An “authentic” corporate purpose, in the form of a clear declaration of the company’s values and the role it wants to play in society, is increasingly being promoted as answer to the challenge of reputation management.
As Magaret Hefferman suggests, in her excellent book Uncharted, the speed at which purpose has been adopted speaks volumes about just how purpose-less most work feels now.
I am a firm believer in the power of purpose. I believe that companies with a strong sense of purpose are intrinsically better companies – better to work for, better to work with, better for society and a better place to invest your money.
And, even if you don’t accept the moral or societal case – purpose provides a powerful and necessary framework for decision making in a fast-changing world where directive management by long-term plans is no longer as relevant. When investors like Larry Fink publicly call for companies to focus on their purpose and how they contribute to society, even reluctant CEOs will surely have to follow.
But is purpose really a panacea?
I have wrestled with these issues for many years and spent time trying to codify an approach, with some successes. I was part of a team working with Barclays, using opinion research (internal and external) to identify ‘reputation drivers’ that we could incorporate into a corporate affairs strategy and narrative. For Pepsico, I helped to create a global campaign from the meagre pickings of a CEO speech entitled ‘performance with purpose’. I remain proud of these projects, and much similar work, but in each case, there were many lessons to learn.
Ultimately, we fell short where we didn’t have sufficient C-suite buy-in. And even where we had a direct CEO mandate, executional effectiveness would always be limited if delivery was restricted to the corporate affairs function.