For many years, any meaningful conversation around business purpose has been all but drowned out by companies who talk the talk of purpose without walking the walk – from green-washing to pseudo-diversity drives to cancellation crises, the meaning of the word purpose has become convoluted. 

 But I’ve always contended that purpose matters – as a business tool rather than a marketing message. And increasingly, that idea is gaining widespread traction. 

 CEOs of businesses around the world – and across a range of industries – have realized the core truth that purpose is an essential ingredient to their success: a recent survey shows that 73% of over 1000 CEO respondents reported that they saw purpose as a strategic compass for their business.

It’s wonderful to see that respect for purpose as a business driver is on the rise, but the reality is that business leaders must walk that walk.

A powerful purpose only makes an impactful business driver if leaders are willing to integrate it into every aspect of their business, using it not just as a message, but as a core foundation for action.

More than a tagline 

A strong purpose statement really is only as successful as the action it inspires. If you’re not activating your purpose by using it as a foundation for your leadership, your employee engagement, and your stakeholder service, you don’t have a purpose. You have a tagline – words that sound good, rather than an active mission.

So, let’s talk about how you can go about transforming your purpose-inspired words into purpose-driven, powerful action, and why that distinction matters as much as it does.

Connect your purpose to your actions

The most important step toward activating your purpose is ensuring that it really can function across every level of your business – that you can refer to your purpose as the North Star your entire business can follow. 

True purpose champions are leaders who make purpose the central organizing idea for everything they do – and by extension, everything their business does ­­– to create value. One company that has pioneered in this respect is Oatly. 

According to the organization’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Ashley Allen – who I recently interviewed – purpose is the bigger idea, bigger than sustainability alone, but environmental purpose has always served as a proactive, guiding force for Oatly. In fact, committing to act sustainably in everything the organization does, from its production methods, to how it influences consumers, to how it treats employees, has helped make Oatly the monumental success it is today, with profits continuing to rise year on year.  

However an organization defines its purpose at the outset, its leaders should consider how purpose will expand from its defining core to a deeper emphasis that colors everything it does, both in the short and longer-term.

Take Amgen Biotechnology. Amgen’s purpose is to “serve patients by transforming the promise of science and biotechnology into therapies that have the power to restore health or save lives.”

 The combination of specificity and ambition present in this purpose statement makes it possible for the statement to drive every aspect of the organization – from its hiring policies, its investments and partnerships to its research and manufacturing, all the way to its approach to good corporate citizenship. A good example of how the company galvanized its purpose is Amgen’s Biotech Experience program, a scientific literacy scheme for high school students. The program, designed to make a difference for students, scientific futures, and ultimately, patients, went on to become one of the most competitive summer science programs in the US. A strong connection between Amgen’s ambitious mission (to transform the promise of science into treatment) and demonstrable action (investment in the young scientific minds that would help achieve this) was absolutely key to this successful effort.  

Make purpose about your people

 Galvanizing your current and future employees through purpose is crucial, and Amgen is far from the only organization that’s realized this and acted accordingly. Oatly’s commitment to people over profits helped position the company to respond well to the pandemic, Allen believes. By looking after its employees, as well as reaching out to support small, independent coffee shops during the crisis, Oatly was able to follow through on its purpose while still taking good care of business. 

Organizations that successfully champion purpose to their people pay careful attention to how they imbue purpose into the employee value proposition. From attracting and recruiting people, to how purpose lives and breathes in their company culture day by day, they must work to define and embed purpose into employees’ lived experience if they’re to achieve the holiest of grails: ‘employee engagement’. 

Building a strong, purpose-driven employee value proposition has become mission critical in the battle to attract and retain a pipeline of strong talent in today’s world. More than ever, candidates now seek out purpose over profits in a prospective employer, asking: ‘why does this company exist?’ and ‘what role does it play in the wider world’? 

To this end, in 2020 Tata Consultancy launched a new purpose: “Building greater futures through innovation and collective knowledge” that transformed employees’ relationship with the company, and by extension reinvigorated the organization’s approach to serving its customers. Current employees sang the purpose statement’s praises, reporting feeling more engaged with their work, and some even made personal art featuring the new purpose statement. Meanwhile, TCS closed out the year with its highest-ever net addition of new employees in one year, its highest-ever order book, along with 10 new clients in the $100+ million bucket. As a side note, the organization has also risen to claim the fourth spot on this year’s Futurebrand Index. Put simply: by committing to a purpose that nurtured its team, their expertise, and their shared mission, Tata succeeded on multiple metrics.

Never forget where you’re coming from

Making purpose the North Star of your business means that it’s only effective if you’re ruthlessly consistent. 

One example of a company that has always driven forward according to its purpose is Patagonia. When you reflect on the company’s purpose: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” it really is no surprise that founder Yvon Chouinard recently made the decision to give the company and its future profits away in service of climate action. The company has always done exactly what it promised: build the best products… and use the business to implement solutions for the environmental crisis. Chouinard’s decision proves just how seriously he takes that statement, and just how fiercely he’s returned to that mission as a guiding North Star for his actions since founding the company in 1973. 

It’s worth noting, while Patagonia is clearly an outlier in the way it was established and in its leadership, the concept of translating purpose into action is accessible to every organization. While we probably won’t see another Patagonia any time soon (or a Tesla, for that matter), I suspect we’ll see other visionary and innovative leaders enacting their purpose in ways that will be just as revolutionary.  

Your purpose, your way

Now, before you think I’m suggesting that every business put 100% of its profits toward climate action – take a step back and reconsider. While it’s important that every business thinks about the way it impacts the future, the examples I’ve shared in this article are proof that every business must do that in its own way. A clear, authentic, and ambitious purpose statement is the strategic tool that will help you do that in the way that makes the most sense and impact for your business, for the people you serve, and for the world in which you operate. 

Ultimately, purpose cannot be a set of words you slap on literature about your company to tell people who you are. It must be an anchor that keeps your organization on track. Your purpose is your reason for being and your key driver of business growth. Successful company leaders, no matter what their vision, know that purpose is a way of doing business – an instruction, not a descriptor.

Cover image source: Denise Jans