Purpose: “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction." - John F. Kennedy

“The person without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.”

 --- Thomas Carlyle

We are all experiencing a world full of a new constant: change. With a backdrop of a destructive pandemic, businesses are accelerating their programmes of transformation, shaping themselves into enterprises fit for a new future. Companies that are agile, tech, digital, data driven are now expected, but it will be their people who make it happen and they need to know why. 

But change is nothing new, as the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus commented over 2,000 years ago “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you” – all very profound, but it indicates the length of time that we’ve been facing uncertainty. Throughout history we have sought sanctuary in the comfort of the surety of knowing what is to come. Faith has always provided, throughout all corners of society, a sense of belonging and a condition of trust in a Higher being, giving a sense of resolution and offering a raison d'être so important for motivating people navigating their way through a changing world.

To bring this back to earth, the crisis around us today is forcing businesses to recognise how vital it is to provide its people with a constant at its core.  

Purpose is the ‘north star’, the ‘guiding light’, the one aspect of a company that will never change. No matter what happens in society, the economy, technological advances, or international mobility - the Purpose of a company is unyielding. 

Purpose therefore forms the structural foundations on which a business rests whilst also being the animating force behind the company vision and mission statement. It is the role of those at the highest level, the Board, CEO and SMT, to determine, honour, and believe in the Purpose of the company, not created by the HR or the Marketing teams. It transcends economic gain as the core philosophical heartbeat which drives the business forward.  Without a company purpose, employees cannot be fully engaged, and as Professor Birkinshaw (Professor of Strategy at the London Business School) notes, “You cannot foster true innovation without engaged employees”.

At a practical level, Purpose is equally the most important lever for attracting and retaining top talent, and increasingly, business leaders are becoming aware of its inherent power. What potential hires are looking for in a business is shifting – not just due to Covid-19, but a realignment of their personal values. Bringing about what the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation terms the “purpose zeitgeist”. A study by CMI found that two out of three millennials stated their organisation’s Purpose as the reason why they chose to work there. With millennials predicted to comprise 75% of the global workforce by 2025, the role Purpose plays in attracting and retaining talent is more important than ever before.

Where a sense of Purpose is embedded, change affords new opportunities and allows people to fulfil aspirations. Change can be unsettling, and sometimes a painful experience. Whether coping with impact of Covid-19, business transformation or an M&A, a restructuring of pension plans, a reformulation of leadership, it is always vital to provide the one key constant to which employees can grasp. A storm can be weathered when a sense of direction is championed.

Practically, methods for communicating an organisation’s Purpose can mean many things, but an ethereal statement it is not. Building a Purpose driven culture requires a strategy that is tangible and woven into the fabric of the business. It is not a poster on a wall, nor is it a blanket reminder email. It is also not simply broadcasting a few paragraphs within your Employer Value Proposition. As Gallup notes, “a company’s purpose has to be a lot more than words”. The articulation of Purpose must be effectively embedded so that it means something to the individual, regardless of role. True alignment is challenging, but achievable.

Finally, an emotional connection is imperative. When there is an emotional connection to the business, people feel valued and confident to perform to their full potential. Research conducted by the Korn Ferry Institute found that 90% of employees in purpose-driven companies reported feeling engaged with the business. Purpose can be utilised to unleash untapped potential of employees, but only with an effective strategy. A study conducted by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, published as the book “Built to Last”, found that an effectively articulated purpose made all the difference: between 1926 and 1990, a group of companies who were guided by a “visionary” purpose – beyond making money – returned six times more to shareholders than explicitly profit-driven rivals.

For Purpose to work it must connect with the individual. Just talking about Purpose in the corporate context will not work, it has to mean something at an emotional and pragmatic level for everyone’s own aspirations.

What becomes apparent as we shape business continuity, sustainability and performance in these turbulent times, it is critical to embody your constant: your Purpose, to give it all a reason.

--- Christopher Hopkins, Founding Director and Lead Communications Consultant