stated values of an organisation and the lived values. I remember once, I went to go and do some training for a client, and behind the reception desk was this massive billboard listing their values. 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”.

When I did the training session with the staff, they were complaining about what a terrible place this was to work, how the senior leadership team was far from diverse, and the behaviours they were exhibiting were far from being inclusive. I was left wondering, “What on earth is going on here?”

Iyas pointed out a study by the European Institute of Economic Research, on the correlation between values and company performance. They found that there was a positive correlation between positive values and an organisation’s performance.

He continued, ‘Expected and pretty dull if you will. What I found more interesting was that they showed that the companies that had articulated values, but then did nothing about living them underperformed the market by about as much as those who’d articulated them and lived them were overperforming.

So you very quickly get to the conclusion that I’ve actually seen with a couple of clients that I’ve talked to. I 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.

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.

This is a spectacular case study where the values were plastered all over the place. All over their offices, everywhere. Clearly, they just were not what the leadership and the organisation believed in.  Enron is what happens when there’s complete dissonance between what you say your values are and what you go and do.’

It’s always been clear to me that as organisations, stated values are necessary, but then everyone needs to work really hard to make sure that people are living those values day-to-day. I asked if that is a lot of the work Iyas engages with?

‘Yes 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. I’ve been guilty in my past. I did a start-up that was about getting children to engage more with the physical world and with social activities, and do things that weren’t all online. I used the online paradigm. It was essentially a social network that 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 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”.

It was absolutely about purpose and values, but I couldn’t get the commercial model right. The company failed and took a lot of my savings with it. For me, it was a prime example of starting purely with saying, “Here’s a great purpose and I want to serve this purpose and make it happen”. If you’re doing that in a commercial enterprise and you haven’t figured out the commercial model, then you will end up under-serving your purpose. So for me, it’s about asking “How do you do the purpose and values, but embed them into a commercially-positive organisation? How do they get embedded in your processes? How do they get impacted across your stakeholders?” There are ways to do this. It’s what making diversity and inclusion real in a company is all about.’

The Link with Diversity and Inclusion

To try and get my clients to think more strategically about diversity and inclusion I show them a picture of a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid are 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?”

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 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.

I asked Iyas if that is the kind of thing he’d come across before?

‘I’m not a D&I specialist. When we drill down into the absolute detail of how to implement D&I, that’s when I would say to them, “Go and speak to someone like Toby because you want to get 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, cognitive diversity. And that cognitive diversity is what allows you to innovate, what gives you strength and depth. That cognitive diversity comes from people having diverse backgrounds and having diverse experiences. 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 the opportunity cost of not doing it or how to actually make that happen.’

This is definitely one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to Iyas. I feel there is this connection between what he does and what I do. Beyond the Quarter helps organisations grow through values and purpose. I talk about inclusive growth and how organisations can grow by being more inclusive and having a diverse workforce. To bring the two strands together I asked Iyas what his perspective is on inclusive growth and what it really means?

‘I’ll come back to the cognitive diversity aspect. We can look at an inclusive organisation, but if we’re looking at inclusive growth, how does your organisation grow through inclusiveness and diversity? For me, that turns into not only having leadership from diverse backgrounds which is an important and frequent focus but also other areas that need focus too. Another area, specifically, is asking “What does your pipeline look like that allows people to get there?”

I think it’s very easy to have the headline, “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.

Inclusive Growth

For me, inclusive growth is about having a system in place that allows people to develop through the organisation and get into those top roles. At the moment, I don’t think it’s unfair to call it tokenism, because sometimes, it feels like that. For inclusive growth, it’s important 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 because 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”.

You need to ask, “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 the types of discrimination, as we all well know, they surface in ways that are sometimes incredibly subtle and hard to spot. The number of times, and this happens, I see this a lot with women, and I hate to stereotype, but I’m stereotyping men as I am women with this example. We’re sitting in a leadership team and the hot debate kicks off. And invariably, the blokes all dive in with their various viewpoints. And I don’t hear much from the woman in the room. 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 are you bringing this up again now?”

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

That cultural thing, highlighted by Iyas is made up of those very small micro-behaviours. We know about micro-incivilities, and there are those small acts of behaviour that undermine people. They can be directed towards a particular characteristic like someone’s gender or ethnicity or disability. We also know that things like unconscious bias, which can be subtle and unintended automatic behaviour.  These can be products of social conditioning and of the way that our brains are designed and wired. To unravel that is a lot. Senior leaders have enough to worry about without having to unpick all of that.

The Diversity and Inclusion Journey

 Iyas was keen to highlight that there has been movement on this. ‘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 words that you just don’t hear in society anymore. I remember when I was first going for work after university, an employment agency that I won’t name because they still exist, that I went and registered with, asked me to put a photo of myself with the CV. This was in the days when passport-type 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. I was told to staple one to my CV. I found it odd because what’s that got to do with anything?

Eventually, I figured this out. I spoke to someone in an HR department in a company that I was actually temping at, at the time. 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 to see that you’re actually white”. I found that offensive at so many levels. But that was the mid to late 1980s and now, we’ve gone completely beyond that, and that’s a great thing. But also for me, the other point is that 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. As if the answer is indisputable and can almost be traced through a spreadsheet formula. If I can just find the input variables, then 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. It’s actually what makes humanity magnificent. If there wasn’t that grey, we wouldn’t be able to be so curious.

The crisis in leadership is 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. With diversity and inclusion, as with many things, there isn’t 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.

In doing so, we’re 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. It’s the same journey, we’re just constantly shifting the conversation forward and upward. And that’s a good thing, that’s a really good thing.’

To find out more about Beyond the Quarter, visit the website contact Iyas AlQasem check out his LinkedIn page.

How to Serve Humanity With Business - Mildon