Acting with purpose
9 Mar 2021 by Steven Giannoulis
I’m really enjoying the way that many businesses are embracing their purpose. For years, business saw their main reason for being as something like ‘delivering for customers in order to deliver for owners.’ Yes, many did things with social benefits but often these activities were undertaken primarily to advance the commercial goal. Much has changed since then and a social conscience is now a key part of business success. Has business really learnt to care or is good behaviour driven by a need for self-survival?
In this article we explore what’s driving this change, the value of purpose and share what we at Insight Creative are doing about it.
We work with many clients on brand, employee engagement and corporate reporting projects. The shift to expressing a more socially-led purpose is clearly evident to see. Business is very quickly embracing the idea that they have a responsibility to foster the wellbeing of society as a whole by advancing (or at least reducing their impact on) the issues that matter. This includes sustainability, climate change, diversity, inclusivity and social wellbeing. As both big consumers of society’s resource and big producers of outputs, business can be villain and hero all at the same time. How they behave will have a significant impact on the future we pass on to our tamariki and mokopuna.
The value of purpose
The turning point has really come in the last few years as the idea of sustainability has become personal – a business’s own sustainability is driven by its ability to do right in the eyes of the society they operate within. For many industries, this social licence is the difference between success and failure. And this has seen businesses think wider about who they are accountable to. Just as importantly, they’ve had to refocus how and what they communicate to their traditional audiences to ensure they can continue to attract customers, staff and investors.
Many businesses rely on natural world resources and the threat of depleting them has become a genuine business concern. In these situations, implementing sustainable practices and finding alternatives is a survival imperative. The challenge is more than just physical though, it’s social. If you’re not making the effort to address the social problem, the mood of public opinion moves against you, effectively removing your licence to use society’s natural resources, and accelerating your demise.
More and more customers are attracted to brands that outwardly display their purpose. Increasingly they are prepared to pay more to support companies whose values align with theirs. On the other hand, consumers are also being more active in rejecting brands that do not uphold the ever-rising standards around things like disposable plastics, waste, and good employment, environment and community practices. I would argue that any new kiwi brand launching today would find a platform of wellbeing, sustainability, diversity and embracing our unique kiwi identity a pre-requisite for success.
Employees too are actively choosing to work for companies who display a clear purpose in action. In exchange for their time, they want more than just money but skills, connections and the freedom to balance life and work. On top of this they want a sense of meaning, that feeling that their work has a higher purpose and they are contributing to something good. Employees want to work for companies who are driving to make the world a better place and are therefore attracted to employers who can clearly demonstrate good social practices.
And then there are investors, who’ve expanded their perspective on what creating value means, encompassing more than just the numbers. They’re becoming more discerning about where they put their money, looking for companies with the heart, strategy and commitment to follow it through. Where ‘green’ used to be an alternative form of investing, these days it’s mainstream. Investors have come to appreciate that sustainable business practices mean better long-term results. The notion of 'non-financial' factors being more accurately described as ‘pre-financial’ has grown in popularity as investors seek to judge how today’s behaviours will influence tomorrow’s outcomes. And as integrated reporting continues to become the reporting standard, being transparent on the value you create beyond today's balance sheet is essential if businesses want to retain and grow their investor base.
But are businesses really behaving any better now than they were in the past? They’ve always appeared to do good when it suited them to do so. What’s changed?
While for most the drive is still commercially led, for me what’s really changed is that level of authenticity you now see. It’s an understanding that this is the right thing to do and that it has to be done genuinely across the business. It’s not just a good act or two but a change in thinking that is baked into what a business thinks, acts, says and does. It isn’t just sponsorship or charitable donations but a mindshift embedded in the philosophy, culture and practices of the organisation. Many businesses have community, sustainability, diversity and wellbeing managers with dedicated responsibilities to deliver outcomes. They build it into their supplier contracts, their reward and recognition systems and into their values and strategy. Acting with purpose is now core business.
I also like that this thinking is permeating across all sectors. Whereas, in the past we’d be having these discussions with selected clients like Eco Store or energy providers with a social challenge to address, we’re now having the conversations widely with some of NZ’s largest businesses. Government agencies are in on it too. Given they exist for the public good you would have assumed this purpose would have always been core to their thinking and behaviour. My experience is that for many Government agencies the core purpose was implementing policy. Success was ticking off the things your Minister promised. In recent years we’ve seen a shift from output to genuine outcomes. The discussion is no longer activity but impact.
Create Powerful Work
At Insight Creative we seek to be a business with real purpose. Our vision statement is Create Powerful Work. It’s a statement that speaks to impact and making a difference with everything we do. It works on many levels – impact for our clients, for our shareholders, for staff and society. When I talk about this with the team, I focus on personal impact. That is, doing work that allows us to feel proud of the difference our work makes.
Along with an extensive range of employee wellbeing initiatives, we have implemented a full range of activities to help our clients express their social value, for example, through our leadership in Integrated Reporting storytelling and in investing to deliver better outcomes for clients like Starship and Tupuna Maunga Authority. We’ve also created our own projects such as writing, producing and creating an experience around a children’s book about inclusiveness, diversity and the negative aspects of the online world.
This work has connected with clients and staff and has helped to make us a better business overall. As we move forward, like many kiwi companies, delivering with purpose will become an even stronger focus for us. Create Powerful Work will take on greater meaning.
Expressing your purpose – three key lessons:
- Be authentic – do it because you truly believe it. Don’t just do it because it's good business. Customers, staff and investors will eventually see through fakes.
- Bake it in – make it part of everything you do. Build it into policies, procedures, induction, culture, measurement, celebration and day-to-day activities.
- Be open – share your stories. The positive but also the areas where you need to do better. Audiences understand it's a journey and appreciate the honesty.