Five behaviors of purpose-driven leaders
Insights from conversations on the Breakthrough Builders podcast
We recently had the chance to host several great leaders on the Breakthrough Builders podcast: Todd Kaplan, CMO at PepsiCo; Kim Malek, CEO & Co-Founder of Salt & Straw; Robert Chatwani, CMO at Atlassian; and Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO at Embarc Collective.
Each of these builders has taken an extraordinary path. Their journeys are a testament to the power of discovering, knowing, and staying true to one’s purpose—and their stories are valuable to anyone who has a dream, wants to make an impact, and values a sense of purpose.
In this post, we’ve identified five behaviors exemplified by these remarkable builders. And we’ve pulled excerpts from our conversations with each one for a closer look at how they are serving communities and changing industries.
Five behaviors of purpose-driven leaders
1. They challenge the status quo with confidence, even when the path forward isn’t clear
The builders we spoke with have an adventurous spirit spurred on by the presence of big opportunities. They acknowledge doubt, but are not held back by it. And they share a belief that clarity of purpose spawns more action than does certainty of outcome. Todd Kaplan urged listeners to ‘‘take no as a request for more information’’ when you have an ambitious creative idea, and Robert Chatwani said that when purpose and strategy intersect, “Don’t think too hard about it. Act first, then think.”
2. They prioritize listening, and aren’t afraid to acknowledge what they don’t know
They have strong conviction and competence, but purpose-driven leaders don’t ‘fake it until they make it’—rather, they embrace vulnerability. And they listen in order to lead: When Lakshmi Shenoy moved to Tampa to launch a nonprofit innovation hub for startups, her first order of business was spending countless hours in local coffee shops learning from the existing entrepreneurial community. And she describes herself openly as a ‘starter CEO’ because it helps her develop trust among the leaders she serves, who are often themselves starting out on their first ventures.
3. They recognize when their work isn’t aligned with their purpose, and act boldly to close the gap
Of his decision to end a long, successful journey at eBay, Robert acknowledged, “Companies and cultures change. But that didn’t mean that I had to change.” At some point in their careers, the leaders we spoke with all showed a willingness to make big, life-upending moves to get closer to their purpose. Case in point: Kim Malek, already successful in the corporate world, liquidated her 401(k) and maxed out her credit cards to turn her idea for a community-based ice cream shop into reality.
4. They bring their authentic and whole selves to every endeavor
If you’ve spent any time in the corporate world, you’ve almost certainly felt the pressure to act a little differently than what might feel natural. But all the leaders we spoke with believe that maintaining a commitment to being themselves opened the door to new opportunities, new ways of thinking, and helped build and nurture collective purpose among their teams—especially when, as Lakshmi said, “you’re going your own way instead of following the assignment as written.”
5. They build communities, not just businesses
Robert Chatwani helped launch World of Good at eBay to help geographically disconnected artisans tap into the global marketplace. Lakshmi Shenoy organized Embarc Collective as a nonprofit so that every Tampa startup has the best chance to succeed. Kim Malek made ice cream with local ingredients and flavors so that every shop projected a distinctive, authentic sense of place. These moves were certainly good for the bottom lines of the organizations these leaders represent, but the fundamental motives behind the moves were empathy-based, not economically based. Purpose-driven leaders create and gravitate to opportunities to connect with their communities in extraordinary ways.
1. Purpose and Persistence: Todd Kaplan
Todd is the Chief Marketing Officer at PepsiCo, where he has helped drive significant increases in brand equity and all-time highs in creative effectiveness.
“Take no as a request for more information…the best creative ideas often die two or three times before they see the light of day.”
On achieving 13 quarters of consecutive growth:
One of the things that really helped get the brand back on track during this turnaround in these last few years, is we repositioned the brand and really sharpened what the brand stands for. And so words like youthfulness, exuberance, and joy are spot-on for describing us, but I would also say you need to be distinctive as a brand, and have a distinct point of view.
On creating the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams event:
I had this idea, where basically we’d have people go online and vote for who was their favorite living legend at each position, first base, catcher, second base, etc. And one lucky person who filled out this form would be a winner. And we would bring all 10 of the living legends to their hometown to play a game of baseball against them and their 10 closest friends.
So it ended up being this 41-year-old chemist in Columbus, Ohio. And we brought Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Wade Boggs, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, Pedro Martinez, Frank Thomas, I mean the list goes on and on. It was, I think, the second largest gathering of Hall of Famers ever in history. And we put cornfields in the back of their minor league stadium. We televised it on ESPN. We sold tickets to 30,000 people.
How to put big ideas into action:
Take no as a request for more information…the best creative ideas often die two or three times before they see the light of day. And I can give you millions of examples of that, but especially in a big company, there's always going to be a reason not to.
We have our legal teams, we have supply chain constraints, we have a cost budget, we have timing constraints—but if you have the right idea, don't [futz] it up just because of those other things. Often with the right problem-solving and persistence, if there's a will, there's a way. Maybe you have to reshape something; or maybe you discover an element that keeps the core idea intact, but gets it to the next phase over the finish line.
2. Serving a Community: Kim Malek
Kim is the CEO and Co-Founder of Salt & Straw, which she built from a humble ice cream cart into a fast-growing company with 21 locations along the West Coast.
“Selling my house and having a garage sale and maxing out my credit cards, it just didn't occur to me that that was a bad idea.”
On the decision to leave Starbucks:
What I found for me personally was as the company got bigger and bigger, you know, you're in rooms with people where everybody's really smart and they want to put their finger on what we're doing. And it's harder and harder to really keep that entrepreneurial mindset, where I have this vision and I want to go try it. Navigating that just became really hard for me. And so I kind of kept looking for that next opportunity that would allow me more, I guess, creative freedom. And that's probably why I ended up taking those next steps that I did.
Why she sold everything to start Salt & Straw ice Cream:
It definitely felt like there was something bigger than a few dollars in my bank account at play here. And I wanted to provide a place where not only the community could come together, but it would be a great place to work and we would invest in local artisans, and we’d foster that magic of trying to leave things better than when we found them. And I was so driven by that, that selling my house and having a garage sale and maxing out my credit cards, it just didn't occur to me that that was a bad idea.
How customers responded to the local-first approach:
They found community and connection through that. When we decided to open in Los Angeles, we could have just made more ice cream in Portland and shipped it there. But instead we started manufacturing locally and exported this idea of being a local community gathering place through our product and our location and our team in every way. We’re finding that people really claim us as their own in each city, which we really appreciate.
If she had followed a conventional format to start the business:
We wouldn't be here right now. I think it's really hard, but important to stick to what you know is right and true and go about things in a different way. I was listening to the founder who started Arrested Development speak the other day and he said, “You know, I don't believe in taking the road less traveled. I believe in going out into a field where there is no road, and making my own way forward.” And I believe that to be true, especially as an innovator.
3. Building with Purpose: Robert Chatwani
Robert is the Chief Marketing Officer at Atlassian; formerly he spent 12 years at eBay where he held multiple marketing roles and formed the Social Innovation team.
“If you’re authentic, and you have the right cause, and you're speaking to the right people, it’s incredible what gets unleashed in terms of support and energy.”
On launching World of Good at eBay:
I came back from one of these trips from India and I just couldn't get over something, which is this disconnect between artisans and entrepreneurs that I saw throughout India. And so the idea was really simple: Why don't we connect millions of people throughout the world who arguably could benefit most from a marketplace where they could sell their goods? And rather than let that play out over the next decade, what if we were to leapfrog, go all the way to the end and figure out ways to make these connections back?
On having and encouraging a bias for action:
I encourage anybody who is part of a larger organisation, or any organisation—if you have an idea and you believe in it, and it intersects with the company's values and mission, as well as the company's strategy; act first, and don't think too hard about it. Start to put your ideas down, start to spar with other people around them—especially when they intersect with purpose and strategy. If you’re authentic, and you have the right cause, and you're speaking to the right people, it’s incredible what gets unleashed in terms of support and energy.
On the decision to leave eBay:
The company really had a strong strategic focus on moving in a very different direction to maybe shed some of the focus on small businesses and individual entrepreneurs and consumer-to-consumer selling and buying that had really built the marketplace. And, you know, I was very comfortable with that. Companies and cultures change. But that didn't mean that I had to change.
And I think this is a lesson for me that I really remember upon self-reflection: that any leader, whether you are a CMO, or a CEO, or a first-time manager—you cannot craft a culture or be authentically successful in an environment that has a set of values that's fundamentally different than your values.
4. Embarking on Purpose: Lakshmi Shenoy
Lakshmi is the CEO of Embarc Collective, where she leads the mission to make Tampa Bay a prime destination for diverse startup talent.
“I want to come to the table with some acknowledgement of what I do and don't know, and the experiences that as a leader I've yet to have.”
On what attracted her to Embarc Collective:
The mission was very high-level. It was build a hub, create the level of impact that we need our early-stage startup community to have. And that is perfect for somebody like me, who doesn't like a plan, who doesn't want to be told what to do, but wants to be told, “Here's what we're trying to achieve. Help us figure out how to get there.” That's a once-in-a-career opportunity, a dream opportunity. So you jump on it and figure out how to make it happen.
Her first order of business after moving to Tampa:
I think it was maybe about 500 different conversations between February and June. I was so over-caffeinated because I kept going to the downtown Tampa Starbucks for all of these coffee meetings with people, just to listen. And it was fascinating for me, because very quickly trends emerged as I listened to what they were telling me in terms of, here's what we're good at, here's what we need more of. And that ended up being the blueprint for what eventually became Embarc Collective.
Why the Collective is arranged as a non-profit:
We want to make sure that we are reducing any barriers for startups to be successful. So we are not taking equity in these companies. They pay us a very small fee that translates to about 11% of what they might pay otherwise. And what we're trying to do is just remove all obstacles for them to be able to get the right coaching, the right programming support, the right peer community that exists at Embarc Collective, and just try to increase the number of companies that are growing here.
On embracing being a ‘starter CEO’
When I say starter CEO, I'm basically telling people I'm new to this role, I'm a new CEO. I guess now I'm three years into the role so maybe I need to start changing that title for myself. But I do want to come to the table with some acknowledgement of what I do and don't know, and the experiences that as a leader I've yet to have. And I want to make sure that I am authentically me. I'm not shy about talking about the areas where I still need to develop, and I don't feel the need to ‘fake it till I make it.’
About the Breakthrough Builders Podcast
Breakthrough Builders is a show about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine—and the persistence to build—breakthroughs.
Join Jesse Purewal as he hosts engaging and open conversations with accomplished builders, makers, and doers across the fields of technology, medicine, social impact, education, sports, public affairs, and society, revealing the personal influences and professional experiences that shape the way they imagine, innovate, and invent—so you can get the inspiration and insight you’re looking for as you build your own breakthroughs.
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