It might seem hard to believe in 2022, but for many years, business and personal elements mixed about as well as oil and water. As consumers and employees, people engaged with companies with little thought as to how their actions connected to a central, relevant purpose. But over the past few decades, we’ve seen the relationship between people and businesses evolve completely.
What was once all business (say, buying a product or punching the clock) is now something else entirely. Today, consumers and employees engage heavily with a company’s purpose and values: why the company exists, what problems it solves, and how its solutions create a “net positive.” This was a shift ushered in by first-wave Millennials who began pushing for a more purposeful approach to business as they came of age. But though older Millennials were the first to demand a higher purpose, “Zillennials” and Generation Zers have wasted no time grabbing the torch.
In particular, Gen Zers want to align who they are with what they do, which is why they view their consumption and employment habits as direct reflections of their value systems. In fact, about two-thirds of Gen Zers believe their work defines them, and over half demand purpose-driven employment, per MetLife. These beliefs have already left an indelible mark on this decade, so it’s only natural that company leaders would try to appeal to young consumers by rallying them around a more compelling purpose.
Unfortunately, that’s where many leaders stop: They map out an ambitious purpose-led strategy, only to find themselves cast in concrete with no idea how to execute. If this sounds like a familiar problem to you, follow these four steps to put your purpose into action:
1. Turn purpose into strategy. More leaders are making powerful commitments to addressing current issues, and that’s wonderful. The problem is they don’t spend enough time exploring how those ambitions will impact people’s decision-making processes, business choices, and their ability to execute those strategies.
For instance, our business strategy consulting firm, BTS, worked with a financial institution client toward the goal of becoming a more integrated organization operating under one balance sheet. This required senior leaders to gain a deeper understanding of other areas in the organization because their decisions would have a more direct effect on areas beyond their own.
Start by articulating how purpose informs your organization’s strategic priorities — and yours. Ask yourself: How do I think about our business now? Does our purpose change the way we create value? If so, how? Organizations that get this right typically outline in very clear terms how the purpose will change:
• The way in which they create value.
• How they engage with their markets, both on the demand side (e.g., where they get their resources and raw materials) and the supply side (e.g., where and how they sell their wares).
• How they will resolve the emerging tensions between the old and the new way of doing things.
2. Link purpose with everyday work. What does living out your organization’s purpose mean in practical terms? Unlike strategy creation (which happens in the boardroom), strategy execution happens through the daily decisions—both big and small—that your people make. Consistent execution means they understand how their day-to-day work connects to the overall strategy and purpose; as a result, they have a solid frame of reference when making decisions within their roles. If your employees have to go through mental gymnastics to make this connection, they’ll have a much harder time aligning their decisions with your purpose.
Focus on specific actions people can take to link purpose with their work every day. Break down complex strategic and behavioral shifts into small, bite-size actions embedded into their flow of work. In addition, it’s important to encourage people to share experiences and keep each other accountable.
3. Anticipate new dilemmas. When one of our CPG clients launched a purpose-led strategy to double the size of its business while also reducing its environmental footprint by half, it was excited to execute on such a great purpose. However, the strategy didn’t quite prepare people for the challenging business decisions to come in terms of the trade-offs required to live up to that purpose.
As purpose informs your strategy, you’ll likely find that previously straightforward decisions now involve unanticipated compromises, other uses of capital and different stakeholders. It’s not a given that everyone will be aligned on how to meet these new challenges. In fact, they often aren’t.
Get ready to question old assumptions. You can’t avoid new dilemmas, but you can (and should) give people the tools to navigate them. Think about these future challenges now and anticipate what trade-offs your organization is comfortable with. Exercises such as scenario planning can go a long way in surfacing new questions, in turn challenging assumptions and the way organizations resolve trade-offs. In our experience, cross-functional teams tackling the big strategic issues will lead to stronger alignment on how to make those challenging decisions.
4. Don’t miss personal purpose. Leaders spend a lot of time and resources defining their purpose and disseminating it throughout the organization and to other stakeholders. But then, they tend to close their eyes and hope for the best. You want your organizational purpose to resonate with your people. They’ll be more engaged, inspired and productive when it does.
The best leaders understand inspiring engagement and productivity means helping employees understand their own personal purpose. Then, leaders can connect that personal purpose with the organization’s purpose. To uncover personal purpose, savvy leaders invest time in understanding each employee’s personal strengths and values. The “sweet spot” here is the intersection between employees’ personal strengths and values and the company’s purpose. Once an employee has discovered their unique sweet spot, the task of uncovering personal purpose becomes much clearer, and answering the question “Where do you want to make a difference and create an impact in the organization?” becomes easier to answer.