Suzanne Mendes: Inspiring Through Values-Driven Leadership

PARTNER CONTENT By APG

PUBLISHED: January 15, 2024
Suzanne Mendes, head of marketing and communications at Inspire Clean Energy

Suzanne Mendes knows the power of sticking to your values. As head of marketing and communications at certified B corporation Inspire Clean Energy, she has ensured her company’s mission of increasing access to renewable energy has remained at the core of its internal and external operations since she came aboard three years ago.

Over her career of more than 18 years, Mendes has held leadership positions at some of the world’s most successful brands across a wide range of industries. After helping steer the public-facing ships of companies such as Estée Lauder, Kiehl’s and Uniqlo, she believes success ultimately boils down to a single timeless factor.

“My number one piece of advice is to put values at the heart of everything you do,” Mendes says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re offering apparel or clean energy in the marketplace—staying true to your business’s fundamental values is paramount.”

Values and business operations

According to Mendes, if a company’s values are to remain as its guiding influence, it’s up to modern-day marketers to assume a leadership role in activating those values enterprisewide. Simply expressing them in materials and public statements is no longer going to cut it. Mendes shares that, in her experience, when a company’s values are only leveraged as a marketing tactic, efficacy plummets.

“Values-driven marketing alone doesn’t really work,” Mendes says. “Values-led business do.”

In other words, organizations need to commit to an intentional, values-led philosophy across all areas of operations from the start to be truly effective and to build a genuine, trusting relationship with their primary audience—be it the general public, shareholders or other key stakeholders.

What if an organization happens to lack a clearly articulated values-led philosophy? Mendes says a situation like this would be an excellent opportunity for emerging marketing leaders to differentiate themselves while driving their respective businesses forward. Whether those values center around the environment, innovation or inclusion, for example, she believes strong marketers possess the unique skills to lead the process of identifying what the company stands for and engaging all stakeholder groups, especially at the executive level. This approach will ensure that those values directly support the overall health of the business.

Mendes says without alignment between product, purpose and values, the performance of a business can easily veer off track. “Companies sometimes become overly reactive to fresh challenges—market downturns, consumer behavior shifts or increased competition,” she adds. “This is where a strong marketing leader can step in and reground critical decision-making in the company’s values, helping shift from knee-jerk reactions to centered, thoughtful values-driven responses.”

Values and marketing strategy

While Mendes believes adherence to a company’s values should be at the root of its operation, she underscores the distinctly critical role it also plays in effective marketing strategies.

“The best marketing leaders have a deep understanding of the hearts, minds, preferences and needs of consumers,” Mendes says. To create and maintain a lasting brand, the key is having engaged customers who not only make repeat purchases but also organically share your message, products and services among their own circles.

How does a brand build that customer base? According to Mendes, it all comes down to living by your company’s values and telling that story effectively. “It’s not nearly enough to have a strong communications and content strategy in place. In order to build trust, customers expect to see proof points that a brand is taking meaningful action to advance their values,” she says. “Without walking the walk, company values can swiftly be viewed as performative, which is an instant perception killer.”

Mendes notes that in the current environment—where the economic outlook is uncertain—the purchasing power of both millennials and Gen Z continues to rise and all industries seem to become more competitive by the day. Effectively leveraging a company’s values can be critical for differentiating in the market. And with both generations frequently citing “authenticity” as a driving factor behind purchase decisions, articulating and living by a brand’s values has never been more important to its bottom line.

“If your brand resonates with consumers in a powerful, deep-rooted way, regardless of the good or service you provide, they’ll be eager to engage with you above the rest of the herd,” Mendes says. “Driving that values-grounded engagement is the mark of a strong marketing leader.”

Values and leadership

How an organization lives its values transcends operational or strategic execution. A human touch is needed—from its leaders, specifically.

“Leveraging a company’s values also translates to how its teams are led,” Mendes says. “Employees know if a leader’s heart isn’t in their actions. I always strive to lead from a place of personal values and infuse every professional decision with them.”

Mendes hosts a workshop for up-and-coming leaders within Inspire that focuses on cultivating one’s own leadership style. This is done through a process of identifying each individual’s inherent values and leveraging them as the foundation to lead from. She hopes encouraging and mentoring her colleagues to discern a leadership style emblematic of their own dearly held values will be paid forward when they’re in future positions of authority.

“Many emerging leaders are led to believe they need to become a certain archetype in order to be an effective leader,” Mendes reflects. “My goal is to dismantle that belief and empower future leaders to rely more on their personal values versus an outdated paradigm of leadership that likely won’t serve them or their team members if it isn’t true to who they fundamentally are.”

For Mendes, the topic is personal.

“Early in my career, I didn’t encounter many leaders that I wanted to emulate,” she says. “None of the values I hold—including empathy, transparency and authenticity—were reflected in how they led their teams.”

By experiencing corporate cultures steered by leaders who chose not to meld their personal values with their careers long before she was in a leadership position of her own, Mendes considers herself fortunate. It gave her the perspective to see how bringing her core values to work could enrich a team, or even company, someday.

“While there’s no set path to success as a leader, I think we unlock greater performance, creativity and engagement from our teams when we lead from a place of humanity by staying unapologetically true to our personal values,” Mendes says.

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