Mike Davis On The Power Of Clarity, Growth and Mission


Mike is the Founder and Managing Director of Purposeful, Host of the Humans of Purpose podcast and is a Director at SIMNA Ltd, Australia's peak social impact measurement network.

After a number of years working as a senior advisor in policy and strategy in government, Mike founded Purposeful - an award winning B Corp and Social Impact Consultancy, helping businesses and not for profits to create, measure and communicate social impact; and to develop high performing and purpose driven culture. Mike has a keen interest in understanding and creating meaningful workplaces for this generation and the next to thrive in. Through his podcast, Humans of Purpose, he is committed to showcasing conversations with Australian leaders who are creating social impact through their work.


Mike talks about the strategies and experiences that have helped him reach his entrepreneurial goals.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Natana Mayer] - Let’s get straight into it. What was your journey to building Purposeful? [02:53]

[Mike Davis] - So my journey was basically that of a very lost kid who finished year 12 and didn't know what he wanted to do. And so what do you do in that situation? Well, if you have good enough marks, you do whatever you can and commerce for me was the answer. So I studied business and had an entrepreneurial interest at a young age, but I think when I studied business, entrepreneurship wasn't really a thing yet. It was sort of, you know, 2001, 2002 maybe some of the first entrepreneurship courses were coming online and I didn't really find my niche in commerce.

I studied a bit of marketing and management and thought it was interesting and bits of finance I liked, but I couldn't quite find my niche where I really felt at home. So after I did commerce, I was always interested in the ethics and morality in philosophy. I studied law at Monash University and really found that intellectually it was the right fit. But in terms of practice, it wasn't. As many of our contemporaries would know the study of law is very different to the practice in reality. That's a rude awakening when you finish a law degree that you find out how the system works. But I spent a year as a judge's associate after my year of doing law. I was lucky enough to finish during the GFC year of 2008 where they slashed flagship offerings in graduate positions by at least a quarter. So I finished the judge's associateship and really had a wonderful time learning about the courts, the justice system and the intersection of government and society and a whole bunch of really interesting human rights issues that I never had contemplated before. At that point, I hit the same juncture where I was like, this is great to study, but give it a little more practice. What's next? I realised through being a judge's associate that I loved policy. I loved writing, I loved, advocacy and I loved the power of words to convey meaning and to influence social change. So I thought, why don't I try my hand as a policy writer or a sort of a policy analyst.

The things that I was loving most about the law was actually the law research writing and making arguments based on ethics, philosophy, facts, actual matrix, and what's happening, circumstances of the case. So spending a bit of time as a policy analyst at a medical colleges and then after that thinking I'll know how to lobby into government about various issues around medical legislation and ethics. It's probably time to see how the sausage is made, so to speak and get in government and figure out if I can be somebody who contributes to actual policy making. And that's a whole different ball game and very interesting to see the insides of the machine for a few years.

It's a bureaucratic jungle. And look, there's a lot of good that goes on in government. You do learn a lot. As much as government gets criticised, it's mainly former private sector workers that end up in the high positions in government, so it's all the same people everywhere. It's the machine. That's the challenge. So spent time learning from some very bright people in health and human services, spent time at a central agency learning craft in the department of Premier and cabinet, which was interesting. Then went back to health and human services to work in social investments and did that for a little while and began to think very deeply about what it was that I wanted to do and what kind of impact I wanted to make. And more specifically, what is the problem that I want to dedicate my time to?

That's a very loaded question.

I think the mistake that a lot of people make is they jump into an exciting project without the layer of meaning underneath or the driving motivation.

But when you're in government, you see so many things that you could be working towards fixing or being a part of a solution to that. It doesn't take long for the one that's most meaningful to you to rise up to the top and almost urge you to do something. And for me it was around not for profits in the business, not really working together effectively to solve social problems because traditionally when you think about it, government puts a lot of effort, money, policy, and resources into solving social issues, but with dwindling resources, tight budgets and all the issues, it's not sustainable for them to be the only people coming to the party.

And I saw a couple of trends; so corporate social responsibility sort of not really being an effective solution to helping make the world a better place. And I saw not for profit not really using strategy all that well to solve social problems, that weren't measuring outcomes well, that weren't having a robust model around outcomes measurement.

There’s no real system behind the doing. So I thought, look, these are clearly two separate problems, but ones that I'm very passionate about solving and I've always thought that things are best solved in partnership and there must be some way that both of these parties could either work together in partnership or separately so they can have their motivations realigned to focus on solving social problems.


Definitely. How did you tackle solving that problem?

Well, it was a long and slow process. I started a company which had a terrible name. It was called Aegis, Social impact advisory. Yeah, it's terrible. So the first thing is my sister knows the space well because she just understands some of this stuff around design. But she said to me, you should not be using your foreign word to describe what you do because it's very confusing for people. But I had this thing in my mind that was already taken by the idea that Aegis in the Roman era, meant to be under the protector or advisement of honourable meaning; that if you're a client of Aegis, you would be under their protection or guidance. None of my good mates, colleagues, or even myself had realised that there was a huge superannuation company with a similar name which was a further layer of confusion.

So this was just like shocking planning 101. I made the website and Wix it was a total disaster. But strangely enough, we got a job or two out of it. You've got to put yourself out there.

I think that's one of the best things about startup life in this space. If you have an idea, the best way to learn whether you're on the right track is just to put yourself out there. Gather intelligence, put yourself out there and see what the market says about your idea and your offerings.

So how did you test Purposeful out?

Well, I just launched. So I launched the website and we got a few requests for little jobs to do around at the time, a policy and privacy, so some interesting areas and work around some of the privacy changes in legislation that were happening. And I soon realised that I wasn't doing the work that I set out to do by forming that company. And it was probably to do with the identity of the business really. I'm putting somebody into it seriously and revamping and I'm being a bit more concerned about the effort to launch properly into the right space, enriched the right types of clients as well, which is important. So I took an interest free loan from a lending organisation for a couple of grand and I put all of that into the website. I think when you're in services, you don't have much to show. So your website is critical.

To get a really good website is the best advice I got.

At that point I rebranded to Purposeful because I was in the states sort of thinking very deeply about why this was a flop.

My wife said, 'you know, it's pretty obvious you've got a terrible name that has nothing to do with your core service offering. So you need to change that.' So I thought, you know, what is the essence of what I want to do? And it's really to help businesses and not for profits to have a greater purpose in the world. There's a lot of the sort of mishmash out there about what does purpose mean in purpose, crafting and purpose washing and, you know, sometimes I think people have said purpose so much that it loses meaning. So I try and say it less, but for me it was really simple.

It's about having a clear idea of where you're going that's aligned to your values and your why and having a sense of a destination and you can only take yourself on a journey that's imbued with meaning if you have some sort of guiding values and a clear destination in sight.

So that was sort of key; really thinking a lot about it back then it was a quote by Seneca, sort of saying that when the port or the destination is unclear and you're sailing, what kind of journey is that you're going on? You could be going anywhere. So that to me was very much about a few things;

it's having the right guiding values and this sense of destination, but then also being clear on why you embarking on that journey.

Understanding what drives you and what gets you out of bed, but also why you are on that journey and why you. Why is it you who's on that journey is a thing that I learned to explore more as part of developing my own unique value proposition.

I'm a very curious person, so I want to ask a lot of questions and those questions bring clarity and clarity is important and alignment to values and strategy. If you can. One, clarity and alignment that's really important and having a good mission and a solid mission. So I'm really thinking about what I'm doing. I want to be asking the uncomfortable questions because that's where the growth comes from. It's sort of like that expression, everyone talks about doing things because they're easy, but really you should be doing things because they're hard.

That's where the real growth comes from. So a personal philosophy that I have, is that I try and regularly do things that I'm not really sure about or make me feel uncomfortable. For example, public speaking, I do a lot now, but I didn't do any before, and podcasting, I'd never done that before I started the podcast as just sort of thinking, oh my philosophy like this. Oh, that makes me feel weird. I think I could do that though. Let's try it.

It's definitely easier said than done, but the more you practice it, the easier it gets. So I often had people say to me, 'Humans of Purpose; you have some amazing guests on, how do you get them?' I just asked them - that simple, because other people wouldn't. They just think, 'oh, this is a important political figure or this is a business guru or this person is way too many levels above me.' People love having conversations and especially talking about themselves. So if you are going to honour somebody with the opportunity to do that, they will most likely, (if you do it the right way), be really thrilled at the opportunity.

I've learned that people are perceiving things that generally aren't there. It's a lot of fear. And a lot of built up tension about things that probably don't actually exist, but they do in a lot of people's minds. The more you can train yourself to just do things that other people aren't willing to do or would maybe fearful of them, that's how you get to growth and that's how you improve. So for me, I got to a stage where I said to my wife the other week, 80 percent of my week I spent with people I've never met before and yet that's incredibly strange. But what an exciting time of life to be in growth wise and learning wise where you're surrounded by chances to learn from people that you don't already know. You just have to start seeing everything. I think of it as a learning opportunity.

Is there a secret sauce to it? Because I know that there's different routes to learning; there's the “proceed in little steps” mentality and then there’s the advice of “just throw yourself into the deep end and swim”.

I think it depends what personality type you've got. I wouldn't be saying that everyone should throw themselves in the deep end and expect to succeed because that's a risky strategy, but I think definitely testing boundaries and what you're capable of at all times is really important.

So putting yourself in positions of discomfort is a sign that you are having an opportunity to grow and learn and that should be seen as something that's good for you.

So when you're online and you entrepreneurs always have these times where just nothing's happening and business is not moving, why don't you put yourself up as a keynote speaker at a conference, or why don't you try and apply to write an article or a blog or something that you haven't written for before, or why don't you be proactive and put something provocative out there that you honestly believe, that you've thought through and just don't think as much. Just do more.

I know building something from nothing isn’t easy, but from the outside people could see it that way. What do you want people to know about that building process? [19:21]

The truth is, that I spend a lot of hours awake when others are asleep either working or stressing about work because the entrepreneur, I mean it's a brave front on the outside, but on the inside, I try and actually not put my energy into self doubt. I put it into doing as much as I can to succeed. So I'm just going to give it everything in my time as a small business owner, entrepreneur, and give myself the best chance of succeeding and everything I do and if it doesn't work, I'll come out and tell everyone that it didn't work and why and what I'm doing next, but that we know is not going to last forever. So you really want to be not wasting your time stressing about how you're perceived or what happens next.

Yeah. That's so true. Do you believe in some kind of work-life balance? [20:25]

I want to say yes, I am trying to be better with boundaries, but it's hard. My wife and I went to Fiji two weeks ago for a week and we were not supposed to be working, but I had three projects go live the week before. We spent the weekend both of us by the pool working on our own stuff. It was a good balance between relaxing and doing work, but you would never turn that work away. It's the foolish person who turns away opportunities to work and develop. Even with podcasts and you get a chance to have a podcast with somebody you never really got and it's not that convenient for you. What do you do where you just say yes, because a bird in the hand is the economic loss of, you know, it's always better to have a bird in the hand than a bird later. So get it done because it's the certainty there. What I do try and do is I try and switch off emails, social media at night. Unless I'm podcasting and weekends I don't do any emails. I'm pretty strict on that. I'm trying to work on weekends, so I try and do things to balance myself up a bit fast. I know that if things need to get done, in a one point two person business, it's either me who's going to do them or they're not going to get done.


So do you ever find that being so close to purpose led businesses causes you to suffer from purpose fatigue? [22:18]

It's an interesting space to be.

I think purpose-driven business really exploded since about 2015.

We have a lot of evidence now about how much more high performing purpose-driven businesses are and how much better they look after the planet, clients, customers, workers, the works, the B Corp Movement and it's explosive growth in Australia is a testament to that success. I do get tired of hearing that purpose is a marketing exercise. I'm a lot more interested in organisations building strategy and activity that leads to better outcomes for stakeholders. I'm not as interested in how can we make a media release or a stipend or go out there and bang the drum about how ethical we are. Very different. So if it's around I'm actually making change that benefits stakeholders. I'm all in at the moment. It's sort of just seeps into over-claiming and marketing stuff. I tune out of it.

What role do you think your messaging has played in building a really engaged community online for your brand?

I think it's just that we do have a very authentic message and we're not going out there to advocate the things that we're not doing. We don't have a claim. We're not championing how great we are. So many organisations and people and social media. You look at their feeds and it's like, oh, we've got this award, we've got that award. We're so great for this, we're so great for that. Most of what we do is actually about showcasing the great work of our clients and our partners and other stakeholders that we've had relationships with, so you will see enough aides that we do spend a lot of time just sharing good quality content. Humans of Purpose is legitimately about showcasing the power of conversations with purpose driven leaders and the reason for that is because I think everyone needs local heroes to look up to and respect.

I love that. Everyone needs local heroes to look up to and respect. [26:33]

So I didn't finish my story, but you know, the same time that I decided to start Purposeful, I was in New York with my wife, I'm very disillusioned from my public service, and ending that time there and I just thought, why is it that in New York City walking the streets of New York, I have to listen to these random Americans talking about how great they are. I'm on podcasts. Why can I hear about the amazing people back home in Melbourne, in Australia who are doing really transformational social change work, preach. I know it's happening. And I know you guys have been doing it for a while and sort of started thinking, I'm looking at this room for you guys and a bunch of other places to do it. Why can I add my own spin to that? Am I spinning just about a really authentic opportunity to have a conversation and to make the point that we don't have enough meaningful conversations where it's two people connecting over ideas and honouring the moment of that conversation. It's not about trying to score points or promote your products or services. It's really about exchanging ideas, and so I get immense value from that conversation, but then the listeners of the podcast, I can learn so much when they might not have had the opportunity to meet that person.

I think people want to sit down and have authentic, meaningful conversations that's around real issues, and people want to hear the stories of Australians who have decided to take a certain course in their life who could have done something very comfortable and easy, but have taken the hard road, in the name of social change. and that to me is very inspiring and I'd like to see us get to a place where more people actually idolise these types of people who are creating social change rather than some plastic up celebrity or cricket player or whatnot. 

For me it's like we should be really honouring people who are doing things like innovation in education and sciences. That is stuff that really has profound societal impact. And the truth is, there's no reason why we don't honour those people enough and the podcast is just a way to give them more of that spotlight and really put the attention on some people who are doing terrific work.

How does a young social entrepreneur actually start that meaningful conversation with their local hero? [29:38]

Yeah. I think it's hard. I mean it's definitely like a fence ring that these social entrepreneurs put around themselves where it's like, you know, you have to has to be clean on what the value exchange is in order to talk to them or meet them, but they're not all like that. A bunch of them are, but it's really about thinking how can you penetrate that fence a little bit and be tactical about it?

You have any tricks?

I think people are inherently interested in incentives and what they want to see themselves gaining from a situation. So you could always talk to them about something that you've been following, that they do is a good thing to do. Don't go in there and be like, Hey, I love you, let's meet for coffee. 

There's got to be a value exchange there or at least an alignment of purpose. So you want to be talking to them about stuff that you know they're interested in that you're also interested in. Build some rapport like you would with anyone that you're meeting. And also just talk about how you think you could benefit each other. Because I think the mistake a lot of people make is they just say, I really want to have coffee and pick your brain. Well, how much can people have their brains picked? I get hundreds of emails like that a every few months. So I think you've got to be clever and savvy about it, but also this way to make those connections is if you see someone out you really want to connect with them, just go up and say hi and make a personal connection. There's nothing like a personal connection if done the right way. You can send as many funny, awkward tweets or Linkedin mails as you like, but go up to someone in person and buy them a coffee or just say hi and say authentically what you love about what they're doing and ask whether you could email them some time. That is the way to do it. I reckon another extra tip would probably be to see what their recent activity is.

Don’t just go in blind and be like, 'Hey, I want to buy you coffee so I can steal your ideas.' A lot of people do that. Then I will say, can I have half an hour of your time so I can learn from what you did? It's much more valuable to make a connection and state what your purpose is before you try and arrange that coffee. Say clearly your new purpose and back yourself in. So say 'I'd love to buy you a coffee because I'm really interested in this tweet you did the other day about this asylum seeker issue.' I had some ideas about how your business might think about getting into this space and I have a contact who I'd really like to connect you with. Can we catch up for coffee? Fantastic. They have these few layers in that case; basically I know what you're up to, I'm impressed by it and I want to add value to your life by making you a connection that you could then use an add value to how you're doing things. It's not a taking offering.

Do you have any resources or books you would recommend to our listeners? [34:30]

That's a good question. I like to read. I haven't done enough reading lately, just caught up in business and podcasting and whatnot. But I love reading, so when I go to holidays I'll smash through a lot of books. I do listen to a lot of other podcasts here. That's a really good way to get in a different headspace. I liked the ABC podcast, NPR podcasts, How I Built This, Tim Ferris Podcast, and of course Impact Boom. So yeah, I love that kind of stuff. I also read a couple of blogs, Marginal Revolution is fantastic. Tyler Cowan who is an economist from the US from George Mason University and he's the smartest guy in the world in my opinion. And he just composes these daily reading lists of about eight links. So obsessively go through that and just try and find what he's interested in. It really gets me thinking because, I mean if this is the smartest guy in the world and this is what he's interested in, come on, you're going to give that a good company, a good company.

So I think a good tip is when you want to expand your mind, don't just go to a new site, go on blogs that have compiled reading lists that other really bright people have put time into. It just saves you so much time.

Tim Ferriss has got a good five bullet Friday, which is good. And I read it. Eric Barker has got a terrific neuroscience blog. That's good. So I've got a couple of websites that I check into and a couple of newsletters that are operating and sort of keep myself in that as well.

How can people connect with you, Purposeful and Humans of Purpose? [37:05]

If you want to, shoot my trusty lieutenant Dee an email at 'hello (@) purposeful.com.au' she'll be able to flick it over onto me. Alternatively, get in contact via Twitter.


You can contact Mike on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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