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‘Purpose’ and ‘Conscious Capitalism’ have become popular themes over the past few years. It’s even become acceptable to talk about Spirituality (or Mindfulness) in business.

There’s also a tacit acknowledgement that the only real transformational change that is going to impact the world (from a critical mass perspective) is not going to come from governments but from big business. That means large corporations.

While much of this talk is sorely needed and welcomed by many,  the hurdles to achieving meaningful results from these discussions become infinitely more complex. Having a noble purpose and a set of values is not a magic bullet for employee engagement.  It certainly can be when managed strategically. All too often however, with a few notable exceptions such as the often cited Unilever, or Whole Foods, the corporate landscape is strewn with aspirational statements of purpose that have little to do with everyday culture.

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It is not enough to simply know ‘why’ you are in business (although it’s a great start). It is also essential to be clear about ‘what’ your plan is to deliver your purpose and ‘how’ this is to be measured on a day-to-day basis. Otherwise what typically happens is a lot of talk and no real action. On the one hand there is the promotion of a meaningful vision and, at the same time, the daily reality of needing to deliver on short-term shareholder value. More often than not, Purpose linked action tends to get parked into a few initiatives led by the CSR department.

This does a huge disservice to the entire concept of CSR which (when genuinely held to be important) is not just a ‘department’ but a philosophy of good business practise that can be systemically embedded across one’s entire organisation. If you are going to run a purpose led company then you need to be prepared to encourage every department, team, and employee to have their individual way of interpreting it in service of the whole organisation.

When a company’s purpose is not lived it is sad to witness the frustration of highly capable executives who may appear to tow the corporate line yet, behind closed doors, roll their eyes and talk about the incongruencies between boardroom strategy and everyday decisions. This collective negative energy is toxic to any transformational change management or leadership clean-up effort.

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What we recommend is more straightforward communication that shows how the promise of purpose is being delivered. People appreciate more transparency from companies who share their vulnerabilities in addition to their strengths. After all, culture is a collection of individuals, and we tend to trust those who tell us it like it is.

So beyond the usual engagement surveys and Customer Satisfaction Indices, how about introducing a simple On Purpose metric that shows how your company is doing with its stated Purpose? There’s no need to make it complex and load it up with values and behaviour statements.

We recommend simply asking 3 questions:

1) What did we do last year that supported our Purpose?

2) What held us back?

3) What do we need to do differently based what we learned?

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