Whose job is purpose? Or how Keith Weed’s advice shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Keith Weed pictured.

Keith Weed, Unilever’s CMO for nearly ten years, has been instrumental in transforming a packaged good manufacturer into everyone’s favourite purposeful corporate pin-up. Keith, and countless other people at Unilever, made a big dent by being brave enough to challenge conventional business wisdom.

Keith is an inspiration that many are looking to follow, his words go far and carry a lot of weight. But one of his quotes has hit headlines. A quote that on face value is deeply misleading. It was the headline of a recent Management Today article and very successful LinkedIn post by Keith a few years ago.

“One of the first things I did was close down our CSR department.”

Here’s the quote in full context, in Keith’s own words

“One of the first things I did was disband the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) department. Of course, people’s first reaction was ‘this is what happens when you put a businessman in charge of sustainability.’ Actually, the motivation was almost exactly the opposite of what people assumed – it was about embedding sustainability in every corner of the business, as opposed to just the corner where the CSR folk hung out.”

Even in its full context, the phrase puts a good story ahead of reality.

What Keith isn’t telling you is that Unilever had, and still has, many people working exclusively on sustainability. These people are far better integrated than other businesses, and the systems that incentivise and guide behaviour make sustainability core to what it means to be successful at Unilever. Getting to this point has taken Unilever nearly a decade of changing the way they work.

Change takes work.

It takes time, resources, planning, learning, iteration, creativity and innovation. It takes trial and error. It takes changing incentives systems to enable brand managers to prioritise sustainability alongside sales. It takes investment in research and measurement to learn what’s really happening. It doesn’t just happen because you will it and ask everyone to step up.

Purpose, sustainability, CSR, what’s the difference? (Skip this if you already know).

Before diving in, let’s clarify terms. Sustainability and purpose are not the same thing. Purpose is the reason the organisation exists. In a business context, this purpose has to focus on something that creates value people want to pay for. This focus will determine which sustainability issues are relevant.

Sustainability, in the business world, evolved from CSR. The latter being about addressing the responsibilities to society and the environment as a result of your business activities. The former, sustainability, being about proactively ensuring the long-term sustainability of your business by opening your eyes to the wider world. If you make beer, you need lots of water. Classic CSR is narrow focus, stopping at water reduction in your operations. Sustainability is bigger-picture, asking, “What are you doing to make sure there’ll always be plenty of water for you and everyone else who also uses water in the places you operate?” If you’re a law firm, you need smart people. Classic CSR stops at supporting students who are already a long way to meeting your standards. Sustainability asks, “What are you doing to support the education of people from different backgrounds to give you a richer talent pool, and grow the prosperity of the local economies you serve?”

The labels make it complicated. Some CSR teams are bigger picture and do sustainability, some don’t. Some sustainability teams do classic CSR, many don’t.

If you’re clear on your purpose, you need sustainability people to make sure you are delivering on it now, and can keep doing that long into the future.

When everyone is accountable, no one is accountable

Back to Keith’s quote.

Delivering on your purpose should be everyone’s job. This is the goal. But even when you’re there you need people working on sustainability. Unilever still has them. People who research consumer behaviour change. People leading on the sustainability strategy. People crunching data to work out the connection between sustainability and commercial success. People working with stakeholders on their key sustainability issues. People acting as internal consultants to support the business units to achieve their sustainability targets and their commercial ones.

To make a transition to being a purpose-led business, someone needs to do the work.

Whose job is it to manage the transition then?

Unilever, Patagonia, Tesla, Buurtzorg, Tony’s Chocolonely, Kering, Natura, Timpsons, Huit Denim, Danone, perhaps VF Corp. These are the world’s leading purposeful businesses that most know. There’s not many of them. Every single one says they are still learning, still developing, still changing. But at least they have their purpose as an ingrained part of their culture.

For those that haven’t yet reached this level of ingrained maturity, the question of whose job it is to get the business there is a tough one. Everything is context dependent, so instead of job titles, the best way to explore this is principles.

Embody the end state – Purpose should be everyone’s job, because it sets a direction the business moves in with every decision the people in it make. Therefore, the way the transition happens has to involve people changing the way they work, because they know how to do their jobs better than anyone. This makes the job of transitioning a facilitative, coaching, direction-setting, enabling and unblocking role. That’s the way it’s done, but someone still needs to make sure it’s actually done, the materials are produced, plans are developed, executed, reflected on and adjusted. 

Signal the commitment – Who sponsors it, how it’s resourced and who this transition role reports into, all signal how committed the organisation really is to purpose. Actions speak louder than words. Could this be someone in the existing change or transformation teams? Possibly, but that team itself needs to change how it works to align to the purpose. Overtime, that team must make sure all their work on delivering changing processes, systems and technology aligns to the purpose.  Whether they can design, manage and oversee the long term, full purposeful business transformation when they are changing themselves is a key question. 

Create clear commercial connections – Because purpose is still seen as ‘doing good’, because it represents a break from conventional business wisdom, because you want to avoid a Grant Thornton moment*. This is why, in the early stages of the transition specific work has to be focused on connecting purpose to the commercials. I’ll say it again, this takes work. It can’t just be lumped onto the already overflowing to do lists of the commercial performers in the business either. They must of course be involved in creating this connection and guiding its architecture, but they can’t be the lead architect. They have neither the time, nor knowledge or purpose to invest to think differently about how they do what they do. They need help.

If a business is serious about purpose, unless it started with purpose at its heart and hasn’t lost that focus, then it needs to change its business to be more purposeful. Change takes work. New work, which someone must think about, plan, design, get buy-in for, make happen, reflect on progress and adjust and adapt existing plans.

If a business says its serious about purpose but doesn’t have people to do that work, you have to conclude that either the leaders are lying, they haven’t worked this simple equation out yet, are incapable of accepting reality, or have a lot of existing spare capacity. If that’s the case, we should probably refer to them as senior executives.  

*when Sacha Romanovitch got ousted by a group of Partners, who cared more about the slight dip in their huge salaries than in building a business that shaped vibrant economies.

By David Willans, Director, Skating Panda