In this month’s member interview series, we feature Rhod Ellis-Jones, Deputy Chair and Co-founder of SVP, and Principal at Ellis Jones. Rhod shares his experience with shared value, how he applies it in his personal space and as a leader. Through co-designing and implementing programs within the disability services, aged care, government and energy agencies, Rhod and his team spread the benefits of shared value by ensuring that their clients are well-informed and make the right business decisions.
What does shared value mean to you?
Shared value is a practice, an outcome and a philosophy. To me personally, it represents the best approach by which to address many of the problems we have in society, using the significant resources and expertise of business.
What lead you individually to the shared value idea? How did you come across it?
Like most people, I was reading the Harvard Business Review and I thought, ‘this makes a lot of sense’.
I had worked on cross-sector partnerships before. Although they had good intent and appeared to share the same purpose, at the end of the day there really wasn’t a focus on achieving the same impacts. Beyond a conversation about ‘values alignment’, there wasn’t an agreement on shared value creation and a commitment to go the distance. CSR investments were always short term.
After working with health and social service organisations in the not-for-profit sector for many years, I saw firsthand that there was never enough money to do the job and go the distance required.
Because of the lack of available investment, these organisations didn’t have the depth and spread of required competencies. Many had acute insights and a deep understanding of the social needs, but not the capacity to solve the problem.
A reliance on government grants, always at the mercy of annual budget reviews, can never provide the long term investment confidence needed.
At the agency, we debated the shared value idea and ‘shook the tree’. We canvassed a close group of government and private sector clients. It had enough traction that we chose to build on it.
What does shared value success look like at Ellis Jones and where are you at on the journey?
Our purpose is ‘changing human behaviour to solve problems, create opportunities and improve society.’ We live by it. It’s been a five-year journey but, today, we are absolutely a shared value enterprise.
On that journey, our value proposition, our people and our client base has changed. We don’t do any work that does not create social value. That said, we are very much focused on business return – for the agency and our clients.
We channel 50 per cent of our annual profit back into achieving our purpose: via research, knowledge exchange, model development and, more recently, a social enterprise.
Last year we launched the Realm of Possibilities, a collaboration space that hosts a range of events and workshops supporting social innovation. We did assess a social enterprise model where a percentage of profits are assigned to a social cause – like Thank You or Who Gives A Crap – but, as a consulting business, our mission is to help large organisations change – that’s where our investment is focused.
There isn’t a staff member at Ellis Jones who doesn’t understand the shared value objectives of the business. They seek a role with us because they want to see change. It’s motivating as the Principal because, if we don’t achieve social change, they’ll leave! It drives the leadership in the business to keep striving and finding opportunities.
It has certainly changed the conversations with our clients. Because our purpose is so clear, we get very few companies coming to us who don’t want it. And every meeting we have acknowledges the business outcomes and the social impact opportunity.
People expect it! One of the other key changes has been the evolution of the social impact practice, which is primarily delivering research, co-design and business strategy, aligned with the communications and design work of the broader team.
Has that been hard in terms of selecting your clients and projects?
Absolutely. We are a young, mid-sized consulting company with a conscience and we are competing with global management consulting, research and communications firms that don’t have the same constraints.
Early on the difficulty was saying no. But taking any job that wasn’t going to achieve our shared value objectives would have undermined our entire position. We have also been diligent in measuring our own impact, which is often not easy because we are reliant on our clients’ ability to invest in social metrics, measurement and analysis.
What is your role individually within Ellis Jones to support the company along its shared value journey?
I’m extremely careful about the people we select. They need to share our purpose.
We foster open communication among staff members around how they are feeling and whether they are meeting their own personal goals and objectives and, if not, what we should change.
It’s a conversation not just about building competencies, but also how they see themselves and what they want as result of their career. We spend a lot of time and resources on building up concepts, taking them to the public realm and testing them.
We lead with a solutions approach and, as a result, every member of our team is assigned a knowledge area so they continue researching and feeding back on the sectors we work within to the team.
If we want a competitive advantage, then we need to understand the problems that our customers are facing and solve them. We frame all that with a social purpose. So that looks very different from just turning up and responding with a brief. I’m also constantly assessing the emergent models that come through for merit in application.
How has practising shared value helped you individually in your role or career more generally?
In some ways, it’s made us who we are. As a philosophy, shared value has been instrumental in shaping the organisation, in the language we use, the purpose of the business, the sectors we work in and the people we employ. It made our decisions clearer.
It was the right path because, around us, our not-for-profit, government and commercial clients are starting to listen to, and embrace it. The important point to recognise though is that, powerful as it is, shared value is a nascent idea and still has some way to finding its feet in many sectors.
What do you think are some pertinent issues in Australia that could be solved through creating shared value?
I think we often forget that there are a lot of mainstream social problems in Australia.
When we think about social impact, the brain still goes to people in entrenched poverty, homelessness, certainly offshore or in developing countries where there are serious social and political problems.
Here though, there are a lot of social problems that manifest in health, wellbeing, financial stress and social exclusion. The insurance and banking sectors in Australia have shown that often minor adjustments can make a bid difference.
But, right now, we see the health and care sectors as offering the most untapped potential. We’re implementing co-design programs in disability services, aged care and hospitals. We are working with government and energy agencies on how to change people’s behaviour around energy use.
We are also working in older markets around the transition into retirement and helping companies to understand the opportunity that’s inherent in changing the way they work with their employees.