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Are You Part of the Purpose Revolution?

Your routine, daily choices can make a difference in the world

A growing number of people are becoming purpose-driven in deciding where to work, where to buy, and where to invest. PEXELS

There’s a revolution going on, and it’s growing faster than you might imagine. In fact, you may even be part of it.

It’s a revolution of purpose.

More than ever, people are making purpose-based decisions as employees, consumers, and investors. They want their work and money not only to provide for their own material needs, but simultaneously to help create a better world.

That’s why 40 years ago I enjoyed working at Campbell Soup Company, known for its corporate citizenship programs that help countless underprivileged people around the world. That’s why my wife and I avoid shopping at a major retailer known for poor treatment of employees and suppliers. That’s why we long ago told our financial advisors to avoid investing any of our money in funds that include manufacturers of tobacco or alcohol products.

We are certainly not alone. Some demographers estimate that aspirational employees, consumers, and investors may represent more than a third of the global population. That doesn’t mean all these people think about higher purpose every time they sign on as an employee, buy a product, or make an investment. But it does mean a growing number of people are saying they want to help make the world a better place when they make decisions in the marketplace.

We live in an age of disruption and differentiation. While the purpose gap is a threat to some companies, it’s a compelling opportunity for others.

Dr. John Izzo was a pioneer in the corporate social responsibility movement. Today he’s a prominent voice on shifting expectations among employees and customers. I visited with him about his latest book The Purpose Revolution: How Leaders Create Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good.

Rodger Dean Duncan: What are some of the more common mistakes companies (and their leaders) make when trying to get on the “purpose” bandwagon?

John Izzo: There are two seemingly opposite mistakes. The first is not taking purpose seriously enough. In this case, companies decide that purpose creates competitive advantage with employees, customers, and investors. But the changes they make are not pervasive so there is no real opportunity to differentiate. Stakeholders see through the nice paint job and well-crafted story about making a difference. Truth is, the efforts are not inspiring enough either to truly differentiate in the marketplace or make a big impact on society.

The other danger is that the company takes purpose very seriously and tries to do too much. Even a genuinely purpose-focused company cannot solve every social or environmental ill. It’s generally better to tackle fewer issues that your company is uniquely qualified to address. Make fewer large initiatives while really engaging your employees and customers to move the needle.

Duncan: How can leaders ensure that their efforts to create a purpose-driven culture are not mistaken for just a public relations or marketing ploy?

Izzo: This is a real danger because employees and customers have every reason to be skeptical. Volkswagen touted their clean diesel as good for the planet while lying about true emissions. Wells Fargo told their customers we will be there for “all your journeys” as they opened accounts without client permission. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to make purpose part of your decision making process. As Walter Robb, the former Co-CEO of Whole Foods, told me, “be sure your purpose is in the middle of every decision you make.”

People are looking to see if the company is willing to live its purpose even when its self-interest is made vulnerable in the short term. A great example is when Whole Foods banned unsustainable seafood from the shelves. This bought a lot of cred from their team members. Or when CVS decided to get rid of tobacco because they wanted to be a company whose purpose was creating health. So they walked away from millions in revenue. As a customer, the CVS decision showed me they were serious about their purpose. Of course, you won’t be perfect, so the real test for customers and employees is what happens when you don’t live up to your high ideals. Wells Fargo chose slick ads telling us they really do care. But talk is cheap and the ads don’t ring true to most people, given the company’s serious breach of trust. Starbucks, on the other hand, reacted with authentic regret about their incident and closed the whole company for racial-bias training, because they believed it was needed.

Duncan: What best practices do you recommend for fostering authentic employee engagement with organizational purpose?

Izzo: It begins with understanding the role of purpose in good employee engagement. In The Purpose Revolution we share solid research showing that people who work from purpose are more engaged, more committed, productive, and loyal. But what’s interesting is that people are mostly motivated by their own personal purpose when they get to live it at work.

Many companies spend significant effort trying to convince employees to be proud of the company’s actions, but then do little to help people define and activate their own personal purpose. If you really want people to work from purpose, give them tools to identify their purpose, train leaders to coach (and recognize) purpose, and amplify the real difference people make every day. In the book we talk about “line of sight,” which is showing employees the difference they make in customers’ lives. A large Molly Maid franchisee I know uses testimonials from elderly clients and their families to show the house cleaners that their cleaning services make a real difference in the lives of real people, especially elderly clients who often have fewer social contacts.

Duncan: You advise leaders to write a personal purpose statement. What’s the benefit of such an exercise and what ingredients do you recommend? Can you offer an example?

Izzo: Everything begins with leaders and entrepreneurs having their own purpose and learning to communicate it to others. This inspires team members and increases connection to the company.

Leaders identify their purpose by asking questions like: What is the legacy I want to leave behind at my company or in my team? What would employees and customers miss if I were not a leader? What is the real difference our products and services make (and why would it matter if our company ceased to exist)?

Dolf van den Brink shared his purpose when he became the CEO of Heineken Mexico. His purpose is to be “the gardener…and grow a better world,” something he discovered when he worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo and realized that his company could give back and positively impact an entire society. His personal purpose helped inspire the Heineken executive team to create a new vision which was to “win big for a better Mexico” by tackling some of the country’s biggest challenges such as gender-based violence. His own purpose helped inspire the team to think much bigger.

Duncan: You say employees are a company’s best purpose ambassadors. You call this “branding from the inside out.” Give us some examples of how this works.

Izzo: Research shows that people believe only 16% of what a company says about itself but 70% say they believe what an employee says. People are also up to ten times more likely to share social media feeds from an employee than one from the company.

One of the most interesting findings—the top reason that people will be great ambassadors? It’s when they feel they are making a difference in their own jobs. That’s why helping people identify and live their purpose is key. When it comes to “branding from the inside out,” there are three steps. First, constantly communicate why your team’s work matters and what makes your company truly different. Second, empower employees to tell their story of how they make a difference (and let them do it in their own way). Finally, let them know why they are the most believable asset and then ask them to help spread the word—but only if it’s authentic and they believe it. CISCO asked employees to honestly tell on YouTube “Why I love CISCO” without controlling the brand message. It had a huge impact.

Duncan: What can leaders learn from the example of Steve Jobs as the brand ambassador of Apple Computer?

Izzo: People often think Apple’s success is just a product story. But they’re wrong. What really helped Apple take off was that people bought into a set of values—to be a trailblazer, to dare to be different. Steve Jobs embodied the very purpose of the brand itself by being different—from the sweater to insisting that employees sign their names like artists on the inside of the computer. He wanted to drive a brand that oozed passion for making things better.

Duncan: Does purpose really make a difference for a business and for us personally?

Izzo: Purpose sounds like a soft, almost ephemeral thing. But it has research-proven impact. Unilever found their brands like Dove and Seventh Generation that have a purpose connection with customers and employees grow about 35% faster than other brands. Having a personal purpose also makes employees more engaged and more productive. They even call in sick less often. At the personal level, having a personal purpose makes us happier and can even increase our lifespan, according to research on Blue Zones across the globe. 

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