Podcasts- Project Good Boss

EP6: Afdhel Aziz on Finding Purpose


This man is dusting the cobwebs off the sustainability and the social change agenda and just make it THE agenda and a really cool thing to be doing. Afdhel Aziz is a brand purpose consultant and has keynoted around the world on business as a force for good. Afdhel is leading the charge when it comes to innovating and finding purpose and satisfaction in what we do every day. A very cool guy and a very jam-packed 30 minutes of podcast!


Intro : You’re listening to Project Good Boss, the podcast, with your host Anna Sheppard.

Anna Sheppard : Project Good Boss is a podcast dedicated to understanding the business benefits of kindness in leadership. We cover topics including and not limited to: leadership, equality, psychology, social impact, decent work and economic growth, all delivered with a little splash of good vibes. Welcome to this episode of Project Good Boss where I am very, very proud to welcome Afdhel Aziz. Afdhel is on a mission to solve one of the biggest problems facing companies and individuals in the 21st century. How to find purpose and meaning in the work that they do? And unlock the power of business to do good in this world. Following a life changing moment when he experienced the devastating effects of the South Asian tsunami in his native Srilanka he embarked on a journey to explore inspiring work. This led to his first book, Good Is The New Cool: Market Like You Give A Damn, co authored by Bobby Jones, which explored the link between purpose and success in companies like Warby Parker, Zappos and Citibank. He’s a dynamic and inspirational speakers and has keynoted around the world on business as a force for good. And he’s given workshops on creativity, innovation and change including motivating marketing and delivering the power of purpose to millennial and Gen Zed employees. He is also the podcast host for Good Is The New Cool, create a series of podcasts that live in the intersection of cultural and social innovation. He’s also been a brilliant mentor to me over the years and a great inspiration around how we can dust the cobwebs off the sustainability and the social change agenda and just make it THE agenda and a really cool thing to be doing. So please welcome onto the show, I’m a massive fan, fangirling over here, Afdhel Aziz. Okay, welcome to Project Good Boss, Afdhel.

Afdhel Aziz : Hi Anna, how are you?

Anna Sheppard : Really, really good and I’m really glad to have you here today. I’ve been following your work for a long time and I’ve been fangirling from across the seas. And yeah, we’re on a similar journey and I thought that now we started Project Good Boss, you were one of the first people that popped into my mind that I’d want to be asking questions about: what’s happening in business? Why kindness is good for leadership. And what your predictions are for the next few years. But before I do, at Bambuddha Group, we always like to kick off with just a little bit of chitchat. I’ve noticed you’re a big fan of the snapbacks, Afdhel. Just wondering how many do you actually own?

Afdhel Aziz : I actually have about 10. There’s two reasons one is because I’m bald, and so I need to always have something to wear. But secondly, it’s because we’re trying to start a new Good Is The New Cool clothing brand. And so I’ve been experimenting. I’ve just been creating lots of different designs. If you go to the Good Is The New Cool Instagram page, the only link there, is you can order some of these hats. You got to rock the merch, mate.You’ve got to rep your brand.

Anna Sheppard : You know what? The thing is, Afdhel, you look really good in a snap back. I think I like a bit of a plonker, to be honest. I like to buy them and try them, probably once every two years, and then the feedback is, “hmmmm probably doesn’t suit you, stop trying to you pull it off.” But my partner will probably love one so I’m still gonna grab one anyway. So you’re here today because you’re doing something quite different and you’re working with a lot of different businesses and you’re trying to get them to change their ways, as we’d say. But what is it that drives and motivates you to run your business consciously? Tell me a little bit about your career story. And what moment led you to decide to create this kind of business? And maybe tell us a little bit about what you do as well?

Afdhel Aziz : Sure. Yeah. So I spent 20 years in marketing working for companies like Procter and Gamble, Nokia, Heineken, Absolut Vodka. You know, I was born in Sri Lanka, like your wonderful partner, and then left and then lived in London, and New York. I had a lot of fun in my career, doing cool things and you know, lots of music and pop culture stuff. But I kind of ran out of steam and I needed to find something that inspired me. And so that led me to going on a journey to write Good Is The New Cool, the book that that you read, which connected us in the first place, with my good friend and co author Bobby Jones. And I discovered that my new passion was the idea of business as a force for good. So I quit my job. Absolut Vodka, January 1st 2017. I set up two companies, actually. One is, Good Is The New Cool, which is the company that does all of the conferences that you came and so kindly spoke at, in Australia. It also produces things like the podcast, and various other things. We have a TV show in development. So that’s more of like the creative arm. And then I set up Conspiracy of Love, which is a brand purpose consultancy, which tries to help brands do more good in the world by getting in the trenches with them. So that’s been going on for about three and a half years now. It’s been an amazing ride. I’ll tell you that I found my purpose and I found a tremendous amount of satisfaction in what I do every day. The last three months were pretty rocky as they were for everybody, I think. But the good news is that brands are coming back with a vengeance. I think this moment has woken them up and said, Yeah, people expect a lot more from us. They want brands to show up in ways that aren’t just talking about doing good, but actually do good. Whether it’s in the social justice field or the environmental field. So our clients our brands like Adidas, Oreo cookies, you know, Redbull, all of these different kinds of brands, which are very cool, but who realised that it’s not enough to be cool anymore, they have to be doing some good in the world.

Anna Sheppard : Amazing and there’s a fine line between you know, doing the right thing and authentically doing the right thing. And I think and you know, a lot of brands walk on a tightrope with that. On one side of the branding they might be excelling in certain social issues. And then when you get under the lid, there’s all sorts of chaos going on in other areas of the business. But you meet so many inspirational people and you have so many conversations with so many characters, and I’d love to hear, who’s been your most inspirational person that you’ve met this year? That’s just made you go, “Whoa, you are incredible”.

Afdhel Aziz : Oh, man. So one of the other things I do is I write for Forbes as a contributor on this topic, which is an excellent excuse just to go and be nosy and call people up and just say, “can I get an interview?” And I’ve written 150 articles on this topic, you know, ‘business as a force for good’. This year, I met Paul Pullman, who is the former CEO of Unilever, one of my personal heroes – a guy who turned around a multi billion dollar CPG company (I think Unilever’s market cap was like 33 billion when he took over and by the time he left, it was like 58 billion or something like that) and turn it into a force for good. I think he tripled the social impact, halved the environmental impact. And Unilever, for those who don’t know, owns brands like Dove and Ben and Jerry’s, and you know Axe body spray, all of which are fantastic examples of brands trying to do this kind of work. So I got a chance to meet him. We both spoke at the National Confectioners Association, which, if you don’t know is a trade association for the candy business.

Anna Sheppard : Sound sweet. I was gonna say, yeah.

Afdhel Aziz : We put on several dozen pounds that weekend. But we were both speaking there in Florida, and he very kindly gave me some of his time to chat to him. And you can read the Forbes article, the interview with him. He’s an incredible person. So, hands down, I think the most inspirational person I met this year.

Anna Sheppard : And I think that ‘stakeholder versus shareholder’ piece is quite interesting. And Paul being an example of one of those people that managed to push it across the table with the board and get this across the line. Which is one of the biggest challenges. The ‘being kind’, the ‘being good’ is historically seen as a kind of add on, a bit of a CSR agenda that sits in one department over here. But do you believe empathy and kindness are important traits for leaders? And we come at the ‘Good Is The New Cool’ element from a ‘kindness’ perspective. And we’re building frameworks around showing and proving that it’s good for business to have these kind of traits and leadership. Why do you think it’s important for business to have leaders that actually care? Do you think that’s the future of business sustainability? What’s your thoughts on that?

Afdhel Aziz : I think absolutely empathy and kindness are traits that leaders should have. And by the way, I believe in kindness so much that I changed the Wi Fi password in this house to ‘kindness’. So every time somebody walks in, says what’s the Wi Fi password, I go ‘kindness’ because you’re typing in your phone. I also tell my wife that’s how she needs to treat me with kindness as well.

Anna Sheppard : Can I say, that one of the most beautiful moments – because as you get to know people in this industry, you touch base every now and again, you’re lucky if you get a deep dive with somebody. But at Good Is The New Cool last year, there was a moment when I absolutely was overwhelmed by you. And it was when there was one person out of the audience, I think it was a speaker as well, maybe for Microsoft, and actually was visually impaired. And you spent – and, you know, it didn’t even matter if it held up the conference, that guy was going to be getting the same experience as everybody else. And you spent your time, you know, taking him from room to room so that he could be fully involved. And I was just like, “wow, this guy’s really walking the walk here. You know, he’s not just talking about it”. And when I came away, I said to the people I was with, I was like, “Whoa, this dude’s for real. Like, he’s not just talking about this agenda”. So it was beautiful to see that and I just wanted to throw that in there. Because there’s a lot of people that go around and they’re talking about this, but they’re not really necessarily doing it in reality. So yeah, thank you for showing up and delivering on what you’re saying…back to you!

Afdhel Aziz : That was the wonderful Kenny Singh for Microsoft, who blew me away, incredible guy, incredible speaker as well. So, yeah, to go back to leadership traits, you know, I think there is – it’s fascinating. When you look at the kind of myth of the fearless CEO. The kind of Jack Welch, you know, General Electric, hard-charging kind of guy. I mean, first of all, a lot of them are just assholes. Who wants to work for an asshole, right? So I think we have a firm ‘no assholes policy’ at Conspiracy of Love. We won’t work with you, however great the brand is or how much money you offer us. If we’re like, “no, it’s not gonna be worth our time to just be surrounded by this level of ‘assholery'”. Can I say that on this podcast?

Anna Sheppard : You say whatever you want on this podcast. We also reflect that – we don’t work with assholes either. But we do work with people who, you know, maybe tomorrow could be a good start to turn everything around. There has to be an element of hope in there.

Afdhel Aziz : Listen, let’s not be coy. You need to be tough to be a CEO, right? But there’s a way of being tough which holds the line, which is respectful, which is empathic as well. I think that is the the archetype of the leader, certainly I admire, right? The Paul Pullman’s the Yvon Chouinard or even Rose Macario at Patagonia. The people who are who are really good at their job. But they found a way to be human while they’re doing it. It kind of reflects on another part of the work we do with ‘Conspiracy’ is looking at personal purpose in the context of employees and leaders inside organisations, right. Which is the other big place this purpose conversation is going on. It’s not just at the organisational level, it is at the individual human level, right. And the research shows, first of all, that only 13% of people are happy and engaged at work. This is a Gallup poll, the data is out there. And we saw that stat we were like, only 13% of people like what they do? And when you drill into it, you realise that what people want is autonomy, they want independence, they want mastery, they want to feel like they’re good at their craft. And they want to feel a sense of meaning in their work. And they don’t want to be treated badly, you know. So those companies who have leaders who practice this – Satya Nadella at Microsoft is another great example of a really smart, emotionally intelligent leader, who has turned Microsoft into the third billion dollar company out there. So I think, today, to be a great leader you need to have both sides of your brain operating. And more than that, you need to have your heart operating in the right place as well.

Anna Sheppard : Absolutely. And in this period, where there’s been so much change – one thing we’re not very good at as human beings is dealing with change. We’re terrible at it. And it makes everybody very wobbly and they’re struggling. We’re certainly seeing at our end, a big kind of revolution of change in the workplace as a result of what’s going on this year. This really crazy year of events that have occurred. And there’s a push back. “Oh, so you want me to come back into this nine to five, hamster wheel environment? When actually I’ve been perfectly productive working from home”. And, you know, it’s quite interesting the change that’s going on, that’s challenging those leaders to adjust the way that they work. And empathy is becoming more and more important because mental health is on the rise, substance abuse is on the rise as a result of all of this change and I reckon that’s probably going to be the next pandemic – dealing with the outcomes of it all. But with regards to pressure, as a leader – you’ve had a lot of different types of roles and you’ve made a conscious decision to build a business that’s going to make the world a better place. But how do you deal with pressure and challenges to keep being a conscious leader? Because it’s not easy, it’s hard work. You’re pushing against an agenda with some businesses, where it’s gonna take a long time. How do you how do you keep yourself well? And how do you manage the pressure and challenges while still maintaining that emotional intelligence? And that level of consciousness?

Afdhel Aziz : Yeah. Well, I start by the fact that – I saw this great quote the other day; only a rat can win a rat race. I was in the rat race for 20 years, right? I spent 20 years in the corporate, you know, hamster wheel running and doing all of that stuff, right. And then I left and I decided to construct a life that was very deeply personal to who I was. I’m lucky that I get to work with companies who want to work with me. So I don’t go and bang on doors. The companies who I’m working with, they understand the value of it so I don’t have to go and persuade them. I might have to contextualise it and frame it, so they understand the opportunity, but I don’t have to, you know, push in. And then I deliberately decided to set up a company that didn’t have any full time employees. It has partners. So Bobby, who I wrote the book with is a partner, Nadia, who is a wonderful COO, is a partner. But there’s no overhead, there’s no kind of payroll or salary. And I set it up deliberately that way to be ‘stealth’, almost in a way. Because I didn’t want that responsibility. Which has turned into a blessing given the last three months, right? I wonder if I had gone and got investors and got dozens of employees and offices around the world, if I would be this relaxed about it. And so that was a conscious decision on my part. And then I think the other thing is – I was trying to explain to my accountant the other day. I said, “I don’t want to make a lot of money, I want to make a lot of freedom”. And it’s a whole different approach. You need a certain amount of money to live a life and look after your family and all the rest of it. But I’m not driven by money. I’m very conscious of it, I understand the power of it. I’m driven by purpose, which gives you that engine. But then I also spend time doing things which which are about self care. So I’ll give you an example. I have naps all the time. I had a wonderful nap yesterday.

Anna Sheppard : I love a good nap.

Afdhel Aziz : I love a good nap, right? It’s free.

Anna Sheppard : Well some of the most ‘well’ communities in the world are the Blue Zones. They siesta and they live to 120. So there’s definitely something in the nap.

Afdhel Aziz : Yeah, I mean, I wake up at 5am LA time because a lot of my clients are in New York and Europe, right. So I’m behind them on the timezone. But by lunchtime, I’ve now worked a seven hour day by 12 noon, right? So I have lunch, I have a nap, then I start working again, you know, for two or three hours. And I feel great. When I’m doing it. And in America, the idea of having a nap in the middle of your workday would be like, “what are you out of your mind?” But, I don’t care. This is what makes me happy.

Anna Sheppard : And you’ve probably added 40 years to your life as a result of having a nap. When you’re tired, everyone should just have a little sleep, because you’re much better after. It’s this human need. But I always remember when, a couple of years ago, I reached out to you and I was just starting up and I was a little bit this eccentric entrepreneur. And you were kind of like, “um, this girl’s interesting”. I was like, “tell me, give me some advice”. And you took me under your wing a little bit. And I’ll always appreciate that. And one of the things she said to me is – keep it lean and don’t do the things that you actually don’t enjoy. And it was actually at a moment where we were accidentally building into a consulting model and we’ve moved into a leadership coaching space now. So it’s a membership subscription, almost an association space. So we can add a lot of value without it being the intensity of really long consulting projects. And it changed the game for me really. Because I was like, “Oh my god, I could actually just be happy. And I don’t have to build something that is going to be too heavy and laboursome, with regards to overheads”. And it completely shifted the way that we worked. So I have to thank you for that. Because, you know, a year later, I was like, “Oh my God, thank God, I had that conversation”. We do still take a handful on, the ones that we know if we can under the lid, we can really make an impact. I want to just hot seat you a little bit. Because everyone’s tuning in for the hacks, and you’ve got a lot of knowledge in that beautiful mind of yours. So I’m going to ask you a few questions and just put you on the spot. So, you’re ready?

Afdhel Aziz : Let’s do rapid fire.

Anna Sheppard : Our working kind hotseat. So. What is the one thing you would change in the world if you could?

Afdhel Aziz : I’d get rid of fossil fuels. I would just like – I just bought a Tesla, by the way, last week. I’ve wanted to own one for years. I’ve never been able to afford one, but I finally got one. I’m so delighted. I’m going to retrofit this house with solar panels and just go totally off the grid. But it is the one industry where, if I could snap my fingers and make it disappear and replace it with clean energy, I would

Anna Sheppard : And it’s getting better. It’s getting better, slowly but surely. But I think you know, a lot of people have pushed this agenda to the side a little bit while Covid’s gone on. So it hasn’t been brilliant. But, great answer. And I’d like a Tesla, just as an FYI. In case you ever get a really good brand partnership and you want to throw one my way.

Afdhel Aziz : Got it.

Anna Sheppard : What do you wish you had known when you started out?

Afdhel Aziz : Um, I wish I had known how to be more compassionate. I spent a lot of time trying to be the most intelligent person in the room. And now I try and be the most compassionate person in the room.

Anna Sheppard : Which makes you look like the most intelligent person in the room, anyway, from my perspective. What has been your proudest moment so far, as a business owner/operator?

Afdhel Aziz : Oh, gosh, um, I had one last week, actually. It was with a client of ours – Nestle Waters, which we had in 2017. And Nestle Waters is interesting, because every time somebody sees their logo up on my client list, they’re like, “oh, the devil, you work with that evil company”. And I say, “yeah, but you don’t know what we did with them”. And I haven’t been able to talk about it until now because it hasn’t been public. But the work we did in 2017 was to help Nestle Waters, which is the world’s largest producer of plastic water bottles, right, bigger than Coca/Pepsi, create a strategic business plan to transition to 100% recycled plastic. Which, for the largest manufacturer of plastic bottles, is a huge deal. It changes the market. It makes recycled plastic less expensive than virgin plastic. So that was one part of it. And it’s also another part of it was: Nestle has now announced that it’s going to be 100%, water replenished, replenishment. So which means, even though it uses all this water, it is now committing to replacing that water and working with water conservation nonprofits to put back in.

Anna Sheppard : See this is this is the game changing stuff you’re doing. You’re going in, you’re helping these organisations really changed the game.

Afdhel Aziz : And this is just a very small part of a much bigger – we were just a very small part of a much bigger piece, I hasten to add, with lots of other people involved. But now I can say to them, “look, it’s public. Look at the commitments the companies making”. And that was something from three years ago. So it shows you how slowly change happens, right? But if you can make it happen, you can get these giant companies to start changing direction. It’s like making a cruise ship, you know, change direction. The upside of it is pretty incredible. So I’ve been really glad this week to be able to finally look back and go, yeah, this actually made a difference.

Anna Sheppard : Yeah. And you must go home and just sit down and have a cup of tea. And you’ve just spent time with one of the biggest polluters, and helped them change the game. And what do you think in your head? Do you just sit there and think, how did I get here? Like, how did this?

Afdhel Aziz : Yeah, and by the way, it’s because the men and women inside the company said they wanted their company to change. My job was just to help them right. So my job was just to give them the ammunition, the business case, the argument, the story to do it. And that’s what we do. That’s when people say, “what what is Conspiracy of Love?” We say, “well, conspiracy is like something secret, right? But it’s of love. So there’s, there’s good intentions behind it”. And I’m now realising that all these men and women inside all of these companies, who are trying to turn their companies around, that’s the conspiracy of love. It’s all these people and my job is to give them the help that they need.

Anna Sheppard : And I think I’ve always admired about you how open source you are. I remember when you first presented in Sydney, I think it was at Twitter head office. I messaged, I said, “hey, I could really do with some of your resources, it’s really going to help me shape what we’re doing”. And you said, just have it all, just do it, take it. It’s about the end game and not about the ownership. And it’s something that I really carried into Bambuddha as a result of that. And the research we’re doing – it’s not to have that ownership, it’s to be able to share those things.

Afdhel Aziz : Just to build on that point. So we’re writing the follow up to Good Is The New Cool. It’s called The Principles Of Purpose. Good Is The New Cool was about brand purpose. This is about corporate purpose. And one of the principles of advice that we give to CEOs is make it an open source pursuit. Give away your intellectual property, if you think it can help the world. That is certainly something that we do with Conspiracy. All of our frameworks, everything, is up on the website. If you email me, I will send you our presentations, you know, I’ll give away all of that stuff. And I do my best to support other agencies working in the purpose and purpose space, and lift them up. I think I may have interviewed eight of them at this point for my Forbes column. So we need more of us in the game. And that’s really my job, is to kind of help, be the rising tide that floats all the boats.

Anna Sheppard : And I think your background as a marketer really helps as well. Because you were an excellent marketer, you know, you’re really on point with the branding and stuff. And I think if anyone was gonna make the agenda, less kind of covered in cobwebs and more cool, it was you. But what do you think – you’re working with all these businesses and you’re ahead of the game with the trends – if businesses should focus on anything right now, what is it?

Afdhel Aziz : Um, I think the moment that we are in right now is a remarkable opportunity, right? So all of the purpose work that we were doing was accelerating before COVID. And the racial justice stuff hit. And then the last 90 days just sent it into overdrive, right? Because it’s gone from niche to mainstream, it’s gone from theory to practice. And so my job is to pour fuel on that fire and get more companies involved, and make deeper bigger commitments as well. So this is really where I feel like we have an opportunity to reclaim the narrative, right? There’s a narrative of despair and hope, and a lack of hope, and just, you know, frustration. But our messages, the system wasn’t broken, it was built that way in the first place. So it’s time to build a new system, right? It’s time to create a better operating system for capitalism, for companies, for people, for the planet, you know. Let’s take this massive disruption and then like, let’s drive a bus through that hole and kind of create a new way of doing things.

Anna Sheppard : Beautiful. And you know what – cuz I’m like, always watching what you’re up to. And what should we expect to see in the future from you, Afdhel ? What’s next? What’s in the pipeline? And there’s always tonnes of things in the pipeline.

Afdhel Aziz : Yeah. So Bobby, who is my co author on Good Is The New Cool is here in LA with me, in fact, he’s gonna be in my house in a few minutes, and we’re working on the sequel to Good Is The New Cool. Which I had to be persuaded by Bobby, that we shouldn’t call, Good Is The New Cool 2: Gooder And Cooler. He’s like, “that’s a dumb name”.

Anna Sheppard : Yeah. Good to be true.

Afdhel Aziz : Now we’re writing the follow up book, which is the Principles Of Purpose. If you go to https://www.afdhelaziz.com/, you can find the pre order link there. That is the next big quantum leap forward. It’s a handbook for CEOs who want to transform their company to doing good. So that’s the next big, kind of, piece of intellectual property that we want to put out there. And then yeah, we have a TV Show in development. Which is going to be super fun to do, that we’re working on. And we hope to come back to Australia to do the conferences as soon as humanly possible. So watch this space.

Anna Sheppard : Yeah, brilliant. And I think anyone who’s listening who is looking for something that’s going to give their teams a little pick me up, virtually at this time, Afdhel is an amazing speaker, and he kind of won my heart and mind within the first 10 minutes of being on the stage when he was over in Sydney. So, you know, I think what’s been really interesting is the geographic locations seem to have faded away a little, the past six months. And it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world. It just means you’ve got more access to the people who can help you and give you the resources and tools to facilitate that change. But I’m a massive fan. I love all the work you’re doing and I’ve got one final question for you. Can I ever snap back?

Afdhel Aziz : Yes, you can. For the small price of 14…

Anna Sheppard : It’s okay you’re worth it – I’ll pay 16.

Afdhel Aziz : Thank you for having me, Anna.

Anna Sheppard : And thank you for everything you continue to do.

Afdhel Aziz : Thank you for everything you’re doing. You inspire me. Keep up the amazing work.

Anna Sheppard : Thank you. That means a lot. Take care.

Afdhel Aziz : Bye.

Anna Sheppard : Thank you for listening to this episode of Project Good Boss. Bambuddha Group is a social enterprise, providing leadership coaching for corporate leaders, business owners and operators. We believe in a future where every leader is committed to creating a sustainable world of equality and opportunity for everyone. If you are a game changing leader, and you have an amazing story of how your business is making the world a kinder and a better place, we would love to hear from you. Visit bambuddhagroup.com or slide into our DM’s. And finally, you should know, for every paid member we have in our network, we provide scholarships to reduce inequalities in leadership and business. Thank you to Sonic Union for editing this episode, Lo Roberts for writing and performing Project Good Boss and design by Flare Creative. Thank you for being kind today. Thank you for tuning in. And we’ll see you again next time.

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