• Transform magazine
  • October 25, 2021

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Purpose is more than a statement; it’s an action plan

Marylee Sachs

MaryLee Sachs, US CEO of global consultancy, Brandpie, writes about the importance of purpose. She argues that when leaders view purpose as the defining context for their organisation’s action in the world, they can naturally transform a purpose statement into purposeful behaviour.

Contrary to what a lot of jargon in the branding world would have us believe, “purpose” is about much more than having the highest moral ground – it’s a way for businesses to align actions for long-term success.

Leaders like Tiger Tyagarajan, CEO of Genpact, view purpose as a multidisciplinary framework for the business – a North Star. “As long as you are clear about that, as long as everyone is clear about that, you have first of all an alignment, where everyone says– that’s the North Star, those are our values, that’s our culture,” he said in an interview last year. "It allows for easier, faster decision-making, he said. “You do your best to deliver whatever North Star you defined.”

He echoed this sentiment in a panel I hosted with British American Business at the start of 2021, speaking about how the impact of COVID-19 informed his views on the vitality of purpose: “When faced with this kind of crisis, a company needs North Stars (...) you need a sense that says, ‘we are here for the long haul (...) we’ll get through this (...) and we’ll stay together.’”

Tyagarajan is just one of many CEOs I’ve spoken with in panels and podcasts over the last year-and-a-half who credits purpose with driving everything they do to create value – from profits to campaigns to personnel, social and environmental impact, and beyond. In embracing purpose as a cornerstone for their organisation, leaders set their businesses up for an “off the charts” cost-benefit, according to a recent report from the CBI.

But identifying your North Star is just the beginning of a successful purpose journey. As Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, said at Cannes in 2019: purpose is really about “action in the world.”

Not all leaders have mastered the art of actioning their purpose – when my firm interviewed over 700 global CEOs for our annual report on purpose last year, 60% of leaders who said they had or wanted a purpose for their organisation admitted they were uncertain of how to activate it.

But leaders who have leaned into to using their purpose as a springboard for action have undeniably reaped the benefits. Take it from Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta, who I spoke to in another BAB panel just last week.

As a long-time advocate of purpose, Bastian observed how the pandemic has tested and affirmed the importance of Delta’s purpose: connecting people. “Our purpose has always been about taking great care of each other, taking great care of our customers, providing real value to the world.” In the advent of the pandemic, Delta’s long-standing commitment to connecting people safely took on a whole new level of meaning.

Bastian explained how purpose served as a lens for decisions he and his board made throughout the pandemic. With purpose as a guiding beacon, Delta successfully kept from having to furlough any staff during the pandemic. The airline also made the decision to keep middle seats empty for the sake of customer’s comfort and confidence – longer than any other US Airline. According to Bastian, “even though we blocked the middle seats for well over a year, we had more revenue on our planes than any of our big competitors here in the US who were selling their planes out.” He credits customers’ trust in Delta’s commitment to protecting them while connecting them for this.

When leaders view purpose as the defining context for their organization’s action in the world, then they can naturally transform a purpose statement into purposeful behaviour – across the entirety of their business.

True champions of purpose, like Tyagarajan and Bastian deploy purpose as a guide for all decision-making across every area of the business, proving that purpose isn’t a descriptive statement about what a business hopes to do. Rather, it’s a benchmark by which strategic decisions are made, by which ideas are put into action, and by which stakeholders are served.