Why purpose needs to break out of the boardroom and filter throughout the business

From newly motivated employees to business transformation, organisations are waking up to the benefits of baking purpose into the business proposition. But what form should purpose take, and how is it operationalised?

High Angle Shot Of A Group Of Unrecognisable Businesspeople Joining Their Hands Together In A Huddle

What is the secret to living longer? Most researchers would cite a healthy diet, physical activity and regular sleep as key factors. But according to Dave Allen, “we often understate and undervalue” the role that purpose plays in our lives. 

“A common characteristic in countries where people live the longest is that elderly people are still heavily involved in societies. In Japan, they call it ‘ikigai’, in France it’s ‘raison d’être, but everywhere else it simply translates as purpose.”

But having worked at WPP, which was then the world’s largest advertising company, for five years, Allen realised that the concept of ‘purpose’ was also highly relevant to businesses. 

“I lost count of the number of times I saw mission statements that emphasised the need to maximise shareholder value,” he says. “But the truth is that no employee gets out of bed to make the shareholders money. Almost always, purpose plays the defining role.”

The number one challenge for purpose-driven CEOs is making it actionable and relevant

Dave Allen, founder, Brandpie

It was then that he decided to put the idea to work.  Fifteen years ago, he founded Brandpie, a purpose-led transformation consultancy that specialises in creating purpose-driven ideas to help organisations transform their culture, brand and ultimately their business. For the past five years, Brandpie has gathered insight from more than 4,000 CEOs and distilled it into its annual CEO Purpose Report.

But it is operationalising purpose for a host of stellar businesses, including Capgemini, AstraZeneca, Baker Tilly and Tata Consultancy Services, that is Brandpie’s core objective and reason for being.

 “Our research reveals that while 89% of companies have a purpose statement, only a small number know how to put purpose to work. It shouldn’t be a statement that the marketing arm of the business creates which sits in a gold frame on the wall of the boardroom,” says Allen. “When I’m talking to businesses, I always say: ‘purpose needs to come out of the frame and be put into action.”

One leader who truly understands the value of purpose is Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines. Speaking to Dave Allen, who was interviewing Kirby as part of the Power of Purpose series in conjunction with BritishAmerican Business, a transatlantic business networking group for C-suite executives and SMEs, Kirby says he has the easiest job of anyone at the largest airline in the world. “I only have one responsibility – and that’s to create a company that they are proud of.”

He continues, “I look at everything I do now through the lens of how it will make our employees feel and create an airline that they’re proud of. It’s amazing how much momentum that creates for you.”

Allen and Kirby’s passion for purpose is shared by Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock and one of the most powerful men in global finance. Fink famously said that he would no longer invest in organisations that didn’t have a meaningful purpose statement.

How do you weave a purpose statement into a business?

Joanne Kerr is strategy partner and purpose practice lead at Brandpie and notes a shift in how companies deliver purpose. “In the recent past, companies deployed purpose as a niche activity, in philanthropic or corporate social responsibility work,” she says. “But our reports show that purpose has become central to the decision-making process. CEOs are infusing purpose into day-to-day operations and empowering staff to embed purpose into strategy. That is a game-changer.” 

James Payne, global strategic lead for Forum of the Future, agrees on the importance of including purpose in all aspects of the business. “While purpose is separate to the rest of the business, it will never be embedded and bring about the transformation required.”

As technology advances at breakneck speed, for many CEOs such as Francesca Lagerberg, who leads Baker Tilly International, purpose is “an anchor in a crazy world”.

Kerr explains this is because when purpose is activated it helps companies join the dots linking a company’s brand and culture to the strategies put into action by its leadership team and staff. “Once everything is aligned, companies can ask the question, ‘What is your purpose trying to help you to solve?’ This helps the C-suite to empower staff, who are the driving force of any business, to not only think bigger, but to consider ideas they may never have considered to unlock new streams of revenue,” she says.

But for more and more CEOs, such as Rob Jay, who heads health consultancy ScionHealth, boosting revenue is not the central driving force: its purpose, he says, “goes well beyond” that.

Nick Barter is a professor of business strategy and sustainability at Griffith Business School in Queensland, Australia. He has been working in partnership with Brandpie to explore the theories, practices and measurement required to accelerate the purpose agenda and sums up best what this looks like. “I would like to see purpose enable businesses to take a wider, less myopic perspective on what they are trying to achieve and how they measure that progress, lifting their heads out of a finance-only world to operate in the actual world we all live in,” he explains.

It is a reality not lost on Louisa Harris, Brandpie’s head of sustainability and systems change. “With purpose now owned by the C-suite, more business leaders are realising the importance of sustainability. Reaching net zero is the greatest and most significant challenge of our time. That is why the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be every company’s shared and uniting purpose.”

Purpose and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

“It’s about harnessing innovation, supporting peace and strong institutions through the lens of sustainability,” explains Harris. “What partnership do you need to achieve their goals? How do you drive responsible consumption? Every business should look at the SDGs and think about how it can use its skills to make a definitive contribution. 

To do so means instilling the SDGs into your core business purpose, embedding them in your organisation and empowering your most precious resource – the people in your business – to deliver real and profound change.” That should be the ‘raison d’être, the ‘ikigai’, or as Dave Allen and his team would say, the purpose-driven transformation objective of every successful company.

To find out more, please contact Brandpie.