Sarah Gillard is a passionate advocate for making businesses “more human”. She has 25 years of experience leading in fast-paced commercial environments, most recently as the Director of Purpose at John Lewis, and is now CEO of A Blueprint for Better Business, an independent charity whose purpose is to create a better society through better business.
What does purpose mean to you?
To me purpose is a long term ambition. You might never achieve it, but it’s always pulling you forward into the future, encouraging you to work towards it. I also think purpose should describe a positive impact. I wouldn’t call “being rich” a purpose, because it doesn’t set out to positively change something in the external world.
When do you feel the most purposeful?
Every day I reflect on how I’ve made progress. What’s moved forward that day? How have I made people feel in conversation? What have I learned? How have I connected ideas? I think we have the capacity to make every day purposeful; we just need to find ways of interpreting it as being so.
What is your idea of professional fulfilment?
If you are able to spend your working hours doing something that you are proud of – not just because of what you’ve personally achieved, but because of the positive impact that it’s having on others – that to me, is professional fulfilment. And if you’ve managed to find a tribe of people who all want to achieve the same thing; that’s pure joy.
What do you think is the hardest thing about being purpose-driven?
For me it’s being accused of naivety. I think it’s a lot easier to be cynical. But imagine if everybody was a cynic; it’s not a world that you’d want to live in.
I much prefer to be called a ‘practical idealist’. Enthusiasm is probably the most underrated quality in business. Progress is made by people who believe that things can be better, that acknowledge all the positives and negatives of a situation, but find the energy and courage to make a change.
Which leaders have inspired you?
Early on in my career, I attended a talk by the entrepreneur, CEO and writer, Margaret Heffernan. And quite unlike me, at the end of it I went up to her and said: “I think you’re marvelous. Can we go for lunch?” She was kind enough to say yes.
We’ve met many times since then, and she’s become a mentor to me. She is absolutely inspirational in her future-thinking mindset; her fearlessness about taking on the status quo. She cares deeply about people and the planet, and she uses her platform to lift others up, to find the courage to go on their own journey. That for me, is true leadership.
What’s your hope for the future of business?
Humanising business. ‘Business’ as a term sounds really impersonal, but all it really is is people coming together to achieve more than they could achieve on their own.
“‘Business’ as a term sounds really impersonal, but all it really is is people coming together to achieve more than they could achieve on their own.”
We need to make sure that businesses recognise the humanity of what they’re trying to achieve. Work occupies so much of our waking hours, and it can be a deforming or an enabling experience. I think creating the right conditions for people to flourish – to be imaginative, creative and collaborative – is really critical, not only to help us grow as individuals, but it’s also the only way that we’re going to solve the biggest challenges in the world.
It’s in businesses’ interest to think hard about what it does, how it does it, and the quality of relationships that they are creating. Is the product or service that it’s creating genuinely positive for people and planet? How are the quality of relationships with employees, customers, suppliers, communities, investors? Are they enhancing human lives?
Not only is this a good thing to do in itself – there’s a moral argument for it – it makes business sense to do it too. So my hope for business is that more of them wake up to that fact and begin to truly serve society.
When did you feel like giving up?
Sometimes it really does feel like you’re swimming upstream. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at the scale of the challenge and how far away we are from a system that promotes human wellbeing and environmental sustainability, particularly if you feel that you’re the only voice in your organisation that’s trying to change things.
At times like these, you have to find your allies. It might be tough, but there are lots of other people out there learning from each other, supporting each other, and celebrating the small wins. All of that is really critical to being able to get up the next day and carry on.
What keeps you motivated on tough days?
It’s useful to think: “Where were we a year ago? Two years ago? Five years ago?” If you’re having a difficult conversation, think: “could we even have had this conversation three years ago?” If the answer is no, then you’ve made progress.
I used to climb mountains when I was younger. It was really challenging, but then you had the feeling of looking down and saying: “Wow – what a favourable distance I’ve come!” Often, it’s only when you look back that you’re able to see how far you’ve come. And from this we can find the strength to keep going up.
“Often, it’s only when you look back that you’re able to see how far you’ve come. And from this we can find the strength to keep going up.”
What would you like to be remembered for?
I don’t really need to be remembered by anyone. Apart from my kids. I’d quite like them to remember me dancing in the kitchen to ’80s cheese.