Aimee Woodall on Putting a Plan Behind Purpose After That Change

Mixing Board Member Aimee Woodall is the CEO and Founder of The Black Sheep Agency, a cause-driven brand strategy firm. As chief strategist for the agency, Aimee sees every decision as a responsibility to lead to the greatest possible impact.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Aimee and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about why we should embrace this time of reinvention and reevaluation, how all social impact programs should start with taking care of your own people, and how to create a blueprint for deciding which issues to respond to (and which ones not to).

SG: Tell us about The Black Sheep Agency and how it’s evolved as an organization as you’ve discovered your own purpose, and how that parallels work with clients.

AW: Black Sheep is a brand strategy and culture firm that’s been rooted in social impact for over a decade. The culture part is newer and it evolved from us really wanting to build a place that felt good to work. Agencies can be toxic, in terms of work culture, because there’s a grind factor to the industry. When I started Black Sheep, I wanted to build a place that felt really good. You would come in, you would believe in the work, you would be able to take care of yourself, and feel good while you’re doing it. The culture part really evolved from that. It was us building our own culture, figuring a lot of things out for ourselves, and really practicing it first, and then falling in love with what was possible when you do that, when you approach building a business that way.

Then we started teaching it. We had people coming to us, asking us how we were doing certain things or how we were looking at certain things. They admired our culture, and would ask us to come and help them build or rethink their culture. It was somewhat of a surprise that we could not only do impactful work, but then actually start to impact the inside of companies, just because it was so organic.

SG: You’ve been doing social impact work for over a decade. Tell me how the definition of social impact, and what companies are looking for, has changed over time. Lots of things change fast in our world, but this is one of those things where it feels like we’ve swung through five different pendulums in the last 10+ years, in terms of what it can possibly mean. At first, social impact was not even a well-defined term. Later it became this overly defined term and almost has a polarizing element to it. Tell me how you define social impact, how you describe it to clients, and how they’ve come to you differently over time.

AW: In the beginning, I can remember very distinctly a moment where we were working with a nonprofit, and I looked around the room to the group that was working at Black Sheep at the time and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this kind of work all the time?” Because we were working late and we were excited about it. We knew that it was meaningful and we knew that the organization that we were working with had a lot of conviction, a lot of resources, and were looking at big systemic problems in a really powerful way. The only thing that was really missing was the acceleration of people knowing what they did and understanding it.

Back then, the best reference I could muster in thinking about what we would become, was Toms Shoes. I thought, “What if we were the Toms of the agency world?” Back then, there were only a few examples of what this looked like, especially outside of nonprofit work. Now the pendulum has swung entirely to the other direction. The greatest challenge now, is that everyone is trying to be in this work, because it’s “trending”, for lack of a better term. Consumers are demanding it and the rising workforce is expectant that they will be able to do meaningful work.

Now you’re trying to figure out what’s genuine and what’s real. There’s a rise to rethink what this work looks like and how it can be more systemic. And we hear things about organizations like Toms, where there’s a dark side to that impact. But it’s really advanced in terms of the depth of thinking. I love that everybody is in it. Back then, everybody thought I was crazy. They thought, “You’re going to turn away clients who aren’t doing impactful work? Is there enough business to do that?” Then you advanced into the stage of people saying, “Well, what are you going to do when everybody else gets in this game?” My response to that was always, “Well, that’s the best problem we can possibly have, because there’s a lot of work to do.”

Now, we’re seeing that. We’re there. And there’s a real time audit happening on the consumer side of how genuine the impact is. The most important thing for companies is that they’re really acting first within. We started this conversation talking about culture. How are they making an impact on the inside? How are they taking care of their people? How are they building their business where the model on the inside matches the model on the outside — the brand, the packaging, and the impact that they’re trying to make outside of the company. We’ve gotten to a place that’s really exciting in terms of having more players in the game, but at the same time, you have to really take a close look to see if the actions align with the message.

SG: How do you know if the actions align with the message? You can’t really tell if someone’s impact washing, unless you actually get into the inside and start talking to people.

AW: We have a lot of conversations on the front end. We’ve practiced our vetting process for a decade now, to really try and get to the heart of the matter. This is probably pretty common for most agencies or anyone who’s seeking an important partnership, creatively or otherwise. Most of the time when people come to you, they don’t really know exactly what they’re looking for or what they actually need. We spend an unusual amount of time on the front end, trying to get to know people, trying to understand.

We want them to really know us too. This is important in terms of connecting the brand work and the culture work that we do. We have values as an organization. We have this community agreement that we talk about with clients. They need to understand the way that we are internally and the ethical agreement that we have as a team. We want our clients to be in that ethical agreement with us.

SG: What’s the top line on this ethical agreement? What are they buying into?

AW: We are essentially agreeing that we’re all in this to make the biggest impact that we can, to make the biggest difference that we can in whatever area that we’re working in. What we want is trust. We want respect. We want transparency. We want to have the kind of relationship where we can tell a client that we don’t think they’re doing the right thing. We can demonstrate to a client, maybe some things that they can’t see themselves because they’re too close to it, or we can get them to consider a different perspective.

SG: Let’s talk about where we are now, which is a very weird place. We’re in this period of personal reinvention and businesses looking at things differently. Some companies are going right back to where they were in 2019 and some companies are doing things completely differently. And you have employees in the middle of that, wondering, how do I fit into this? What do I want? How has this changed your job and changed your client’s perspective? What’s the opportunity that we have in front of us because of it?

AW: People are rethinking their lives. We have had two years of circumstances that have forced us to question everything — as humans, as individuals, as parents, as employees, as leaders. At the same time, we’ve had two years where businesses have had to be on-guard and thinking about what might happen in these very uncertain times. So you’ve got individuals rethinking their lives and businesses rethinking their strategies.

All of this could really lead to a lot of incredible shifts in the way that work works. We hear about the Great Resignation, some people are calling it the Great Renegotiation. I’m thinking about it in terms of a period of great reinvention, and I hope that’s the silver lining of the circumstances that we’re in. We’re going through this season of re’s. You’ve got reminders, and rethinking, and reimagining, and responding, and revising, and redeveloping, and rebuilding. Almost every word that I could think of to describe the circumstances that we’re in now has R-E in front of it. Re-planning is one of those that’s happening a lot from a leadership perspective. Just when we think that we can move forward in a plan, something happens that makes us realize we’re not in control.

The uncertainty will continue a little bit. One of the things that we have to do is really embrace the space to experiment. Consider this time period that we’re in, as a little bit of a laboratory. Knowing that human behavior is changing the way people want their lives to look and feel is changing, and that businesses need to be responsive to that. If anyone is going through this period right now, like you said, and going back to 2019 — I just don’t understand that strategy. Because we are different. We have changed so dramatically. We need to embrace this period as a time to revisit how everything works. From our internal policies and practices, to the way we communicate with each other, to the way we take care of each other, to the way that our businesses respond to human experience. It can be so exhausting to decide that that’s what needs to happen. But at the same time, it’s absolutely necessary. It’s the only way forward.

SG: Employees have had to rely on their employers for a lot more than just work. It can be your community, your one place of connection outside of your home, your information source on what’s happening with COVID today, and it’s an access point to doing your own personal social impact work. But that relationship with companies has changed. A lot of Silicon Valley startups for a long time would say, “Oh, this is family.” Now, there’s a push to stop saying that. It’s not family, it’s a team.

In this world of change, what should employees be expecting from their employers?

AW: Because of the time that people have had to reflect during the pandemic, to assess the brevity of life, and to step out of the environment that maybe they were in for a minute, because the world necessitated it. People are really expecting different circumstances. But the onus doesn’t lie on the employee. The onus lies on the leader. The leader should be recalibrating more than the employee.

Right now, we’re seeing employees recalibrate, “OK, I’m not getting this here. I’m going to go somewhere else.” I would like to see more ownership from a top line leadership perspective. If you want to build a great company, if you want to do good work, and especially if you want to make an impact — the impact needs to start by taking care of your people. Setting up an experience where they are cared for, their wellness is kept top of mind, what’s going on in the world is brought into the conversation, and they are thought of first.

You hear the put-your-oxygen-mask-on-first metaphor all the time. Leadership teams need to be thinking of that, not in terms of their own mask, but put the mask on your team first. Show that if you care externally to make an impact about any wide range of subjects, then take care of your people first so that your people can then all accelerate and move that mission forward.

SG: There’s been this interesting trend where corporate social impact work generates misaligned expectations around what a company should do or what it should stand for as it simultaneously attempts to be a successful business. This expectation gap can be a cause of so much internal angst and debate. Would we be better off if those companies never did any of that stuff in the first place? And just acted like old school businesses that just did business stuff and never pretended to be invested in social impact? We can let the companies who are genuine social impact leaders step forward instead of the place we’re in now where everyone feels like they have to check an impact box — even if that’s not who they truly are.

AW: It’s a real conundrum. On one end of the spectrum, you could say, either do it authentically and all-in, or don’t do it at all. But then that limits some progress that could be made. The authenticity is the most important thing. If you’re able to come down the road a little bit and have some authenticity about it — but maybe not be able to go all the way into the extreme of supporting every cause, or really leading with social impact first. I would hate to say, either do it right or don’t do it at all. Because the more we can get everyone into learning mode and moving in this direction, the better.

But I’m having this experience right now with a client where there’s very good intentions and most of the company is really aligned with the idyllic vision and outlook. They’re putting people in positions of cultural leadership who are really pushing for a progressive strategy. Then you have other people on the operations side of the business that come from more traditional industries, some might even say industries that were pretty behind, like oil and gas. We’re having to reeducate and live in a space of pretty constant friction and learning. Because those leaders were trained in shareholder orientation, bottom line metrics, and things like that.

Those things are important and are really good to balance out with people who are on the far end of the idyllic spectrum that are pushing for progressive. Those two things, as much as they can work hand in hand, are good. At certain points, the impact has to take precedence over the bottom line and some sacrifices have to be made if you really genuinely care about that progress. Then at other points, the culture and impact teams need to hear and listen to the folks who are really driving the business strategy and the bottom line. There’s an ongoing conversation at play to make that balance right.

At the end of the day, if we want to take care of our people, part of that includes business stability and being able to make payroll. Both sides are very important. The more each side can be invested in learning and hearing the other side and working together in partnership, the better off we’ll all be.

SG: Every company is screwed up in some way, just like every family. There’s no perfect company out there. There’s no perfect way to do this. Everyone’s stumbling through it. Then we have these “unprecedented times’’ that we’re in. Companies should feel more free to have these conversations with their employees and say, “Yeah, we screwed this up.” We’re trying to do this thing over here and maybe we leaned in too far on this one initiative that really stepped outside of what our company does that caused confusion. Or maybe we didn’t do enough to support this one thing that aligns with what our company does. So let’s talk about how we can do better.

People get freaked out because suddenly everyone in Slack is asking leaders to make a statement around what’s happening in, say, Palestine even if they don’t have any operations or customers in that region. That constant line is so hard for people, so they just throw up their hands saying, “What do we do?”

AW: There’s a big pressure. Employees are now in their comfort zone when it comes to activism. There is a lot of pressure that’s coming from the ground up for companies to put a stake in the ground. If you don’t have a strategy in place, that can feel incredibly uncomfortable because you’re just reacting. You are having to make a decision based on very little criteria. You can ask some obvious questions like, does this affect the people who work here? Does this have a connection to our industry? But if you don’t have a more thorough plan, there’s no rubric for deciding and you feel a sense of pressure to respond to everything.

That’s a fine line that we have to walk, too. Business leaders and companies cannot be expected to respond to everything. If you do, it’s like trying to be everything to everyone. And the meaning just falls out the bottom anyway. I hope it will become more urgent for leadership teams to talk to people within the company and really do a listening tour on what people think is important. What’s important to you as an individual, what is important to us as a team, and as a company? What do you expect we should respond to?

Then take that data and start a conversation that’s more inclusive of what will be meaningful across the company. Start to make some decisions, form some structure around decision-making, so that you can not only be serving your impact, your day-to-day impact, the things that you’re trying to affect through your work — but then you have a rubric or model for deciding what’s important and how to prioritize some of these things as they come in. Because every day we wake up and there’s something that we could be responding to. That’s not a good place to be. We burn a lot of energy trying to field the pressure that comes with that.

And if we care, it’s even harder. Speaking for myself only, I care about a lot of things and it’s really hard for me to say, “I’m going to invest time, energy and financial resources into this one thing, but not this other thing that I care about.” If I have a strategy, it gives me ground to stand on to know what’s important to my people, what’s important to me, and what’s important to our company. And where we can orient ourselves to make the most significant difference, because we can’t do it all.

SG: I recently had this conversation with Nina Montgomery. You brought up the word meaning, and she was really thoughtful about this. Meaning is the higher order to purpose in some ways. When you have so many employees who care about so many different things altogether, that’s a lot. And you want them to, you want them to care about stuff. But in that calibration, where Nina got to, is that maybe people have put too much meaning into their company. Their companies almost became like a religious institution and all the meaning you have is in this company. Then as soon as this organization disappoints you, the fall is so deep because you hold them up on this high pedestal. And again, every company is going to fail at some things because every company is imperfect.

If you are a company who has a structured way to provide meaning and purpose, then you’re also able to create space for people to find more meaning in themselves. To give them more time to explore the stuff they want to do, whether it’s volunteering, participating in something, or sharing within other forms. Some companies took on this work in such a way that they extracted all the meaning out of the employees and put it into this corporate home. There’s probably a better mix of being able to enable your own employees to do the things that are meaningful to them, which means they don’t have to rely on the company for everything having to do with their purpose.

AW: I see companies making several mistakes. The first mistake is just deciding this at a leadership level without asking their employees what they care about and what’s important to them. Leadership might think that there’s too many people and they’re going to care about too many things, and we can’t possibly consider that. That’s shortsighted. I hear what you’re saying about the fact that you can’t possibly get your arms around and build everything everyone cares about into a strategy — absolutely not. But the listening part of it and the looking for patterns in what people care about, who have you made the decision to come to work for you is a real opportunity. That’s one piece of it.

The listening needs to happen. And the involvement of employees in a meaningful way, it’s such an opportunity to find ideas that you may not have at the leadership level. That’s really important. At the same time, we’re talking about a strategy that can be really multi-layered. It’s not just what the company is speaking up about, or what the company is putting into the brand itself. There are things like workplace policies, practices, and rituals that can really allow for more of an ecosystem of impact, that’s not just on the company’s shoulders. The company puts into practice policies that allow employees to have volunteer time, or to take leave when certain issues affect their families.

As long as that diligence is done up front — here’s what we’re going to take a stand on as a company, here’s the impact that our brand is going to make over time, and here are practices that support that. And then here are the policies, rituals, holidays, and the things that we’re going to design into our culture that are going to respect that you, individually, may also have things that either align with all of this, or maybe don’t align with this. They align with your personal values and we’re going to give you the space to do that. It completes the circle and takes maybe some of the pressure off of leadership, the company, or the brand itself to solve for everything. It gives that individual respect to employees to build that into their own strategy.

SG: When companies are thinking about hiring Black Sheep, they may be thinking, “Oh, here’s this agency who’s going to help us make this nice splash page and website that’s going to help us talk about this work that we want to do or this impact we want to have.” But what you’re really uncovering for them is a structure. It’s the scaffolding that can hold all these disparate pieces together that allows them not only to do that thing, but then connect back to the individual employees, their partners, their customers. It helps to create consistency. Then when the crazy things come up, there’s an actual mechanism to understand, this is how we deal with this, this is the space for it, here’s how we talk about it, here’s how you can contribute to it. It takes the fear out of companies that are trying to wade into these waters and wondering, how deep do we go?

AW: We want to be right smack dab in the middle of the intersection of social impact, both from the brand strategy side, which is the external, and the cultural strategy, which is the internal. And we drive from the inside out every time. It’s really about positioning, planning and digging really deep to figure out the difference that a company wants to make and why they exist. And then it’s about putting the scaffolding or the blueprint in place for how they’re going to authentically align with what’s happening inside. How are they going to empower their employees to live that vision and those values, and light the fire inside so that the flame spreads outwards.

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

For more on Mixing Board and how the community can support organizations, see this recent post.

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