Catalysts: Transform Purpose from Catchy Slogan to Growth Engine
The most adaptive companies use their `reason for being’ to drive compelling business strategies.
This article is the second in a series based on our latest research, Catalysts: How to Build an Adaptable Organization that Thrives During Uncertainty. In-depth conversations with senior executives across industries helped us define concrete steps organizations can take to ensure corporate purpose becomes a powerful growth engine.
Having a mission, purpose or vision for an organization has been a business essential for more than a decade. In our interviews with senior leaders, purpose emerged as one of the five most important drivers for creating a culture of resilience. Yet the practical application of corporate purpose has fundamentally shifted in recent years, and it is fast becoming one of an organization’s highest priorities.
It’s hard to overstate how fast the purpose train travels through the business landscape. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, a U.S.-based organization chockablock with globally influential companies, released a statement that distilled the new definition: Businesses can’t exist just to make money. They must also serve customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.
Months later, the global pandemic arrived. The crisis vaulted purpose-driven thinking into a new realm. COVID caused billions of people to re-examine their individual purposes. Businesses recognized that their workforce and society as a whole had begun to question their expectations about work. By early 2021, academics, economists and journalists began to record a dramatic reshuffling. Whether they called it the Big Quit or the Great Resignation, it all reflected a ferocious desire to prioritize life based on meaning.
Companies responded in many ways, from increasing work/life balance initiatives to taking stronger stands on social issues. They sought more transparency and better corporate behavior. The number of companies striving for B Corp certification, which requires a full-scale commitment to purpose and higher ESG standards, has risen 38% since the pandemic’s start.
Moving through 2023, people’s search for meaning through work continues. But economic uncertainty and large-scale layoffs have thrown new curves. People are still increasingly thoughtful about the brands they associate with as employees, consumers and investors. But, they’re more focused on job security and exhausted by bureaucratic inefficiency.
Authentic Corporate Purposes Unlock Uncommon Growth
An authentic corporate purpose can inspire and engage both employees and customers. For employees, purpose can inspire belief and cultivate hope for employees that their efforts will add up to something more significant. And for customers, purpose creates brand trust and signals they can and should believe in those brands. Customers and employees are much more loyal when a company’s product or service delivers on its promised value proposition and expressed purpose.
Well-crafted purposes are durable and can help an organization navigate, particularly in tumultuous times. “Purpose becomes the bridge between us that allows us to be less physically connected but not less aligned,” says Kris Ahrend, chief executive officer of the Mechanical Licensing Collective, a nonprofit music rights administration company. “Purpose minimizes confusion and accommodates creativity. It is integral to maintaining that connectivity and alignment.”
It’s also a lens for what comes next. “Our purpose is always at the root of our decisions for what to do next and why,” says an HR executive at a large financial company. “We never take our eyes off why we’re here as an organization.”
A properly developed purpose is part of an overall management philosophy and allows continuous engagement with investors, employees and customers. Operationally, a well-framed corporate purpose is a tool for leadership alignment, a source of employee motivation, a criterion for business decisions and a natural foundation for the brand.
Making Purpose Practical
The most adaptive companies keep purpose alive rather than letting it become a platitude. They continually find new ways to use purpose as an engagement tool.
Patagonia has long been known for its fierce environmental commitments. Over the years, that’s been expressed through supply-chain innovations, leading the re-commerce movement with Worn Wear, voter drives, and even suing the federal government to protect public lands.
Recently, founder Yvon Chouinard made the most significant purpose-driven move ever, donating the entire $3 billion company to a foundation that will protect the planet. Earth is now Patagonia’s only shareholder.
This bold move has made Patagonia the most relevant corporate voice in the environmental crisis. And it speaks directly to its adventure-loving and environmentally-conscious customers and employees.
No other company has gone as far as Patagonia, but more are finding novel ways to express and expand their purpose in memorable and credible ways. Calm, made headlines when it volunteered to pay fines for tennis players like Naomi Osaka, who skip press events for their mental well-being. Chipotle, which has long stood for cultivating a better world, has made massive investments in fighting hunger and food insecurity through tech.
Every organization can find ways to use purpose just as effectively. To help companies think more holistically about operationalizing a strong corporate purpose, Prophet uses its Human-Centered Transformation Model™. Here are four actionable steps that can help companies turn purpose into a reality.
DNA: Define the Strategic Destination
For a company’s purpose to be compelling, it has to be right and in tune with its goals and objectives. That means it should be:
- Inclusive: Corporate purpose needs to encompass every internal and external stakeholder. Without inclusive language, it inherently limits the spectrum of inspiration.
- Built into the employee value proposition: People must understand and reflect on the purpose, so it should be integrated into the hiring process. Hiring skeptics who keep a company honest is great. Hiring folks who might subvert its purpose and values is an unforced error. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, is devoted to promoting youth sports and goes out of its way to hire people passionate about athletics, including Olympic hopefuls.
- Monitored consistently: Ensuring that purpose is healthy is an ongoing activity. Does it still resonate with stakeholders? Do employees believe in the company’s future? How confident are they that the company is improving the world?
Mind: Enable Employees With the Necessary Skills and Knowledge
It is important to identify critical skills required to achieve the company purpose by each function, enabling organizations to understand the roles and responsibilities of each function and champion the skills that best support that purpose.
3M, for instance, is using science to solve the world’s most challenging problems. That requires diverse thinking, which explains the company’s $50 million commitment to closing the racial gap in STEM and intense recruiting at historically Black colleges and universities.
Body: Provide Structure and Governance to Deliver the Strategy
Companies must ensure that employees have the decision rights to infuse purpose in day-to-day operations. For example, Ritz-Carlton operationalizes its purpose, to provide warm, comfortable experiences by delegating every employee that responsibility. Each is empowered to spend up to $2,000 to rescue a souring guest experience without a manager’s approval.
Soul: Motivate and Ignite Belief in the Strategy
This means leading by example, making sure leaders demonstrate how they live and celebrate the company’s purpose.
- Make language purposeful: Include corporate purpose in the internal language, identifying employees as “one of us.” Pfizer employees, for instance, are encouraged to “zig-zag,” making non-linear career moves to bolster personal and organizational growth.
- Infuse purpose into the everyday: Find “moments that matter” within the experience of both customers and employees.
- Give employees a platform: Help employees share and celebrate their connection to the purpose by creating forums, social networks, and events. Alaska Airlines’ promise to “run our company with care” has taken on new meaning in the last 18 months, when passenger-facing travel roles have become especially grueling. They now host an annual day-long retreat focused entirely on mental well-being.
A company’s purpose must be holistic, permeating all aspects of the organization. That’s what builds adaptability. “Resilience is about understanding your organization’s strengths and areas of focus and aligning people to pursue these things as a collective,” says Danielle Clark, eBay’s vice president of talent. “An adaptive business model or value proposition isn’t enough to create resilience. You need purpose and people behind it.”
Operationalizing purpose requires significant cross-functional collaboration. Failure to do so wastes opportunity on every level. And it causes cognitive dissonance among stakeholders, especially employees. Using the Human Centered Transformation Model™ is a straightforward way to holistically conceptualize and organize your efforts to bring your purpose to life, creating real business value and increasing organizational flexibility.