Charles Wookey, CEO, A Blueprint for Better Business

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

Can being “purpose-led” help businesses navigate the acute challenges they are facing now?

Yes – indeed, it can make all the difference – but only if purpose has been consciously embraced as a way of thinking about what the business does and how it does it in ways that respect people and serve society. This is hard and takes time, and if that hard work has not been done before a crisis strikes, people can be tempted to grasp at purpose in desperation, oversimplifying it and equating it with just “being nice” to everyone, leaving everything else much the same.

The fantastic generosity that many businesses have demonstrated in the immediate arrival of the pandemic reveals a powerful and sincere desire to help, and a recognition that this is a crisis we are all in together – albeit one where the impacts will be felt harder by some than others. This is, of course, much more than “being nice”: the crisis has tapped into a deep wellspring of solidarity and compassion – an awareness that business exists to benefit society, and that other people matter.

As we move on from the immediate crisis response, many companies are having to make very difficult decisions. If they make the mistake of equating purpose with just being nice, then they may feel a deep and growing tension between being purpose-led and the decisions they need to take for ongoing survival. They may think they have to jettison the purpose commitment when they know they cannot be ‘nice’ to everyone.

That would be a mistake.

Being “purpose-led” is two things:

  • An orientation of the whole business around the positive impact it seeks to have in the world, reflected in what it says, what it does and how it does it.
  • Understanding that a business is essentially a set of relationships– both internally and externally – where each person is seen as “a someone, not a something”, and where the long-term success of the business – from a societal and business perspective – crucially depends on the quality of its relationships, founded on respect and dialogue.

Both elements are crucial. Having a clear purpose that directs strategy, and integrates sustainability and responsibility into it is hugely helpful in instilling confidence. And without a credible plan for the business to survive and become sustainable the risk is continuous uncertainty throughout the business – a fear that can close minds to change and opportunity. Equally, an understanding that the quality of relationships is vital as it helps the business to act in ways that are demonstrably fair; seeking to share burdens, being open in dealings, and focussed on the emerging needs it can best innovate into meeting as we move beyond the crisis.

One CEO this week told me how the work they had done on becoming purpose-led before the crisis helped them to define some principles to guide their decisions now. These are:

  • Take a long term view 
  • Protect capability by fighting to protect jobs
  • Ensure pain is shared fairly and we protect the most vulnerable
  • Through our response enhance our reputation with our people and our customers
  • Communicate honestly and clearly the actions we take 

A continuing and live challenge, however, is to avoid a retreat into fear and self-interest. This is where reducing purpose to ‘being nice’ is, in fact, seductive – it is a way of both minimising the challenge as soft and intangible, and avoiding the personal and organisational struggle in accepting that something deeper in us, and in the status quo, has to shift.

Being purpose-led is not about avoiding tough decisions. It is about accepting and naming the difficulties and the struggle, bringing people into a decision-making process, even if it is one that involves loss and sacrifice, and especially when there is acute uncertainty. Avoiding uncomfortable truths does not show respect for the dignity of people. What does show respect is naming the issue, accepting you may not have all the answers, and being with and alongside people in facing into it. That dialogue needs to include how to share the burdens, both those that this crisis is creating, but also the ongoing burdens that every business can either pass on or participate in sharing in a collaborative spirit. To do these things well the qualities needed from leaders now above all are compassion, honesty, authenticity and vulnerability.

By encouraging and embedding these leadership qualities into our organisations, what will emerge out of the pandemic crisis are far more purpose-led businesses – healthier human systems creating shared goods that contribute to the wider common good of society. These businesses can be transformative for people and planet by harnessing the untapped energy and commitment of people, inspiring them to lend their working lives to becoming “a valued member of a winning team on a worthwhile mission”. Our need for businesses like these was already great; the pandemic makes that need greater than ever. 

What urgent challenges is your organisation facing? What hard decisions are you making now and how is seeking to be purpose-led informing them?

Charles Wookey, 30th April 2020