In conversation with John Zafar: Understanding Inclusive Employment, Profit & Purpose & Remote Working….

In the latest of a series of occasional dialogues with senior business leaders, we speak to JOHN ZAFAR, Chair of Inclusive Employers.

John has enjoyed a stellar career across recruitment, healthcare, consultancy and corporate finance. He has led numerous turnarounds and exits, generating millions of pounds for investors. A firm believer in responsible business, John is now focused on leveraging his considerable experience to help create a more caring and inclusive global workplace.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation and a video link to the full-length interview.

Matthew Pitt: I’m delighted to be joined today by John Zafar, who is a very successful business leader with a long and varied career across recruitment, healthcare, talent intelligence, the charity sector and probably many other areas it would take too long to mention in an introduction, but which I’m sure we’ll touch on in the next half hour or so. John, welcome, and thank you for joining me today.

John Zafar: My absolute pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Matthew Pitt: I’d like to begin by talking about one of your current ventures, Inclusive Employers, of which you are the chairperson. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about inclusive employers and why you chose to become involved with this particular venture.

John Zafar: Thank you. Inclusive Employers was started around 13 years ago by a brother and sister, and the brother’s husband. The focus was on inclusion and on providing training, consulting and advisory services to employers, regardless of sector. The USP was that they set up a membership for those employers whereby each member was given support every month, with a regular call on their progress on bringing inclusion into their organization.

Often, there’s only one person in an organization who is responsible for inclusion. Sometimes there may be two or three, but even that’s very few, so actually it can be quite a lonely role. And the other aspect is that sometimes it’s hard to be an expert on everything. There are nine protected characteristics, so how do you know for sure that you’re including everybody?

Alone together: On the loneliness of leading inclusion efforts

You also have another factor which is that sometimes external events can drive a particular focus. Sadly, the murder of George Floyd and then the murder of Sarah Everard brought to the fore the issues of psychological safety as far as race or gender is concerned. Consequently, there are two parts to what happens with organizations we support. One is obviously we have a program where we’re trying to improve their ‘inclusion maturity’; the second is that we have situations where we’re required to react, maybe to what’s going on in the wider world and helping those organizations navigate through it in terms of that communication with their workforce.

So that’s what Inclusive Employers do. And one of the things I’ve been astonished by—and one of the reasons I’m very proud to be part of the initiative—is that among their membership of nearly 500 organisations are many government institutions, such as the Bank of England, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. Also, they do a lot of work across sports. Here, they’re often working with governing bodies, then coming down to the professional game and then looking at how that cascades to grassroots. All of this stuff takes a lot of time, of course, but I feel immensely proud to be part of that process.

Matthew Pitt: Thank you. you’re clearly someone who wants to give something back after your very successful career. I’m thinking not just about Inclusive Employers, but also about YourGamePlan, which is another venture of which you are the chair and which, as I understand, provides employability skills to young people. What draws you to these causes apart from your personal experience, which you briefly shared there, and what advice would you give people at a similar stage of their own career who’d like to get involved with such ventures?

John Zafar: In terms of what draws me to these ventures, well, you know, it boils down to this: when I get out of bed in the morning and I think about my day and the things I need to do and the people I need to speak to, the purpose of these organizations makes it feel less like work. I’m 61 now – I’ve spent 30-odd years building companies on behalf of investors and founders, essentially to try and create shareholder value which they could then realise. I’ve generated something in excess of £150 million of shareholder value through the six or seven exits I’ve been involved in, so I feel fulfilled in terms of what I’ve achieved.

But now that sense of giving something back, the opportunity to add value in terms of my own experiences but also do that for a purpose, I have to say it feels as if I’ve started a new career. I feel like I’m a beginner again in some ways but it is genuinely very humbling to be involved with these organizations and the people I work with and the difference that they’re looking to make.

So if I were making a recommendation to anybody who is thinking about moving from executive to non-executive or advisory work, I would absolutely encourage them to do two things. First, look for organizations that are involved in something that is important to them personally; and, two, within that, if they can also identify a charity or charities that they could support as well, perhaps as a trustee or on the board, that is a genuine way to be able to give something back. So those would be the two things I’d be recommending to anybody at that stage of their career who’s asking, you know, what am I going to do next? It’s finding the environment—the people and the mission—to apply themselves to, whereby when they give their expertise and advice, they’re moving the needle on something that means something to them.

Matthew Pitt: You mentioned the word ‘purpose’ in your answer there which leads me quite neatly onto my next question. I want to reference a book by Vivek Ramaswamy who as you will know – but some of our viewers may not – is a Silicon Valley billionaire and also, perhaps more notably, a candidate in the upcoming US Republican primaries. In his book, Capitalist Punishment, Ramaswamy expresses the opinion that corporates should focus exclusively on returning a profit for their shareholders. Do you agree or do you feel that profit can be combined with purpose without any conflict?

John Zafar: I don’t agree that that should be the purpose of organizations. I think that’s too narrow, arguably too short term, because I think businesses that are able to provide value to all stakeholders are more likely to be sustainable. So a race to profit is one thing, but over how long? Jim Collins wrote a book called Good to Great where he identified those companies that have been consistently ‘great’ over a significant period of time. I think there were only about 100 companies. Now, when you look at that those organizations through the lens of social impact and environmental impact – which I don’t think that study actually did – how many of those companies would be on the list then?

So I would argue that we’re all citizens of the world. Whether you’re making a profit or whether you’re a consumer of those goods and services, we are united overall in the impact those organizations have. If we’re not aligned on understanding that impact and ensuring that it is minimizing damage, then we’re just not aligned at all. The purpose is short term for profit but not necessarily to the benefit of all stakeholders. And so I don’t agree with that.

Profit with purpose is something I quite fundamentally agree with, although in terms of how one goes about that, it does depend on the organization and what they’re involved with.

But I think you have to look at it as a journey rather than a destination. It’s all about trying to make improvements over time rather than saying “we’re there, we are the gold standard!”. You can never be a gold standard if there’s an opportunity to improve, and I think there always is. So it’s more about the philosophy of how we want to be sustainable as an enterprise, whatever that is.

Profit, purpose and perfectionism: On balancing commerce and morality

Of course, we want to provide returns for our shareholders, but we also want to provide returns in ways that are measured through environmental impact, social impact, and social responsibility as well. I would also argue that investors as well as consumers are now focused on those other metrics as well as profit.

So based on what I read and hear, what I’m involved with in terms of working with an impact fund, for example, the argument that one would just pursue profit seems out of time and out of kilter with society today, but also, interestingly enough, I think it’s slightly out of kilter with the capital markets. That’s just my point of view, but I’m not a billionaire so maybe my view should be dismissed on that basis.

Matthew Pitt: I’m sure not. So you’re saying the profit motive almost fails on its own terms because unless you weave in some kind of purpose, you’re likely to be less profitable?

John Zafar: Over time, yes. The point about the Jim Collins study was that the organisations which made the shortlist were those that consistently outperformed their peer group over extended periods of time. And we’re talking decades in some cases, some of those organizations were over a century old. So, you know, take Uber – will it be around in a hundred years? Will it be a business everybody respects, uses, and admires? We don’t know yet, but there’s an argument that says if it doesn’t treat all its stakeholders well, including its drivers, it is at risk in the longer term of somebody else coming through and eating its lunch.

Matthew Pitt: In recent years, John, we’ve seen a blurring between our personal and professional lives. I’m thinking of the very obvious work-from-home revolution, but also I think there’s been a challenge to corporate conformity, with companies increasingly celebrating diversity and encouraging their employees to ‘bring their whole selves’ to work. As someone who’s lived through those changes and also as – I happen to know – a devoted husband and father, how do you balance your work life and your home life?

John Zafar: That’s a great question. I suspect not always successfully is the answer. Certainly, there are times when – by nature of the way in which we engage now via remote working – we’re literally running back to back and having meeting after meeting after meeting. It’s almost machine-like to some extent. You can fill your diary. You can have four of five meetings, take a short break, and then do another four or five meetings. I don’t see that as being sustainable in the long run. But what’s the answer to that? I think it just depends on the individual circumstances and knowing where can you build in the brakes, where you can create opportunities for decompression. And most importantly, where you create the opportunities for reflection . . . You know, we hear a lot about mental health nowadays and I suppose we all have to be more aware of the requirement to be stewards of our own mental health and physical health and the balance between the two.

That habit of going to a place of employment, mixing with people socially, stopping for a coffee or popping outside for a cigarette for those people who want to do that, going to the shops to get a sandwich – all of that appears to be missing from so many people’s lives and some of that behaviour is, you know, it’s just part of who we are as human beings, never mind workers. So I do think that balance is something that people are still striving for. Obviously, there’s a lot more awareness around impact on mental health and physical health, so in that sense there’s more awareness of what the dangers are, but as far as hybrid working is concerned, each person’s got to find their own balance.

I can only reflect on what life was like for me when I was 20 and one of the things I loved about work was the people I worked with. They were my friends, my social group. You know, we’d go and have drinks after work and meet up at weekends. I have friends I’ve known for thirty or forty years whom I met through work. Also, that aspect of learning from the people around you – I do feel that this generation are going to miss out on so much in terms of osmosis and learning that social fabric as part of the working environment where we spend most of our lives is missing for this generation and I feel it’s a loss that will have an impact further down the line.

I think if you’re older – you know, you’re married, you’ve got children, you have more of a social environment out of work –  in those circumstances, I do understand why people find the benefits of working from home. You can focus. There’s less distraction. You’ve got family that you want to spend time with and that ability to shut down the Zoom and go to the kitchen and see the children, the dogs, the relatives, whatever, that can be quite special. But, as I say, for that younger generation, so much of what we experienced is now missing from their lives and their careers. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Careful what you wish for: On remote working and missed opportunity

Matthew Pitt: Yes, it’s interesting what you say there, because I think there’s been an interesting inversion of attitudes on this subject. If you cast your mind back to pre-pandemic, it tended to be the younger generation who were pushing for flexible working and it was older people like you and me who were saying “no, no, no, we’ll just do it the way we’ve always done it”. But now it’s people like us who see the benefits of working from home, and maybe some of that young generation are realizing there are disadvantages, especially at that stage of their career where, as you say, they need the social side of work. They certainly need the mentoring and the training. So I suspect there might be a correction in years to come, and perhaps it’s happening already.

John Zafar: Yeah, and can technology play a part in that? You know, there are systems out there that are trying to link people together around things like learning and development, but also socially. Look at the success of Slack. It just came from nowhere, and suddenly it was in everyone’s lives, allowing people to chat about whatever they wanted and to create these communities. So I think technology is helping to bridge that gap. But yes, there’s something fundamental about us as a species, which is that we belong in groups. I’m sure there will be anthropologists and psychologists who’ll be doing a lot of research in the future looking at the impact of working from home on individuals and groups and the whole of society.

Matthew Pitt: I’ll finish with more of a fun question, but one which I hope is thought-provoking as well. If you were to start your career all over again tomorrow, what would you do differently?

John Zafar: I have to say when I read that question, I did stop for a minute and think how on earth am I going to answer that? Inevitably, I saw my life almost like a film director, watching the movie reel of my life and trying to pick up the themes and outcomes. And reassuringly, what I ended up with was a straightforward answer . . . no, I wouldn’t change anything, and the reason for that is this whole issue of connectivity. You know, a butterfly flaps its wings in China and we see a hurricane appearing in Surrey. There is a huge amount of connectivity in life and some of it appears to be led by fate, some by circumstance, some by love, some by design. But if I look at my circumstances today – you know my life, my wife, my son, my friends, my failures and my successes – well, all of that made me what I am. If I’d changed my career, would I have preferred to be a different me or would I prefer to have different people around me? And the answer is no.

Of course, you could always say, well, I’d like a bit more time to go skiing or more time with friends, and obviously, financially, nobody’s going to say no to more money, but I’m grateful for where I am today in my life and I would be so fearful that if I changed something, I might not end up with what I’ve got today. I do feel I’m extremely fortunate to be in a place where I do have another career, and I’m working with a number of amazing people doing amazing things and supporting amazing causes. I’ve got wonderful family around me and wonderful friends, so, fundamentally, I would argue that I’m rich in that context, and I wouldn’t want to do anything to alter that.

Matthew Pitt: Well, that’s very heartening to hear you say you wouldn’t change anything. I wonder how many people can look back on their career and say that. Thank you, John, for joining me today.

John Zafar: It was my pleasure.



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