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CEO Talks with Garrett Johnston: A Leadership Brief on Leading with Purpose

The pandemic has accelerated trends that are likely to reshape business management for years to come. A lot has been said about purpose-driven businesses and Garrett Johnston, founder and CEO of Epiphany, has been leading that conversation for some time now.

CEO Talks by Inna Kuts: My Never Boring Talk with Garrett Johnston

Throughout his career, Garrett has put his values front and center, and he recently joined me for an insightful talk as my first guest this season.

Garrett has an extraordinary story. Born in Dublin, Ireland, he has built an exceptional career in strategic marketing and sales, worked in 14 different countries around the world - from Europe and the United States to India, South Africa, and Russia. Having encyclopedic knowledge in many areas, he speaks 10 languages fluently.

He has been responsible and accountable for annual revenues in the $US 10 billion range. Garrett has held multi-year VP and C-level roles in companies such as PwC, CenturyLink, Alcatel-Lucent, Capgemini, Ernst & Young, Telenor, Avaya, MTS, X5 Retail Group, and Digicel.

In our conversation, we discussed his personal evolution, leadership in the time of COVID, and also:

  • How to start a business by chance and be an entrepreneur who doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur

  • The importance of asking the right questions and:

    - selling the idea of wealthier customers, not financial services

    - selling wonderful sleep instead of beds

    - selling citizen outcomes instead of governmental services

  • How to find the real purpose of a business and why making a purpose around technologies is not what you should look at

  • How to make a hotel chain, affected by the pandemic, profitable just by converting it into a “premium” workspace with the latest co-working technologies

  • And why CEO branding is the new corporate branding

IK: Garrett, you’ve spent over 30 years working in the corporate sector, and at some point, you decided to start your own company. What was the change driver?

GJ: It was all very unplanned. I grew up in a house where there was a huge interest in the outside world. My father spoke more than 20 languages. And my career path led me through many languages, countries, and cultures. 

In 2014 I ended up in Jamaica working for Ireland's richest man - a guy called Dennis O’Brien. Dennis brought me out to the Caribbean places like Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. When I was in El Salvador, I met the local entrepreneurial community. Being a Spanish speaker, I started working with them on their projects on the weekends. Without doing any marketing of any kind, people were coming to me and asking me for advice. I realized that rather than living and moving from country to country, it would be great if I had a company where I could work across all the countries and all the industries to learn from one to another. I thought I should make a business out of this. 

My business started really by chance - there was no plan for it. That was the only way I can get the full benefit of my multilingual, multicultural, and multi-industry skills.

My entrepreneurship was a process of reductionism or a process of elimination. And really, my goal was not to be an entrepreneur. The goal was to engage with as many countries, cultures, businesses, and situations as possible. To make them better and to make me better.

IK: Currently, you own a business consultancy. You call it a “purpose-as-a-service” company. How do you see the difference between traditional business management consulting and “purpose-as-a-service” consulting?

GJ: When COVID started, I took my old business, which was about strategy consulting, and I realized that what companies really needed was not a strategy. It was more of a strategy behind the strategy. Kind of a master plan that doesn't change with technologies and time. A vision, a purpose, around which you make the customers greater, make the stakeholders greater, make the company greater.

I realized that a lot of companies were asking the wrong questions. The strategies they had were the right answers to the wrong questions.

Banks, for example, will talk about ‘well, you know, we sell financial services’. Even though they're digital, integrated, and real-time, they think they are still financial services. The real opportunity is to make a wealthier customer, not just provide services. Financial services are today's way to answer that need. But there are no banks that work this way.

In the UK, my customer is the largest bed retailer in the country. We have changed their purpose - from selling beds to selling wonderful sleep. So the goal is that the customer has brilliant, refreshing, energizing, calming sleep. And the requirement is a solution that includes the beds, pillows, linen, lighting technology, wake-up technology, ambient noise, meditation, medication - you name it all around the customer. 

You know, if you make a better, wealthier, stronger, brighter, faster, cooler, kinder customer, your business is going to explode in value because the basic financial asset is the customer. This is the real purpose. This is not just net-zero. This is not just removing harm. This is about creating enormous good, so it’s net positive. 

I also target startups because, if they get the question wrong at the beginning, it's fatal. You can survive as a startup by having the wrong answer to the right question. But having the right answer to the wrong question is death. That right question is what the purpose of a startup is and what we are fighting for, ultimately.

CEO Talks by Inna Kuts: My Never Boring Talk with Garrett Johnston

Another case is large corporations who have maybe lost their way, have forgotten what their core is. We normally have to go back to their history and DNA. What was the core thing that made them successful in the first place, is that timeless? Can we redeploy it, strengthen it, reinvent it?

A third one is investment funds. So we look for venture funds that are ready to be adventurous. The purpose of a venture fund is to make better founders. Not just making money, but making founders better and making more of them.

Then we have governments. I said governments who are willing to, basically, reinvent the citizen outcomes for their governmental services.

We're talking to Iceland about that at the moment.

IK: So how to find the right business purpose? What is it about?

GJ: The real purpose is about the things that never change. And not about things that change all the time. It's not about technology. Because we see the acceleration of technology nowadays.

Making a purpose around technology is not what we should look at. The core reason for being should remain valid even if you get in a time machine and go to 2030.

You can imagine that if you open that company's purpose and read it out 10 years from now - it's still hot, it's evergreen.

So that’s the timeless essence, electrifying essences. That's what the purpose is.

Obviously, around such a purpose, we build strategies, missions, and business processes.

IK: Garrett, you work mostly with the C-suite executives. In your opinion, what ultimate questions should a CEO ask to redefine business goals and a company’s strategy?

GJ: I think the biggest question is how can we make our customers and our stakeholders wildly successful? 

What does that take? That’s the ask. How can we go from selling cameras to creating great photographers?

IK: What are the new business challenges CEOs face in the time of pandemic and how do you help them to cope with these challenges?

GJ: I see business owners very much splitting into two camps during the pandemic. One camp, which is the vast majority, sees the pandemic as a problem, as a disaster, as a situation of damage minimization and survival. 

There’s another group of entrepreneurs who see the pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild their businesses entirely. 

It's not that the guy who makes the medical masks is optimistic and the guy who owns the travel company is pessimistic. Nothing like that. I've met several very optimistic people from the travel and cruise industry. I've met very pessimistic mass manufacturers.

It's more of a recognition that what's happening now is possibly going to be the most significant event in human history. It will change everything. And those who recognize that are rebuilding their businesses. 

For example, I work with a gentleman in Switzerland who owns mid-priced hotels (currently, these hotels are empty).

He has found an ultimate need among people who work from home, have kids, and all kinds of noise around. So, he gives them a workspace and he lands the rooms out as offices. But it's not a co-working space. Everybody has their own office. They're socially distanced, but have a calm environment with nice coffee, drinks, great Wi-Fi. No need to socialize with other startups or anything like that.

He believes in 2021 he will make more money doing that than he ever made running a hotel.

And he has a vision for this. He thinks about the latest homeworking technologies for bloggers, freelancers - everything from design advice to the right equipment to meet the needs of his customers.

He wants to fit his rooms out with all the world's best Wi-Fi terminals, business lighting, noise cancellation, and refreshment pods. 

He sees his hotel as a laboratory for how to do home offices close to homes, including all the technologies, the startup ecosystem around it, and so on.

Unfortunately, as yet, those business people are a minority. I would say one in ten, maybe one in fifteen of whom I met.

IK: Managing a company in the time of the pandemic is about visionary leadership. What’s your practical input into building visionary leadership within a company?

GJ: Visionary leadership is extremely important. I mean, purpose affects visionary leadership.

Purpose becomes powerful when we take the lead and we take it from the employees to the customers. We lead the suppliers. We are the thought leaders and action leaders in that space. Because we take the idea of leadership and we apply it macro. 

The biggest contribution we make is we take the internal beauty of a company, its uniqueness, and bring that to the whole market.

And these are big changes.

For example, the HR department in such a company would not only be responsible for the human resources (employees) but would also be responsible for the customers as human resources. 

So, think about all the stuff you can do there to train, motivate, and so on - bringing the HR tech to your marketplace. 

When I say going out to your customers, I mean literally that.

IK: Brand alignment must begin at the top of the organization. Having a long career in marketing and building brands for various companies, how do you understand this statement? 

GJ: It’s not just the alignment of a brand. It is the essence. The core of a brand has to be at the top of the organization and needs to be the living incarnation of that purpose, that vision. I mean quite literally. 

CEO Talks by Inna Kuts: My Never Boring Talk with Garrett Johnston

We can see this in business owners.

We notice now more and more that the most successful businesses, at least small businesses, and even medium-sized businesses, are the ones where the owner, he or she, loves what they do and do what they love. 

The owner is really passionate about the outcomes, the changes in the world that the company makes. Be they tiny, small, or big. Especially with customers. 

It's a much bigger deal than just alignment.

Obviously, that becomes more difficult in a large company where the owner is often completely divorced from the way it’s managed. 

Even if the owner isn't around anymore, it's an infectious purpose, it infects in a powerful, timeless, and delightful manner.

IK: In this context, what’s your outlook on CEO branding? What makes a successful executive brand?

GJ: All brands should be looked at the same with the same single methodology to assess their value.

If you look at a corporate brand, an evaluation would look at its target customer segments, products, services, solutions, channels, processes, alliances, partnerships, competitors, influencers - a 360-degree business overview.

Personal branding has to be approached the same way as you would do it for corporate branding.

If it is a brand of a CEO - what does this mean? What will its products be? What will its services be? What will the pricing algorithm for the products and services be? What's the distribution strategy? What are the channels to be engaged and not engaged? How do we calculate the ROI of that brand? Where should we make investments? Where should we cut costs? What should we do more? What should we do less? What should we keep the same? What should we reinvent? Who are the competitors of this brand? What are the market drivers and inhibitors for the space this brand occupies? What are its finances? Is it profitable? If not, why? I think it has to be done with that level of rigor.

At the moment, personal branding is very much not concrete in how it is approached, and I think it needs to be made much more concrete and much more customer-centric.

Because the first question to a personal brand is who are the customers of this brand and is this brand intrinsically centric to its customers? If the brand talks about itself, it's automatically not intrinsic to its customers. A good brand will be describing the impact that the brand makes and not the person who owns it. It's about the murder and not about the pistol. The impact and not the source.

I greatly appreciate hearing from readers. Please write at and share your thoughts on addressing this topic.


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