Bringing a Group to SB'24? Explore Our Special Rates for 3 or More!

Organizational Change
When Purpose Becomes Personal:
The Role of the Individual in Organisational Purpose

There are many challenges to implementing corporate purpose effectively. One of the biggest is to sufficiently embed it, so it is owned by everyone. This is more challenging than embedding other corporate ideas, because purpose is personal.

If you’re not already leading a purpose-driven brand, you soon will be. Purpose is set to become a dominating force in business management for decades to come. Although there is still some confusion around applying the idea of purpose (this can translate into hollow marketing campaigns or internal ‘offsetting,’ where big businesses use philanthropy to deflect attention from their negative impacts), increasingly corporate leaders are seeing this as an opportunity to make their business a force for good. Organisations are reorienting around the benefits they can bring to the world, not just the value they can create for shareholders. Change is afoot.

There are many challenges to implementing purpose effectively. One of the biggest is to sufficiently embed it in a business, so it is owned by everyone — it feels relevant to the large, diverse population working across a complex organisation. This is a more challenging task than embedding other corporate ideas, because purpose is personal. A purpose is a concept that is necessarily based on ethics, values and principles — a fundamental view of right and wrong — that may contrast or conflict with any given individual. A shared organisational culture is one thing; a shared purpose is another.

The issue is both challenging and sensitive; but organisations that manage to straddle an approach that aligns a purpose-focused exec with an engaged workforce will have the most success.

For purpose to succeed, it must be owned by individuals

For your purpose to be successful, it must be lived. And for your purpose to be lived, it must be understood, owned and used by everyone. The most effective way of achieving this is by asking the people you want to own it to help you build it. This is known as the IKEA effect: In a series of studies in which consumers assembled IKEA furniture, researchers found that when people were involved in creating something, they valued it highly — even if it looked, well, a bit rubbish! They also expected others to share their opinion.

The Power of Climate Labeling: Key Learnings from the SB/How Good Partnership

Join us for a free webinar to hear how Sustainable Brands® (SB) and HowGood are revolutionizing event menus with climate-labeled foods. Learn how these labels can drive sustainable behavior change and help you align your brand values with your ingredient choices — Thursday, 18 July 2024, at 2pm EDT.

Co-creating your purpose strategy with your workforce is also an excellent way to establish a strong set of commitments — you can always rely on employees to point out where you’re underperforming in relation to purpose themes. And this is critical if you are going to use your purpose to create real change. They’ll have lots of ideas about what you can do to address those failings, too. Make time for these conversations to happen and for leadership to align. It may feel uncomfortable, but that’s a good sign that your approach is working.

Dealing with ‘purpose doubters’

An important benefit of being a purpose-led business is around employee retention. There is compelling data to show how purpose-led companies attract, motivate and retain their workforce. People are motivated to make a difference; and increasingly, job seekers are engaging with companies that have strong sustainability stances (for instance) and take a deliberate approach in communicating this. However, this is not the whole story. You are never going to get complete buy-in to any corporate agenda, so what should organisations do when they find some employees are unaligned with their purpose?

The most important thing that you can do is to listen to people and encourage them to share opinions. The more businesses can involve people in the conversation, the better. Even those with divergent views should be given a space to be heard. And quite often, what they have to say will help to strengthen the ambitions of the purpose, rather than undermine it.

For those who are ambivalent, try and help them engage with your purpose by making it personal to them. In a recent project, we worked with energy firm OVO to help its workforce feel part of its ambitious sustainability plan (Plan Zero). We developed a tool that enabled employees to find ways to tackle carbon in their own lives — making Plan Zero personal to them and helping them to feel part of OVO’s ambition. The project resulted in a real sense of community and connection amongst employees and huge levels of engagement.

Making purpose your ‘North Star’ can make individual conversations easier

Making purpose a ‘North Star’ within a business with commitments and guardrails creates a clear moral compass for organisations and individuals alike. Draw up specific red lines to build from your purpose and communicate them internally: who you won’t work with; principles or qualities you won’t undermine; compromises you won’t make in pursuit of profit; promises you won’t break to your employees, customers or partners, and so on. Acknowledge the gaps that exist and put in place plans to bridge them. Once these are in place, issues and conflicts that then arise with individuals are easier to resolve, because the purpose becomes structural rather than philosophical. It will reduce the incidence of individuals operating at cross-purposes and decisions will be easier to align to.

Lead by example

As with any corporate agenda, without strong leadership, any long-term purpose plan will fail. The alignment and on-boarding of your exec team is critical and difficult decisions should be made about those who don’t share the same vision. Purpose should be the CEO’s agenda and job to champion and oversee. Delivery is about your whole business and brand, and as such is an exec team-wide effort. The most credible purpose-led organisations have leaders at the top who are fully bought-in and committed to driving serious, and often inconvenient, change across the business. A new generation of leaders is emerging who are intent on leaving a positive mark on the planet, and aren’t afraid to stand for something and have their voices heard. From Unilever and IKEA to PayPal and Levi Strauss, CEOs of enormous businesses are committing to purpose. It is these strong, individual leaders that help set purpose as an organisation’s North Star and make sure it stays on track.

But in all this, the good news is that our experience suggests that you only need to persuade 15-20 percent of your workforce to get behind a purpose to achieve a tipping point where it begins to shape the culture of an organisation. And in fact, it is the personal nature of purpose that makes it so powerful. Employees want businesses to represent how they feel and what they care about; and see the opportunity for their employers to become a force for good, not just a vehicle for profit. I mean, who doesn’t want to help to change the world?