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Leadership Lessons with… Barry Johnston, Founding Partner and COO of Purpose Union

Why the 2020s are the ‘purpose decade’, how empathy and resilience are two sides of the same coin, and the one thing talent misses about purpose-driven work. We recently spoke with Barry Johnston, Founding Partner and COO of Purpose Union, all about his move to the communications and advocacy space.

Take a look.


What inspired you to start Purpose Union?

My co-founders, Daniela and Lewis, and I were acutely aware of the shift in expectations for corporations. Increasing societal demands were leading to a long-awaited understanding within a lot of businesses that they had a meaningful place in wider society.

We found there was a unified triangle between public, private, and social sectors. any of the big issues of the day - inequality, diversity, inclusion, climate change and so on - will only be resolved by looking across those three perspectives.

The 2020s are what we call the "purpose decade". Our thesis at the start of the decade was that decision-making was going to change  within companies, and politically and socially, the balance of power was too. There has been a  huge demographic shift with Millennials now assuming ministerial, CEO and CFO roles, and Gen Z loudly entering the workforce. We wanted Purpose Union to be at the forefront. 

What do you think are the key qualities needed from leaders, especially in this space, in the coming years?

Empathy and resilience. These are two sides of the same coin. Before a person walks into your office, you don't know what they've dealt with in their life. As a leader, it’s essential to have empathy for what a person has going in their life, and how world events might be affecting them.

Leaders who are managing a lot of Gen Z'ers and Millennials often struggle with the balance of expectations between duty of care and the need for accountability and performance in an organisation. And that's where as leaders, modelling resilience is important, particularly to more junior professionals. I consciously talk as much about the times I've 'failed' as I do about when I’ve  succeeded in my career.

On the flipside, the work we do is reputation-defining. We need our team to be at its best. The quality of our thinking has to be top-notch. I work on a progressive 40-40-20 principle. The idea here is that the first 40% of our work is pass-fail (i.e. the basics are right); the next 40% is about getting it to good and having the chance to critique work and develop the quality of outputs; then the final 20% is where the work is refined and perfected before it reaches the client.

We want people to have the kind of resilience to see critique not as a criticism, but as a way of improving. That developmental resilience is what we try to build into the culture of the organisation.

How have you seen the wider industry support employees’ wellbeing, and how do you do the same at Purpose Union?

Healthy, happy, hardworking. These are the three pillars our internal policy is shaped around. We embed this in several ways across the organisation.

Importantly, we don't distinguish between physical and mental health. Instead, we have a wellness policy where it all comes under one. We encourage volunteering opportunities and passion projects to support long-term happiness beyond the 9-5. And we give people more agency over their working schedules, shaping that to suit their needs and productivity styles. These policies all contribute to wider team wellbeing, and we bake this into our check-ins with the whole team and in individual 1:1s.

The success of what you do will live or die with the quality of the talent you have around you, and the way you treat those people. We know at Purpose Union that if you get those two things right, you will succeed.

How is the purpose-driven advocacy and comms industry evolving, and what new roles and opportunities are you seeing?

The biggest mark of the success of the 'purpose industry' is the slightly crazy criticism it's currently facing. The so-called ‘anti-woke’’ movement is living proof that  those who are invested in - and obviously benefit from - the status quo are rattled. The conversations we're regularly having with organisations about sourcing talent, bringing in new generations of workers and retaining staff are  all driven by the simple fact  that professionals want their employer to have an aligned moral compass. There's now a different expectation on stakeholders and businesses, and they're rising to the challenge because it’s not going anywhere.

What's also really apparent is a shift in the skill sets needed in the comms and advocacy space. The old-school days of broadcast, media relations and parliamentary meetings are no longer the only skills you need. Now, there's an emphasis on investor relations, sustainability, HR and DEI skills and so much more. 

Big data and AI are obviously going to continue to change things but that won’t replace good strategy thinking, emotional intelligence, and good political antenna. 

What do you think leaders can do to drive diversity and inclusion within the workplace and beyond?   

We talk a lot about succession planning, and see D&I as one of our corporate non-negotiables. Where we most see success is when these principles are led by C-Suite. If it was easy to shift the entrenched structures that reinforce inequality, it would have already happened. So you're going to have to be in it for the long haul. It can take years of investment in listening and understanding people, and taking action accordingly. There are no quick fixes.

What advice would you give to candidates looking to move into a more purpose-driven, social space?

One of the big mistakes I see from prospective candidates is the idea that they're moving into a softer, fluffier space. You need the hard skills to do this as well as the right intentions. Purpose-driven advocacy and comms are not an easy sideways step in your career, but something where you're really managing reputation-defining, legacy-level issues. It's exciting and important, and often difficult and challenging.

Businesses can't sacrifice quality for good intentions.

Posted on 07.02.2024

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