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Three Mistakes Companies Make With Purpose

Kate Barker

My mum is 75 years old. She called me the other day because she was “tearing her hair out” trying to find a phone number on a website so she could speak to a human being. But the elusive number was nowhere to be found. I eventually discovered it, squirrelled away about 10 clicks from where I’d first started. Yet, in the ‘About Us’ section of the same website was a beautifully crafted piece of copy about being ‘customer first’. Really?

This gap between the Say and Do of organisations is sadly all too commonplace. There is often a huge difference between the promises of a brand and the reality of its customers and employees.

For many years, I worked in brand management, which basically meant I spent a lot of time talking about vision and purpose. Initially, I loved it. The opportunity to define a bigger reason for existing and to declare a clear, positive contribution the organisation would make, really excited me. 

But after a while, I became frustrated by wonderful purpose statements not translating into the lived experience of either customers or employees. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be a gap between what was being said and what was actually happening. And as an employee, I was fed up with hearing about wellbeing initiatives while continuing to be overloaded with work to the point where everything else that mattered to me was being squeezed out.

I eventually came to the conclusion that to close this gap between the Say and the Do, working at the brand level wasn’t enough. The work needed to be done at the leadership level. And so began my journey into a brave new world of leadership development. During my collaboration with Ginger Leadership Communications, I have spent many hours debating purpose with Sarah Lloyd-Hughes, Ginger’s CEO. Together, we have identified three big mistakes companies make with purpose.

Mistake 1: Purpose as an exercise in branding

Think of M&Ms. They have a colourful, sugary coating that sits over the substance of the sweet – the chocolate (or peanut) inside. Many companies treat purpose in the same way – as an exercise in branding, or sugar-coating what’s really inside.

This approach fails to ‘start with why’, but rather starts with whatever product or service the company is trying to sell, and imposes upon it a ‘why’ that is at best secondary and at worst, often entirely unrelated to ‘what’s on the inside’. 

In other words, it’s not a true, embedded purpose, but purpose-wash. This means there’s a gap between the stated purpose of the brand and the lived purpose within the culture, values and decision-making of the organisation. Think of the tech giant, whose CEO has created an incredible, purpose-driven employer brand that supposedly puts people at its heart and attracts the brightest and the best, but when the year-end comes, what matters above everything else is whether you’ve met the aggressive sales targets.

Why is this a problem?

A visible purpose may look good, sound good and even be appreciated by customers, clients and employees in the short term, but if it’s not running through the veins of the culture of the organisation, cracks can quickly appear. Companies like Brewdog have been publicly criticised for a perceived gap between purpose-led branding and the reality for their staff. This erodes trust in the long run and adds to the impression that a company is just ‘in it for the money’.  

The grander the stated purpose of an organisation, the higher the standards it will be held to by customers and employees. Virtue-signalling alone is not enough.

The Purpose Gap

Mistake 2: Thinking purpose is the responsibility of marketing/brand

Often the root cause of this ‘purpose-wash’ is where responsibility for purpose lies in the organisation. For marketers and brand managers the debate about purpose is not new; it has been one of the hottest topics in the marketing world for the past decade. The task of defining a brand or organisation’s purpose has often sat with its marketing and brand team.

Why is this a problem?

To continue with the sweet analogy, this contributes to the sense of purpose only pertaining to the outside of the M&M. When purpose resides with marketing and brand, it is seen by the wider organisation as being about what the organisation says rather than what it does. Marketing folk inherently understand the importance of the Brand Say and the Brand Do aligning to create a meaningful and consistent brand experience, but they often have a hard time persuading their colleagues in other teams. They can be seen to be acting outside their remit by trying to influence what the rest of the organisation is doing and how they’re doing it.

If purpose is to be truly lived as well as communicated, then it must become the responsibility of every leader, not just every marketer.

Mistake 3: No engagement with purpose

There are still plenty of companies (and entire industries) that exist for no stated purpose, other than purely commercial aims. This is probably the most concerning mistake of all.

Why is this a problem?

Our choice of a capitalist economy has long justified that making money is the aim; that the whole point of a company is to maximise profit. So why should that be any different today?

Here’s where the clash between the old guard and a new perspective on leadership emerges. In these crazy, uncertain times, the people of the Western world (and presumably a large chunk of the workforce of our companies) are facing two vast trends:

  1. Huge uncertainty and existential crisis: whether climate change, pandemic, or geopolitics, we see that the outside world can no longer be ‘relied upon’ to persist, to sustain itself, in a way that it once could.
  2. Fragmented communities and a loss of personal ‘meaning’, leaving people without a sense of belonging or connection to something greater. Shared purpose and an ethical framework have increasingly been substituted for simply ‘getting more stuff’.

One of the basic drivers of human beings is to make meaning from the world around them. And the wobblier the outside world feels, the more we desire something to hang onto. So, the combination of these two forces means that people are seeking purpose from their work like never before.

Simply put, if your company is unable to provide meaning for its employees, we’re likely to see:

  1. People leaving their jobs in search of more meaningful work
  2. Team members who are ‘there in body’, but aren’t actively engaging their full talents into what they do
  3. More medical sign-offs from work for stress-related illness and mental health conditions
  4. Poorer decision-making and prioritisation, leading to perpetual ‘doing’ without achieving (i.e. low productivity)
So where do we go from here?

We passionately believe that a Purpose-driven leadership revolution is needed within the organisations that shape our systems and societies. We are already seeing employees and customers voting with their feet through disillusionment with the gap between what we say around here and what we do (we’re also fed up with it in our politicians, but we won’t go there on this occasion). And with the issue of purpose being particularly important for Gen Z, it feels as if a revolution is coming whether organisations like it or not. 

According to research conducted in 2021 by the consultancy firm Cubist Martini, 65% of Gen Z will spend 48% more on an average for products from a purpose-driven business. Further, 49% Gen Z would work for a purpose-driven company for a 20% lower salary on average. When asked about the importance of corporations being aggressive and visible in addressing important challenges, 39% say it’s “very important”, followed by 24% saying it’s “extremely important”.

Organisations need to clearly identify the positive contribution they are seeking to make beyond just generating a profit and then become unshakeably committed to it. They need to not just close the gap between what they Say and what they Do for their customers and employees, they need to eliminate it. This will require an enormous transformation in both leadership and decision-making. 

Achieving such transformation isn’t just the responsibility of leaders at the top of the tree. It also requires every single one of us to become more Purpose-driven in the way we live and lead. We need to get in touch with what we care about and what drives us and then explore how we can find a connection between that and the higher Purpose of our team and the overall organisation. 

In our view, Purpose is the accountability of the CEO and the responsibility of every single person in the organisation. For Purpose to be truly lived, we must all commit to role modelling and becoming Purpose-Driven Leaders.

You can now join our Purpose-Driven Leadership revolution!

Kate Barker

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