In his work with business leaders and senior teams, Mark Burrell, a consultant and managing partner of Axialent, often asks his clients to name the people who inspire them.
“I’m more likely to hear about politicians, great historical figures or even celebrities than people in business,“ he says. “I find that fascinating because I believe that being a business leader is a very noble pursuit. We’re finding ways to create value for society, solving intractable problems through the process of mutual exchange and creating goods and services that improve other people’s lives – but we often lose sight of that. I would love all business leaders to embrace nobility because it opens the door to recognising the wonderful opportunities for creating positive outcomes in society that come with being a director or manager.”
Burrell is committed to helping others to develop great businesses and, as individuals, to function at their best.
“I have always had a deep interest in two things,” he says. “The first is people – what makes them tick and what creates the conditions for excellence, courage and extraordinary human behaviours. The second is business as a vehicle for shaping communities and society. I consider myself very fortunate to have a career that embraces them both.”
Burrell worked at BHP, Qantas and Stockland before co-founding and taking the role of managing director at Interaction, a strategy and leadership consulting company. Then, in 2007, he moved to Axialent where, as leader of the Australian team, he coaches and mentors leaders and senior teams across the Asia Pacific.
From its inception in 2002, Axialent has used the term “conscious business” to describe the processes that shape outstanding organisations.
“The businesses we describe as ‘conscious’ have a culture that creates meaning and people who are aligned with a higher purpose,” he says. “They recognise that success is a function of integrating three things: achieving sustainable results; creating the conditions for people to feel happy and fulfilled; and having relationships throughout the whole community of stakeholders that are characterised by trust and respect.”
Burrell says he and his colleagues are seeing a global trend towards incorporating a noble purpose into their core function. “I think this is the result of a range of influences, including an increasing sense of dissatisfaction with focusing solely on economic success. I also think there’s growing awareness that, while most organisations have stated values, these are often transactional – we value this behaviour because it will get us what we want – and, therefore, are more like strategies.
“It’s when you put purpose and values together, you get something profoundly different – a much deeper expression of your basic belief and how that can manifest. For example, I might say that my core value is courage, which sounds terrific but it can mean anything from climbing a mountain or bungee jumping off a bridge to speaking in public. However, if I’m a doctor and I say my purpose is to prevent children from dying, we place the value in a very different context. The question becomes not just ‘how can I show courage?’ but ‘how can having courage help us to create services that will save children’s lives?’”
There is enormous opportunity for directors to be much more coherent and powerful.
A dangerous vacuum
Burrell believes that boards have a unique role to play in helping management to create an effective culture.
“The starting point is clarifying the guiding philosophy – what we are about as an organisation, what we believe, what contribution we want to make, how we want to conduct ourselves as we pursue our goals and how we can build an organisation that is fully aligned to those goals. If directors aren’t challenging the executive on these fundamental considerations, setting the standard and providing a role model, they’re leaving a dangerous vacuum. But we still see some who are so focused on economic returns for shareholders that the broader issues are either subordinated or simply not discussed.
“Maximising economic returns for shareholders is a legitimate goal that must be achieved and, of course, the board is responsible for governing areas such as strategy and risk. But I do think there is enormous opportunity for directors to be much more coherent and powerful in the way they help their executive and management build a culture that is an extension of their guiding philosophy.”
Adapting to change
These days, most of Burrell’s board-level clients are wrestling with the challenge of how best to govern in a very complex, fast-changing world.
“Just about every organisation is facing some form of disruption, often as a result of consumers wanting or expecting something different from them,” he says. “Some are responding in a very positive way – for example, an insurance company I’ve been working with is transforming the traditional notion of insurance as a grudge purchase by redefining its purpose as helping to make the world a safer place for its customers. They’re not pretending it’s the perfect solution but I think it’s a great example of what you can achieve when you clarify your purpose and then look at disruption through a wider lens than financial success.”
Burrell considers the relationships he has formed with both colleagues and clients to be his most significant business achievements. “I really enjoy the process of growing and developing together,” he says.
The only thing he would change in his past would be to dive much sooner and more deeply into the process of understanding his own fears and limiting beliefs – the work he describes as “growing himself up”.
“The more you can upgrade your internal operating system and mature as a person the more you’re able to access the skills and capacity needed to be a great leader,” he says. “I wish I’d understood that earlier, and also the importance of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Some business leaders feel uncomfortable about showing any sign of vulnerability but I think the boards and executive teams that truly stand apart are those whose members are able to embrace their vulnerability and have the capacity to be honest with each other about their own internal process as it relates to the overall vision – everything they’re working together to create.”