17 January 2023 – The Great Realignment has shown that current employees, as well as future recruits, make choices based on a company’s values. Zoë Arden, CISL Fellow and an independent leadership and stakeholder engagement specialist examines the significance of having a clear purpose for an organisation and how to bring it to life.
The start of a new year can often be a time for refreshing or renewing our personal purpose but what about our organisation’s? The chances are you will have one but is it truly embedded in the business?
All our stakeholders, including the planet itself, expect us to have a business purpose. The Great Realignment has shown that current employees, as well as future recruits, make choices based on a company’s values. The growth of B Corps and mission-driven organisations are proof of the shift towards purpose becoming business as usual which means partners and suppliers are also prioritising who they work with. Customers are making active choices based on the question, ‘is this good for me and the planet as well as just the business’s coffers?’
Purpose is clearly important but what gets in the way of us activating it? Firstly, perfect can be the enemy of the good. We can fixate on going for the gold star rather than the north star. So often in workshops, when I invite people to share their purpose, they doggedly remain scribbling muttering, ‘It’s not finished yet’. Avoid perfection paralysis or what Prof Robert Holden has termed ‘destination addiction’ where we obsess about the end of the rainbow rather than considering the impact our everyday decisions have on the world around us. He says to live with purpose is to make the means the end, as well as the end the means. The end is in every moment – in the same way that our purpose is in every moment.
Communicating and living your business purpose is the work of a lifetime but it starts with the first step. Don’t panic. Start with exploration, experimentation, be curious about how it lands and open to the fact that it may be received differently to how you intended. Listen, learn, and reflect back what you’ve heard. This is the start of the process of activating purpose.
Purpose is not something that should explode on stage with the brand gurus, walk-on music and fireworks. As an avid am-dramer, I know that to make a performance a success, you need twice as many people behind the scenes as are on stage. For you, that starts with every single employee, not just the executive sponsors, and your purpose needs to radiate out to customers, partners, suppliers, peers, communities, and competitors.
In storytelling, we often talk about ‘the power of the pause’ – the moments of silence where people really lean in to what you are about to say. Hitting ‘the purpose pause button’ can also ensure that you act with intention and use the business purpose as an anchor in a crisis, stabilising the team when there is no precedent. During the pandemic, the businesses that flourished were the ones whose purpose came to life when truly tested, where employees felt seen and cared for when they needed it most. In many instances, this resulted in a purpose-led pivot, a business model transformation to support the Covid crisis from perfume companies shifting from scent to sanitiser and fashion brands making scrubs. The pandemic was proof for many that purpose is not only for the good times. While pauses and pivots are to be applauded, stay alert to the potential for paralysis: where purpose is a ‘nice to have’ that is shelved when profits become precarious.
Aligning organisational and personal purpose
Communicating purpose starts with your people and making it personal and relevant. Some employees say that they only hear their leaders talking passionately about their purpose behind closed doors. If that is the case, you are creating a polarising disconnect that signals that your purpose is not integral to the business. Unilever is an example of a company that works hard to enable employees to align their personal purpose and the organisational purpose. To date, 60,000 people have participated in a day-long workshop which culminates in the crafting of a personal purpose statement, and people are expected to share their purpose with their teams. In some cases, employees have changed role to ensure they are living their purpose in their work.
Crossing the gap between intention and action
Communicating true intent about your business purpose comes not with what you say but what you do – it’s the moment where you cross the gap between intention and action. This involves ensuring that the purpose is embedded in all aspects of the organisation’s hardware such as systems, processes, incentives, policies, metrics, operations, and investments, as well as cultural software such as principles, practices, training, and safe spaces. Shifting to being truly purpose-led can be challenging and complex, and it is important to be transparent with employees about the work required. If you are not prepared for this level of transformation, you are perpetuating purpose washing which can destroy trust, reputation, and market value. Purpose becomes a mockery when it is not embodied in practice but is seen as mere marketing jargon or veneer.
Moving beyond internal stakeholders to the place where external stakeholders including investors, civil society partners, and your communities understand your purpose takes you into the territory of ‘intent maturity,’ according to purpose expert Dr Victoria Hurth. This can translate to benefits including loyalty, trust, productivity and ultimately profit. Moreover, communicating clarity of purpose can support your business to innovate and develop progressive policies and products that support systems level change.
The value of persistence
The moment when you think all your stakeholders understand your purpose, and it is truly embedded in the business, is the moment when you must keep going. The goal of shifting mindsets and behaviour, inspiring and equipping stakeholders to think and act differently, is not a quick fix. It is an iterative process that requires leaders at all levels to dig deep, demonstrate the behaviours they wish to cultivate, and ask themselves and others, ‘have we communicated the why and what more is required to support others to bring the purpose to life?’ Most importantly, it requires deep listening to the responses. For example, in an initiative to re-examine its purpose, over a period of six months, Nordea, a large bank in Scandinavia, listened to more than 7,000 people in workshops, through online surveys and in more than 1,500 coffee-corner discussions. Now that’s what deep listening looks like!
Shifting culture through stories
For culture to shift, to be truly ingrained in ‘how we do things round here’, purpose needs to be talked about regularly and stories shared. Anyone who has ever had a dental brace knows that if they don’t use a retainer and have permanent wires put in place, their teeth will move back. It’s the same with culture. If we are to hardwire purpose into our organisations and inspire all our stakeholders, we need to continually communicate the why and the how and keep asking ourselves – how does this project impact our purpose? How am I contributing to our purpose?
Your purpose is not ‘owned’ by any one individual or team but is contributed to by all your stakeholders, and openness and transparency are key. Do not expect to get buy-in if it’s decided behind closed doors. Even when a business purpose is well established, do not take for granted that your stakeholders will always know exactly what it is. Businesses are always in flux. Keep communicating and finessing your purpose to ensure you are truly purpose powered as an organisation!
A longer version of this article originally appeared in a King’s Business School Meaning and Purpose Network (MaPNet) publication.