Make Purpose Work Harder: Lessons from Business Leaders
Our research finds that companies struggle to carve out a purpose that’s both authentic and actionable.
Businesses have been using purpose-driven strategies for years, but recent events are testing those missions like never before. Between the pandemic, political polarization and all-new virtual connections, organizations see that just having a purpose is not enough. They need one that is durable, flexible and completely human. And they realize that leading with purpose, an all-important North Star, is their best chance to stay relevant to customers and employees.
Prophet’s Purpose Diagnostic enables companies to assess the strength of their purpose in four critical dimensions, measuring whether it is…
- Authentic (how does it tie to what you do?)
- Inspiring (how does it connect with employees and customers emotionally?)
- Shared (how does it create connection and build community?)
- Actionable (how do you live your purpose every day?)
We analyzed the diagnostic results, which now include responses from over 150 leaders in more than 20 countries, and discovered common pain points where companies are falling behind. These insights also highlight the best ways to close gaps, so companies can focus on strengthening purpose in ways that engage stakeholders, build relevance and unlock uncommon growth.
The Biggest Challenge? Putting Purpose to Work
The toughest element to get right is making purpose actionable–bringing it to life in steady, meaningful ways. Overall, 28 percent of leaders reported this as the most problematic. But authenticity and the ability to share purpose are close behind.
Action is critical. If organizations can’t deliver on purpose, it doesn’t matter how inspiring, authentic or shared it is. It just becomes another empty promise. When companies fail to act, organizations lose the trust of customers and employees looking to brands to play a critical role in addressing social challenges. Purpose must be integrated into all aspects of how companies do business. It’s the way they show up in the world. This was especially true at the director, vice president and managerial level, and lower rungs in the organization. That makes sense: Those with the most accountability for how well their purpose is put into action, within a specific business area, are most likely to acknowledge weaknesses.
“If organizations can’t deliver on purpose, it doesn’t matter how inspiring, authentic or shared it is. It just becomes another empty promise.”
But developing an authentic purpose, one that feels uniquely it’s own rather than generic, is also daunting. That is particularly true in the C-suite. These executives are most likely to say their purpose lacks authenticity. They believe purpose feels less connected to their business and isn’t specific enough to their company.
And those in manager-level positions and below are most likely to say their purpose isn’t shared, likely because they have the closest understanding of how the broader organization experiences the purpose. To them, this inability to communicate purpose is as problematic as making it actionable.
C-Suite execs worry most about authenticity
Directors and VPs struggle to put purpose in action
For the rank-and-file, it’s hardest to share purpose, and put it into action
Overcoming Stumbling Blocks
There are no short cuts to strengthen and deepen an enterprise’s purpose. To function as a true North Star, a beacon that rallies all stakeholders and sparks exceptional growth, companies must continually nurture and manage their purpose. But our findings do point to specific steps to bolster each dimension.
If a company’s purpose needs to be more…
Companies must act on purpose and measure the impact of those actions. The biggest failing among our respondents is the lack of metrics. They say they don’t have direct, or even indirect, ways to measure whether they deliver. Without such a measurement, it’s difficult to assess progress.
- To improve:
- Develop performance metrics aligned to the purpose to hold leaders accountable
- Lead by example, using purpose to guide decision-making and taking action in the market
- Tie purpose to employee behaviors and competencies, and make sure they are visible to all
When purpose lacks authenticity, the biggest challenge leaders face is differentiating themselves from competitors. “Our purpose is unique to our company” received the lowest score of all authenticity measures. Leaders need to drive greater relevance with their customers and employees: What does this brand do that others don’t? How does it add value to peoples’ lives? The more specific the purpose, the more relevant and authentic it is to the company.
- To improve:
- Determine what sets the company apart and creates a unique value. Make sure those differences anchor the purpose
- Make the company’s purpose reflect cultural strengths
When a purpose is genuinely shared, it’s easier to build bridges and start conversations. Whether it’s with shareholders, employees or customers, the right purpose forges a common bond. It fosters connection and demonstrates a clear understanding of what employees and customers need. Our research uncovered two fundamental weaknesses in this domain, with “Employees at all levels are familiar with the purpose” and “Our purpose cultivates a community and creates a dialogue” earning the lowest scores.
- To improve:
- Listen to what customers are saying and deliver value in ways that align
- Weave purpose into rituals and communications with employees
- Link it to employee’s day-to-day experiences
- Make sure messages to shareholders and community partners reflect purpose-related efforts
Purpose-led businesses aim to make a difference in the world. And they need to elevate the stories that demonstrate how they help society. Without consistent reinforcements of a company’s impact, employees and customers can forget what it stands for and why it matters. While just 20% of respondents said this was the most problematic area, all brands need to question whether their purpose is bold enough. Otherwise, it can’t inspire the storytelling required to spread the word. In our research, the ability to mobilize stories to demonstrate a lived purpose was identified as a key challenge.
- To improve:
- Tell signature stories that bring purpose to life, and share them regularly with employees and customers
- Link environmental, social, and corporate efforts directly to purpose
How strong is your purpose? Take the diagnostic today to understand where your organization may be faltering. The right purpose, used in the most effective ways, can increase loyalty and drive revenue gains. But most importantly, it leads to the future. Purpose doesn’t just help businesses decide what to do. It guides them in the best ways to do it.