“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This quote from pioneering French aviator and author of The Little Prince beautifully sums up the ideal of corporate purpose in practice. One team, working together towards a common goal, motivated by a powerful shared vision. While some companies have skillfully navigated recent storms, guided by their core purpose, others have lost their way in the foreign waters of stakeholder capitalism. While many firms claim to have connected with their purpose on paper, they still struggle to translate their guiding principles into action.
So why do many efforts to turn corporate purpose into action fail? The roots of the problem can be found in how many business leaders conceptualise strategy, brand, culture and purpose. Strategy is often seen as having primacy over the rest of the business, with brand a product of this, culture coming in third as a concern, and ‘the purpose issue’ trailing last. A lot of companies I talk to say ‘we need a purpose now that ESG is high on the agenda’. But the problem with this model is that it still puts profit first. And when plans to sell and make money go awry, as Covid-19 has shown, you need something bigger than the bottom line to fall back on.
The more imaginative way, as shown by de Saint-Exupéry, enables you to think much bigger. When purpose is used as a driver of your business it helps to create alignment across all business functions. And when culture is elevated to sit on a level with strategy and brand, it acts as a catalyst for growth. In the work GW+Co did for Accsys, their story changed from being a chemicals company to one that is sustainably transforming wood: ‘changing wood to change the world.’ Their products are genuinely world-changing, but this was not the focus when presenting the business itself. The new purpose inspired a messaging structure based on ‘change’ and became something that as a company and as individuals they could stand behind proudly.
It’s common in the process of team efforts on large projects, for the grand vision to get lost by individual team members. It’s the job of a good leader to remind the people of the big picture and the reasons why they are doing their job. One popular tale tells of two men building a wall. One is distracted and unfocused, and the other enthusiastic and engrossed in his work. The first one is asked what he is doing, to which he replied “building a wall.” When the second is asked the same question, and answers: “I’m building the tallest tower in the world.” Having an inspiring picture of why you are doing what you’re doing is a powerful motivator.
But in order to effectively inspire, you have to start with a purpose that individuals can align with their own values. That’s why in our business transformation work, we start by talking to people at all levels of the business, to get a true reflection of their ideas, values and sentiments. By consolidating and committing all these into a refreshed brand, you cultivate a holistic approach in which individual fulfilment and wellbeing are in tune with that of the company. And being authentically purpose-led is better for business.
The Kantar Purpose 2020 study shows that over a period of 12 years, the brands with high perceived positive impact have a brand value growth of 175%, compared to 86% for medium positive impact and 70% for low positive impact.
In order to turn purpose into action, the first step is to check how aligned your company’s business functions are. Does your business have a clear direction? Do people act according to company values, even when this conflicts with short-term commercial goals? Do your customers know what you stand for? Once you have a sense of how aligned – or siloed – your business is, you can start to move towards a more aligned future. By reconnecting with and clearly communicating core values, businesses can become more authentic, effective and impactful. And while it may be tempting to aim for radical change, success often comes in many small steps: just ask the man building the tallest tower in the world.