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3 Things CEOs Must Understand When Pivoting to Purpose

Dear CEO,

I know it’s lonely at the top. Each day you contend with a boiling stew of global competition, digital transformation, labor issues and challenging board members, to name a few. You walk this tightrope while hewing to a notion of shareholder primacy that has guided you throughout your career — the need to maximize financial profits and consider shareholders above all other stakeholders.

And now, here comes society nipping at your heels, demanding that you incorporate social purpose into your corporation.

So, what’s a CEO to do about this?

Here are a few words from somebody who hasn’t just studied it, but actually lived it for the past 27 years.

  • First, understand it’s not a change in the way you do business — it’s a change in the very core of the company itself. Think of corporate social purpose as being an operating system, not an app. You’ll need to intentionally create products and services that solve social and environmental problems and deliver a new outcome: public benefit. This will be central to your business model. A good first step: Make a public declaration by revisiting that tired old mission statement and perhaps your generic values, too.
  • Second, know from the beginning that fulfilling and communicating your company purpose is your job — not the marketing department’s job. This is not a cause marketing campaign. It’s not write-a-check philanthropy. And it’s not a new box you bolt onto an organizational chart, which then enables you to … check that box! This is hard but rewarding work — and it’s all yours.
  • Third, genuine social purpose is an inside-out job. Your most important audience is one that generally results in corporate bromides: “People are our most valuable asset!” That’s right, the humans who populate your company’s success will be your most important allies in this transformation. Involve them in shaping the new social purpose. Communicate with them first, before the outside world (consumers) that generally occupies your attention. You’ll be surprised at the results.

There’s much more to be done, but this gives you a head’s up as to what it will take to effectively embrace corporate social purpose.

And what will you receive in response?

In lingua franca any CEO can understand, you’ll get return on investment. Your company can profit from social purpose. As so can you, personally.

Purpose galvanizes people. Employees and customers will stay with you longer and be more productive — employees through heightened engagement, and customers via their loyalty. Both will become advocates and carry your message to the world, in many ways replacing traditional advertising with more effective word-of-mouth that’s shared over the neighbor’s back fence and across social networks.

And then there’s the soul-suck factor. If you’ve summited the corporate peak and find the view (the salary, bonus and unrestricted stock options) wanting, I can testify that you’ll find new personal energy, reward and street cred by architecting meaningful, profitable solutions to business opportunities created by social purpose: putting food in hungry bellies, revitalizing impoverished communities through job creation, and innovating cleantech that leaves our planet healthier.

It’s not easy, but nothing that’s truly meaningful ever is. And that’s what society needs from you right now — to rise up to the challenges we face by using your business as a force for good.


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