Purpose means nothing unless you actually do something

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Actions speak louder than thought leadership.

Communications programmes, unsurprisingly, follow fashions. The current obsession is about ‘purpose’ – every organisation suddenly needs one, preferably with ‘integrity’ at its heart. Few stop to think whether the word ‘integrity’ carries any real meaning for ordinary people but, hey, at least it looks convincing in a mission statement or annual report.

Purpose, as I have written elsewhere, cannot be the property of the soulless organisation. Only real people – co-workers, customers, suppliers – can understand and celebrate legitimate purpose. This is why it can’t be imposed from the top down or bought off the shelf from an ad agency, then paraded on giant transparent screens in antiseptic corporate atriums.

I take issue with those who tell boards that they can sort their purpose for them, as though it’s little more than the corporate equivalent of a microwave ready meal. It’s only authentic if co-produced and negotiated from within. This is much tougher, time-consuming and probably inconvenient for any corporate leader – but it is the only way.

Proper purpose will play a central role in future business. Organisations need to stand for something, to offer a rallying point and to campaign on what they believe in. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan is the most frequently quoted example – but it is not the only one. Think about M&S’ Plan A; or Timpson’s or Halfords’s work with ex-offenders; those declaring war on plastic bags and bottles; or KPMG’s global programme on responsible tax (disclosure: Jericho client).

These are organisations that are leading with actions, not words. The danger, however, is that elsewhere the search for purpose  can become an end in itself: as long as you are on the journey, you are de facto on the side of better or good. The journey offers some sort of path of redemption.

In this fragile world, the journey is important but is no longer enough. Organisations need to do, not just say (or, as is frequently the case, say they are thinking about doing something). Author Margaret Heffernan gets quickly to the point: ‘just ****ing do something’.


Read the full article here, originally published in Management Today. 


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