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NOVEMBER 3, 2020 //     

Purpose in the COVID era

By Jim Selman

If the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it is that there are times when the state cannot manage alone.  Sometimes, the challenge is so big that it requires a truly collective responsibility to find a solution, to keep us safe, to recognise the risks and to run towards the problem rather than expect it to be handled by somebody else. 

During the first lockdown, COVID seemed to get its unofficial positioning in the UK next to the Second World War.  Lots of comparisons were made about the challenges to our civil liberties, the sense of loss that we would need to come to terms with, and ultimately the scale of the effort required to overcome this global pandemic.  Together with the subsequent, global, era-defining social justice movement, pushing us to evolve as a society, we face a truly unique set of challenges and a clear expectation to act.  The inevitable question then comes… “What did you do during the war?” 

The private sector has a renewed sense of responsibility to step forward, and their stakeholders will rightly ask the hard questions to understand whether they are doing so.  We have known for years that corporate reputation and purpose are inextricably linked.  The days of simply managing the external communication of performance are long gone.  Customers, government, media, consumers, suppliers, academia, and others are themselves being judged by the decisions they make and the company they keep.  They want to know that the businesses behind the services and brands they choose are active beyond profit and hold themselves to the highest possible standards.

Even before the extraordinary events of 2020, purpose was a term in a perpetual state of evolution.  It is often part of a lexicon that includes CSR, social impact, cause, sustainability, beyond profit, and conscious capitalism.  Although the label for purpose can differ, the key is how you best deploy it in your organisation:

  • Do not delegate:  The gravity and sensitivity of this work requires it to sit at the very top of the organisation, led by its most senior stakeholders.  This group is expected to partner with others to plan and execute, and it is very important to consult with and get input from employees.  However, the ultimate responsibility for an organisation’s purpose sits squarely in the boardroom.  Our role as consultants is to facilitate this process and to ensure it is kept honest.
  • Don’t try to boil the ocean:  Purpose should make sense to your organisation.  Remember it is a foundational strategy, linked to the operation of your business.  Use all available data to help guide the development process, and make sure to look both externally and internally to gain insight.
  • Communicate Inside – Out:  It is important to build consensus around purpose internally first.  Your organisation is full of potential advocates who can support, and it is key that you bring them along with you.
  • Be transparent:  By its very nature, a long-term sense of purpose should keep your organisation honest and ensure that the highest possible standards are being held.  Therefore, transparency is mandatory.  You build a more credible relationship with your stakeholders if you can speak to how your organisation is not delivering its purpose, and therefore what you are doing to overcome this.  Don’t be afraid to share the good and the bad.
  • Be brave:  When the world around us is creaking under the strain of a global combination of once-in-a-generation challenges, you need to come out swinging.  Take a risk and demonstrate how far you are willing to go.  Everyone else is making sacrifices, so you need to step up too.
  • Make it measurable:  Perhaps an obvious point, but like every other business strategy, your purpose will need to be measurable so that you can prove its value beyond profit.
  • Be agile:  Purpose may address something foundational to the operation of your organisation.  But if change is required elsewhere, then don’t be afraid to pull it back in the boardroom.  Make purpose part of the agenda.

Creating, nurturing, and sustaining purpose requires a long-term approach.  The overly used term, the “new normal” often feels a little nebulous.  But ultimately, it is true.  The world may never return to life as it was before lockdown. Therefore, the expectation to act is a permanent one and needs to be addressed now. 

Click here for more information on how we can help you with brand purpose in the COVID era, or contact us – we’d love to hear from you.





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