How to build and grow a purpose-led business, from the inside out

Skating Panda and Charities Aid Foundation have joined forces to share a series of four articles to help businesses understand the why, what, and how of becoming purpose-led

A photo showing the drawing of a lightbulb with a question mark within depicting ideas in the office/business
Photo by Mark Fletcher Brown; Unsplash

Around the world, every business’s leadership team is facing the same challenge – how to develop a new vision in a post coronavirus world. A universal disruption has swept across every sector and market, with some winners, and sadly some falling by the wayside. Markets, business models, supply chains and consumer behaviour are all undergoing some form of evolution. New questions are being asked in the quest for new insights, ideas, and innovations to sustain the business and build resilience for the future.

In recent conversations with business leaders, there has been a noticeable shift towards asking existential questions, a deeper interrogation of the value created for, and the role played in customers’ lives, and the resilience level of current business models and strategies.

A bigger role and opportunity for business

Central to 21st century business evolution, and the creation of successful, sustainable enterprises, is the reframing of the role of a business, to take in a broader view that includes society and planet alongside, but not in place of profit. The evidence is resounding: Consumers are choosing responsible and more transparent brands, job seekers prioritise meaningful work and a clear sense of purpose above remuneration, and investors are increasingly using ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) criteria.

A truly purpose-led business applies its purpose and its associated frameworks and tools to make changes to every part of its existence – from leadership style, governance criteria, decision-making processes, choice of employees and clients to the culture that underlies and transcends everything. This requires well researched, designed, and executed tactics that engage the whole organisation at every stage of the process. Organisation design and development programs only work when everyone is invited into the tent.

There’s no one size fits all, each business will have its own goals, challenges, timings, and limitations to take into account when designing a purpose evolution.

Critical success factors for purpose-led transitions

From our experience working with the likes of professional services firm Turner and Townsend and the international law firm Pinsent Masons, and discussions with other purpose practitioners, the following elements are key success factors in ensuring strong buy-in from internal stakeholders:

Brave leadership, relinquish full control – the role of a leader is to set the vision, to inspire and motivate people to join the journey towards becoming purpose-led. Top-down communication and project design is self-serving and ineffective. Distributing ownership and responsibility to a cross section of the organisation will create higher quality outcomes and embed purpose into the DNA. By introducing and running programmes as ‘we, not me’, and giving everyone a voice and multiple opportunities to play a role, resistance will be replaced with engagement and ownership.

Utilising data to design and measure – data has a key role throughout the process. An authentic and resonant purpose requires an understanding of multiple perspectives and motivations from a broad range of people across an organisation. Rich data is also at the heart measuring the performance of the project throughout its lifespan to enable real time changes. At the first stage of designing the process, clarity and alignment is needed on what success looks like, and what the project aims to achieve. This will ensure that the metrics used can be employed and analysed in a smart and timely way. Using a range of surveys, team discussions, and individual interviews is a highly effective way of involving the whole organisation.

Creating an environment of openness and collaboration – No one person or team will have all the answers, or indeed all the questions. Instead what’s required is the conditions for people to speak openly and honestly, to have constructive debates, and to work with people from other teams. This not only increases the strength of relationships, understanding and trust across the business, it also spikes creativity, by bringing together disparate experiences and opinions to explore ideas and questions together.

Allowing sufficient time, avoid temptation for short cuts – long term, sustained change is an evolutionary process that cannot be achieved in a matter of weeks or a few months. Building in sufficient time for debate and feedback loops, a ‘learn and adapt’ agile approach will create more authentic, impactful purpose statements and frameworks.

The biggest risk to embedding purpose is not having a shared understanding of the rationale and motivation behind the work. By engaging the whole organisation at an early stage to explain and discuss the reasons behind undergoing a transition, allows people and teams with different agendas and ideas on what purpose-led means to air their views, and the opportunity to align them behind a shared understanding and agenda for the future.

This is the second in a four-part blog series by Skating Panda and Charities Aid Foundation, the next blog will explore how to maximise external buy-in from communities and consumers.