'A real leader adapts and continues being the best at solving the problems they have taken responsibility for.’
Kresse Wesling is the co-founder of Elvis & Kresse, a sustainable luxury company that provides lifestyle accessories made from decommissioned fire hoses and other rescued raw materials.
In 2005, after discovering that London’s decommissioned fire hoses were headed to landfill, Kresse and her partner, Elvis, designed a highly innovative solution for this waste issue. They set up a social enterprise that reclaims the damaged fire hoses, transforms them into beautiful, lasting, and ethical luxury products, and gives 50% of its profits to charities associated with this environmental cause.
Leading an organisation with a social purpose requires a strong vision, dedication, and a very clear objective. But equally important are ‘genuine business acumen’ and the ability to adapt, which Kresse deems essential for successfully guiding your organisation towards a positive impact. We had the pleasure of interviewing the environmental entrepreneur to learn more about her approach to purposeful, social leadership.
What would you say are the challenges of leading an ethical business?
Running any business is difficult - getting customers, traction…all of these things are difficult. But doing it for social and environmental purposes makes your decision-making process slightly different. One decision lens that we apply is - does this make financial sense? Which is standard to any business. But on top of that, and probably much more fundamental to our business, Elvis and I always say: ‘Does this make the world better for other people’s grandchildren?’. If the answer to that is yes, then we can do it. And if the answer to that is no, then that’s a red line and we don’t take that step.
How do you implement these values in your organisation’s culture?
Everybody who’s here understands what the values of the business are because they are all actively engaged with reclaiming materials and they are aware of the donations we make. From a leadership perspective – it’s all based on action. This isn’t vocabulary for us, these are the actions that we take. It would be really difficult for people not to get that because they’re immersed in this every day. This is what they help us to deliver.
So, this vision is as much part of their purpose as it is of yours?
If they didn’t share this purpose, they wouldn’t stay around. But also, there’s a lot of people who we’ve managed to convert, who wouldn’t have described themselves as environmentalists and now they come in on a Monday morning and show us the latest YouTube video of birds eating plastic. I think once you open people’s minds to the size and scale of the issue and the challenges that we face, this is not a tap you can turn off. Once they’re awake, they can’t go back to sleep.
But how do you go about that, how do you manage to open people’s minds?
All of our raw materials arrive with their own history, their own narrative. They are tangible, physical proof that the current linear system has failed. Being a part of the solution, transforming these materials each and every day is a very mind opening experience.
What influences have shaped and informed your leadership?
The state of the environment informs my leadership a lot. The bird with its belly full of plastic shapes it a lot. Climate change shapes it a lot. And being quite comfortable with the fact that we want to take our very human response to these things and put it into our work is what shapes it.
I had an amazing grandmother and I think about the way she dealt with so many challenges in her life, and how she dealt with everything with grace, humility, and hard work and always for the benefit of everyone around her. We think about everyone around us, we think of people’s grandchildren, and we think of all the debts that we can’t possibly repay.
If you were to name three key elements of successful and purposeful leadership, what would those be?
You have to have a very clear objective - you have to know your problem better than anyone else. You have to really understand the problem that you want to solve. Because if you don’t understand it, you’re going to waste a lot of time chasing the wrong solutions.
The second aspect that’s always been really important for us is combining these values with genuine business acumen. I have seen so many people with fantastic purpose, but they fail to keep a business open, and that’s really a shame, because they have great ideas, but they don’t know how to balance the books or understand cash flows, or do any of these things. And you need to know how to do such things to stay open. If you can’t stay open, you can’t deliver your objectives and your impact, so this is quite important. And even if you’re running a charity, you still need to understand…ok, how do I get people in, how do I do the right recruitment, how do I maximise impact. You still have to be organised like a business person.
The third thing would have to be knowing how to take advantage of whatever luck you get whenever you get it because there’s no way you can achieve any of these things without a healthy dose of luck and being able to recognise it.
What advice do you have for leaders with a social purpose?
You have to be able to adapt the way you understand your problem – things change, the market changes, so maybe the nature of the problem itself has itself changed. You have to stay really, really engaged with the fundamentals of why you’re doing it. To be a leader…there’s longevity implied there. So, the first two pieces of advice are great for getting things going and getting everything off the ground, but really, a real leader adapts and continues to be the best at solving the problems they have taken responsibility for. And at some point, if the best way to solve your problem is to appoint an external CEO to replace yourself, that still shows real leadership.
Business leaders are waking up to the power of purpose for their companies. A clear purpose can drive employee satisfaction and attract customers. It can help founders to build a business that reflects their values and goals. Purposely is a free government-backed digital tool designed to help companies simply embed purpose. Learn more about this impactful tool here.
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Tags: Environment; Impact; Leadership; Social change; Social enterprise; Social justice.