Put People at the Heart of Your Business, and Make it Beautiful

If you’re looking for insights on how to make your business more valuable, sustainable, inspirational and loved, you might need to look at it through a new lens.

Ryan Rieches speaks with Steven Morris about his latest book, The Beautiful Business, an actionable manifesto to evolve your business, brand and culture. He shares a thought-provoking perspective on how leaders can transform their businesses – and create a profound, positive impact on their employees and customers.


Episode Transcript

[This is an edited version. Listen to the full interview by clicking the player above.]

Ryan: Hello, I’m Ryan Rieches and welcome to Expert Opinion. Today’s guest is Steven Morris, founder of Matter Consulting. Steven is a longtime friend and fellow brand strategist who years ago evolved his marketing agency into a brand, culture, and business advisory firm.

Steve is the author of two books. The first titled The Evolved Brand, which outlines Why and How to Build a Brand with Soul and Humanize Your Marketing, which offers a great outwardly facing perspective, and his most recent book is titled The Beautiful Business: An Actionable Manifesto to Evolve Your Business, Brand, and Culture, which is more inwardly facing.

Steven, welcome to Expert Opinion.

Steven Morris: Ryan, it’s a thrill to be here, and it’s great to be back in conversation with you. I feel like we have crisscrossed the globe together over the last couple of decades and really looking forward to this conversation.

Ryan: Me too. Well, as I follow the content you develop, from your blogs to the two books that you’ve written, I find it very reassuring to see that we share a similar point of view. Let’s start with your new book, The Beautiful Business. Can you just share your vision of why you wrote this book?

Steven Morris: I’ve been in business for, I’m going to say 27 years. Over that time, I’ve had the honor and the privilege to work with hundreds of brands and companies and literally thousands of business leaders. You begin to notice a wide variety of things…the inner workings of organizations and work on the brand and the culture side of things and really understand what makes them tick.

I began pay very close attention to the companies that were, frankly, extraordinary versus say the ones that were just pretty good or average. As I began to think deeply about the things that makes those organizations uniquely different, either great or what I might call beautiful. I wanted to study what that was and actually break it down for people.

The world of entrepreneurship is near and dear to my heart, not just because I am an entrepreneur, but I’ve gotten to work with so many. Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was not only to study what made organizations beautiful from the inside out, but how to serve that up in such a way that they could both be inspired by and informed by some of the things that I’ve been noticing about organizations and what makes them uniquely beautiful or powerful.

And within all of my writing, the main reason I write is just through the spirit of generosity. You walk through the world and you notice and study certain things. I want to give back to other entrepreneurs who are thinking about some of the same things that I’m thinking about.

Ryan: I noticed there’s a common thread that runs throughout this book, and probably a lot of your content, and that’s around this idea of a people-centric organization. I know that encompasses a lot of different things, touching on purpose, culture, brand, and even business strategy. In fact, I love one of the quotes that you have in the book that there’s nothing more powerful than a united group of souls ignited in a common cause. Expand upon that. How do you create a people-centric organization?

Steven Morris: That quote that you just referenced is really the mantra for my consultancy and it’s why I do what I do. Being perfectly honest, my psychology background, I come the world of business probably somewhat differently than someone who’s trained in, say, an MBA program, which I am not. I have an MFA and I have degrees in psychology. I really come at the world of business from a humanistic perspective. I believe that the best organizations out there and, frankly no business, can exist without people at the core.

As much as I love big data and to study data and trends and look at analytics and even study systems and processes, at the end of the day, it’s the people that make those things happen. If organizations don’t get those components right from a – this is for and by human beings at the end of the day – then they’re not only missing the point, they’re missing an opportunity.

When we think about a people-first organization or a people-centric organization, and I think they more or less mean the same kind of thing, it really speaks to what you were talking about earlier, which is sort of this inside out approach. In order for a business to take itself to the next level, it’s the leaders that need to evolve and usually they need to do that on a personal level, as much as the professional level in order for the organization to go to that next level.

Ryan: We do a lot of work in the area of either employer branding or culture. What I’ve noticed is that, of course, the leaders set the tone, but what I found is the best approach working with our clients is a combination of top down and bottom up. Top down, people expect leaders to set the vision and even the mission maybe and, of course, they have to live the culture, live the values, set the direction, and set the strategy.

But what I found is that when we do our work in this area, the best leaders are also interested in what the employees throughout the organization think and what they’re looking for…they’re very interested in a process that involves getting those insights from all levels. And yet it takes a lot of time and a big commitment. Leaders aren’t always willing to commit to that. What would you advise business leaders who are considering embarking on this type of initiative?

Steven Morris: I completely agree with the top down, bottom-up approach, or what I would call an integrative fashion. I think it’s the leader’s role to set the direction, set the foundation, and then let the culture be the culture. The biggest piece of advice that I give leaders organization is get comfortable with a little bit of chaos.

I don’t mean forceful in creation of chaos, or being an instigator of chaos, but allow for the best of the individuals within your team to come forward and rise to the occasion and be the best version of themselves in the framework of the operationalized values, purpose, and vision that you set within your organization.

I think it’s the leaders, or the leadership team’s responsibility, to set what that framework. But for them to have trust in their team and step back and allow them to make decisions on their own – what they’re really doing is they’re trusting the humanity of their people, right?

They’ve spent a lot of time in a process that says, “Okay, good people on our team looks like this, this, and this for whatever job, role, or function is. Now we simply have to trust them to do their job and allow them to make decisions and give them the framework to do so.

So long as people are honoring those things and making decisions on what’s best for the organization or what’s best for the customer or what’s best for this situation or scenario, then the leader can be super comfortable with a little bit of chaos and allow for, hey, mistakes are going to be made and people are going to learn from those mistakes. Leaders should be hands-off as much as possible in terms of the oversight.

Because back in the day, if you go back 20 years, it wasn’t uncommon to have a micromanager at every level of the organization making sure that people delivered on certain things. Now, today, if we looked inside of a culture, anyone who’s doing micromanagement, for instance, is going to be kicked out of the door of any healthy culture. We know that that doesn’t work. I think, again, the advice is get a little bit comfortable with chaos and simply trust your team to be the people that they’re going to be.

Ryan: This goes back to your point, if the organization does a good job in defining their purpose and their vision, the mission and values…if they’ve done a good job, clarifying that and communicating it, then it allows the people to operate in a very innovative manner. We find that virtually every brand that we build, we find that the client prefers to be perceived to be more innovative. Innovation isn’t always about breakthrough technology.

Steven Morris: The famous management guru Peter Drucker said, “There’s really only two core functions for every organization and that’s innovation and marketing.” Innovation can happen on lots of different levels, but if we’re constantly thinking differently about how we’re doing what we’re doing, how we’re serving, and then telling stories to the people that matter which is what I would call marketing, so long as we do those two things really well within the organization, then we’re going to keep evolving. Because as we innovate, the stories that we talk about, what we talk about within our marketing is also going to evolve at the same time.

The marketing is always catching up with the innovation, the innovation always then outpaces the marketing, and we have to evolve both those things.

Ryan: Let’s transition a little bit. One of the largest areas of growth for us is in what we would call employer branding. It’s a topic related to branding. On Google it’s the second most searched topic. When we’re doing this, we were asking our client, why should the best and brightest work for your company? They often don’t have a very clear answer. Now, we find ourselves in a period that’s also been called the Great Resignation where many people are leaving organizations and finding the best and brightest, retaining and attracting, is a challenge. Any thoughts or advice on how organizations can address this challenge?

Steven Morris: There’s a great deal to talk about here. We might ask ourselves, well, what’s really behind the Great Resignation… part of what I’m seeing is that people are leaving organizations that have unhealthy cultures. There’s a lot of ways we could describe that and people can insert their own version of what that might mean.

And then I think there’s a societal question that is certainly worth considering here, which is, as we went through COVID, people sequestered their selves into their homes. It was such an acute experience for so many people that people began to look very, very closely at what really mattered in their life and in their world. We typically here in the United States, not all of Western culture, I don’t think Europe’s like this, but we tend to be a work first society, where as you go through college it’s like, “What are you going to do for a living?”

We commit so much of our time and energy into work and then, all of a sudden, we might pop our head up above the canopy of life and say, “Wow! Why am I doing all this? Why am I working so hard?” I think COVID was one of those time periods where people actually had the opportunity to think deeply about what really does bring meaning in their life.

I think the second thing that people are doing is leaving organizations where they’re not finding meaning or life meaning. The minute a team member, a very talented team member in particular, understands what the purpose of the organization is and they can then connect that to their life purpose, then all of a sudden, there’s this deepened relationship.

It’s like the employee version of customer loyalty. They’re connected and they’re in it to live it, not just to win it, not just to make money, not just to do exceptional work, but to do something that actually enlivens themselves.

We as human beings want to have meaning in our life. And unfortunately, the way… And this gets into a little bit of societal narrative…we’re not finding it in our communities, in our churches, in our synagogues. And so now as a Western culture, we’re looking for meaning in our work. I think part of the Great Resignation or the Big Quit is people search for meaning through their vocation and through their places of work.

The more an organization can really get clear about and live itself into its purpose and values, the more it becomes an attractive beacon for those people who are like, “You know what? That organization, I love what they do. I love what they stand for, and I want to commit to that cause.”

And all of a sudden, people are then gravitating to this particular organization because of what they stand for and how that organization backs up what they stand for through extraordinary experience from an employee perspective.

Ryan: Well said. Yeah, that connects us back to the concept of being purpose driven, right? And that the best brands and the best cultures are based upon a common purpose that is appropriate for the organization, it’s appropriate for the individual, it’s beneficial to the environment, it’s why we exist. It’s that big question. I’m curious, how do you help organizations develop that purpose-driven mindset?

Steven Morris: I guess my answer with that is really a lot of the times that…it’s not my job to define what that purpose is. It’s my job to discover what that is. When I work with organizations, I’m really sort of separating the wheat from the chaff – and this is why I call it heart and soul work – what is the essence of the organization and what do they truly believe? Why do they deserve to exist as a company on this planet besides the intent to make money and profit?

Most of the times it’s there. Typically, it’s more of a sorting, sifting, and mining process to discover what’s truly there at the essence, and then language that in such a way that it has this fusion between both a sense of grounded reality and aspiration. The beautiful and difficult thing about a purpose is that it’s never really done. You can always be working to achieve it, but there’s always going to be more customers to serve or more ways to realize whatever the given purpose is within the organization.

I would say my process is much like putting the miner’s hat on and going into the deep elements of the organization and helping them discover what that is. And then I think the other really important aspect to that is shaping it in a language that feels like it’s written in the fabric of their culture, that it really comes from them. Even though it might be similar to what other companies have as the purpose, but the way it’s said is so unique to that organization, no one else could put their brand or logo or company name on it.

Ryan: It has to feel authentic. It can’t be marketing jargon. Well, Steven, I’ve really enjoyed this so far, and yet we’re nearing our time here. If you were to say what is the one thing that leaders should start doing today, or maybe just as important, what they should stop doing, what are your thoughts around that?

Steven Morris: My biggest piece of advice would be to invest in building a people-first organization and invest in a significant brand that is tethered to that. And then the other thing in the stop-doing category – stop chasing customers, stop chasing employees that don’t fit within your organization. It’s a mistake that I see fairly often that organizations that don’t have an anchor element, which is really their purpose and their belief system, they go out and chase shiny objects, and they end up getting into a commodity game.

Ryan: Well Steven, thank you for being a guest on Expert Opinion. If people are interested in reaching out to you, what’s the best way to contact you or get a copy of your book or books?

Steven Morris: The best way that people can reach me is through my website and that’s matterco.co. You can sign up for my blog there. And then I have a book website if you want to go directly to that, which is thebeautifulbusiness.com.