Existential question What Is Your Why typed on vintage typewriter with copy space.

Lessons from our Corporate Purpose Summit

Ten themes to emerge from our inaugural Corporate Purpose Summit

Our inaugural Corporate Purpose Summit, sponsored by Message House and Forster Communications, offered wide and varied discussions about the role of corporate purpose today. Here are ten themes to consistently emerge.

The need for education

Before embarking on a purpose journey, make sure that the leadership team understands the difference between purpose, a mission statement and values. Similarly, they should recognise that purpose is neither a financial ambition nor a marketing slogan. Chris Crofts, founder of Kinetic Internal Communications, believes that educating the leadership on what purpose is, what makes a good purpose as well as focusing on the why – what gap would there be in the world if the organisation did not exist? – is essential before embarking on any discussions with colleagues and stakeholders.

Ask the most basic question

When Greg Dawson arrived at DS Smith in 2017 as group director of corporate affairs, it was a company that had completed 14 acquisitions, ballooning from a £700 million business to a FTSE 100 group capitalised at over £7 billion, and it operated in the B2B sector. It didn’t have a communications function. It certainly wasn’t considering purpose. So, Dawson’s first question was: ‘What do we stand for?’

A true purpose is not easily achieved

A strong corporate purpose should be ‘out of reach but not out of sight’, says Crofts. Purpose statements that are aspirational are more visionary, more strategic and more motivating for employees.

Purpose needs to mean something

Yasmin Diamond, EVP global affairs, IHG Hotels & Resorts, argued that purpose can’t be something that is simply posted on a wall or that jars with an organisation’s existing culture.  It must resonate with colleagues, which means it has to reflect the business they operate within and not be a facsimile of other corporate purposes.

Diamond believes that having a clear purpose during the pandemic acted as a ‘north star’ for IHG Hotels & Resorts, but it also provided ‘principles’ that underpinned all decisions, even the difficult ones.

Trust the process

Gil McGill, former internal communications director at Aviva, explained that embedding a corporate purpose across a global organisation takes time and you need to trust the process. It will certainly take longer than initially anticipated: D Smith’s Dawson concedes that three years after the packaging group first rolled out its corporate purpose, there is still work to be done.

McGill admits it’s a ‘hindsight piece of insight’ because during a rollout, as time moves on, it can be easy for doubts to creep in and to lose the courage of one’s convictions. Being firm and trusting the process will stop any wobbles and frustrations for the team leading it, particularly when other departments offer their input.

Create a compelling narrative

After analysing traditional and social media, talking to customers and stakeholders, considering the political landscape, Dawson realised that sustainability was an issue that united everyone, but also was part of DS Smith’s DNA. By talking to stakeholders about recyclable coffee cups, for example, or replacing plastic strawberry punnets with cardboard, DS Smith brings its purpose to life.

Purpose needs to combine commerciality and sentimentality

A corporate purpose will only succeed if it is grounded in the commerciality of an organisation, but it also needs to connect with colleagues on an emotional level. If they feel the connection, employees can be the greatest advocates of corporate purpose – sharing stories and thoughts on social media, which can create a halo effect.

Consider a Day of Purpose

Aviva created a Purpose Forum, where leaders across the business were asked to identify actions in their regions or divisions that brought its purpose – With you today for a better tomorrow – to life, and to share those. At IHG Hotels & Resorts, Yasmin Diamond also recommends looking for those ideas that can scale. After watching colleagues partner with local food banks, Diamond realised that this could be a group-wide initiative which not only brought IHG’s purpose to life but also addressed the issue of food waste, which is a key feature of its responsible business plan.

Purpose must translate

In a global business, the corporate purpose needs to have the same meaning across multiple markets. The statement needs to be sense checked for nuances, which means that a word-for-word translation may not be appropriate. Translation also helps foster a sense of inclusion, according to Rosemary McGinness, chief people officer at Weir Group. The engineering group, which recently made all employees shareholders in the business, also translates all documentation related to embedding purpose and informing colleagues about their shareholdings.

It matters to your people, particularly the younger generation

Matt Carter, founder of Message House, which produced bespoke research for the summit on Purpose after the Pandemic, found that 68 per cent of those aged under 35 ‘strongly agreed’ that they were likely to work for a company with a clearly defined purpose. The employee proposition should reflect the corporate purpose.