LinkedIn: Overcoming the pitfalls in developing a purpose statement
Dee Corrigan, Head of Corporate Engagement, A Blueprint for Better Business
Blueprint defines purpose as the enduring reason business exists beyond just making a profit: a purpose that benefits society and respects people, with profit as one outcome rather than the purpose of the business. Purpose statements aim to set out clearly how society benefits from the company’s existence, in a way that is inspiring, authentic and above all, practical.
Since Blueprint’s work started interest in “purpose” has exploded. There is now a whole “purpose industry” which has grown in the last couple of years, with a multitude of consultancies offering to craft the perfect purpose statement.
How and when to engage with consultancies in creating a purpose statement is a topic that often comes up in conversation with the companies we work with. The approach I offer here is advice on what questions to explore with the leadership team before engaging with a consultancy, rather than specifically who to engage with. Engaging with an external consultant can be beneficial but it is not a substitute for the deep thinking and transformation that must happen within an organisation.
It’s important to note that the heart of our work is the assertion that business should be guided and inspired by a purpose that benefits society and respects people. If the dominant view within the leadership team is that business exists to drive profit, then we would caution any attempt to state otherwise.
Purpose is a long term aspiration and sense of direction and has to be reflected in the company’s strategy and decision making. Crafting a purpose statement is simply a stage in a wider and longer process, rather than an end. It is clear to anyone who has approached this challenge that there is no ‘one way’ to uncover purpose; it is rarely straightforward and is certainly not simple! Some companies we engage with take two to three years to define their purpose statement because they recognise the process they go through to develop the statement underpins a broader cultural shift within the organisation.
Before embarking with a consultancy to develop a purpose statement, it is worth exploring the following at an Exco level:
- The views on the role of business in society.
Creating the space for debate and challenge so that each member of the leadership team can openly share their views and ensuring differences are brought into the room is critical. This is needed to enable a team to come to a shared belief about what being purpose-led really means and what it implies for the future of the business, as well as a shared aspiration to become purpose-led and what it means in practice.
2. The appetite for tough decisions.
‘Let’s get a purpose statement that motivates people to work harder so we can make more profit.’ This can be a ‘message heard’ when consultants pitch for work, whether explicitly said or not. While our view is not anti-profit, it’s important to recognise upfront that becoming purpose-led will lead to difficult decisions. It’s not a frictionless win-win.
3. Timeline expectations
Developing and aligning around a purpose statement is part of a wider process. It’s not a project and can’t be done quickly. The journey to develop the statement is as important as the finalised statement.
4. Who leads the work
Don’t create a dependency on a consultancy – this has to be led by the Exco and CEO. Consultants can offer valuable advice and facilitate this process, but it remains an internal journey and is ultimately defined by the real actions and behaviours the business demonstrates going forward.
5. Approach to engaging with stakeholders
Proper consultation must be truly representative and, ideally, so does the decision-making body; otherwise, you are just building in bias. When bringing in alternative voices, really listen well. We see in some organisations that the leadership team land on a purpose statement and then ‘consult’ the organisation and stakeholders. Still, really the consultation is surface level and not genuine, they are going through the motions. And don’t drown out the cynics throughout the process, their responses can offer insights into the hard and messy work of reorienting a business to become purpose-led.
6. Who will make the final decision on the statement
In consulting the organisation and external stakeholders be open and honest with them that while the development of the organisation’s purpose and decisions will be very much informed by the consultation, the final decision is with the CEO/Exco. Communication of the findings of the consultation with the board will also help demonstrate to board members how the purpose was developed and the many voices it represents. It is hard to ensure every view is visible in the final statement, and that is why clarity around the process will help all parties understand, and feel, their contributions have been heard.
7. Avoiding siloed thinking
“Purpose work” can easily become either just another overt marketing/motivation tool or be siloed within HR or CSR departments. Purpose is not project owned by one department, it and it cannot just be “rolled out” as a traditional change programme – that simply reinforces the command and control mind-set which is part of what needs to change
8. Awareness of ‘wordsmithing trap’
Hyperfocus on words can detract from the wider goal of becoming more purpose-led. When caught in a wordsmithing loop, it can be helpful to step back from the words, take stock and create space to address underlying concerns.
What pitfalls have you seen in your practice or business? I’d love to hear your reflections.