This may indicate that senior leaders have more knowledge of organisational strategies to support purpose-related activities as they may indeed be closer to strategic decision-making around purpose. But it also suggests a need for greater transparency, as well as making sure that purpose has been translated from high-level strategic goals into the practical, operational objectives of middle management and non-managerial employees. In addition, further implementing appropriate measures to ensure accountability may be needed. Recent Deloitte analysis suggests that while the vast majority of C-suite leaders perceive their organisations to have a clear and well-defined purpose strategy, 22% indicated that the company does not prioritise the collection and reporting of purpose-related data.14 In addition, only one in three reported that their performance is linked to the achievement of purpose-related objectives, which could explain the disconnect between leaders’ understanding of the importance of purpose and their efforts to demonstrate purpose in their day-to-day work.
What do the findings of the survey suggest that organisations should do? Below we set out our recommendations.
Lip service is not enough
First, while having a clear purpose statement is one of the initial steps in defining what the organisation stands for, it is critical that employers go beyond lip service and properly embed purpose into every aspect of the organisation – from strategy and decision-making, culture and behaviour, to brand, products and stakeholder relationships. This will ensure internal consistency that builds trust with employees, customers and the general public. It will also create opportunities for meaningful work and help employees see how their everyday actions can directly impact the different stakeholder groups they interact with. We suggest that purpose needs dedicated focus at the C-suite level, where the involvement of senior leadership can help ensure that purpose is given sufficient consideration across all business areas. Going one step further, this translates into both senior leaders and line managers having a key part to play in embedding purpose and making it real for employees in their everyday roles.
Recognise that purpose is not static and starts with your employees
A second lesson we derive is that purpose is not static – it should reflect a commitment towards addressing the major challenges affecting society at a given time. Recently, this could be seen in the example of numerous companies responding to the Russia-Ukraine conflict – either by suspending their operations in Russia, matching employee donations or providing financial assistance to displaced Ukrainian citizens.
In addition, we would argue that purpose needs to be both tangible and specific to the individual, with employees expecting organisations to show genuine concern for their well-being as well as embed purpose into their everyday activities. Ultimately, this may point towards the need to translate abstract environmental (e.g., net-zero) and social impact goals (e.g., improved diversity) into clear, measurable actions that employees at all levels see reflected in their own roles.
Emphasise purpose in recruitment, and maintain it with your long-standing staff too
Organisations across all sectors can bring purpose to life, so as to become an employer of choice. This can be done at all stages of the recruitment cycle – attraction, selection and onboarding – by clearly showcasing initiatives and success stories in corporate communications and via social media, discussing purpose-related initiatives and impact during job interviews, showing concrete examples of how individual roles contribute to the organisation’s overall purpose and by embedding purpose into job descriptions and briefs. In other words, it is imperative that purpose is evident and feels part of the organisation’s DNA from the moment an employee applies to join the organisation.
A two-way purpose communication then needs to be followed by authentic action. Employees should be empowered to have a say in identifying their organisation’s purpose and be given an opportunity to address important societal problems through their work.15 Indeed most respondents in our study consider it important to be involved in defining their organisation’s purpose (79%) and to be supported in demonstrating said purpose in their everyday activities (82%). Therefore, purpose communications shouldn’t be one-way. Instead, there should be a two-way dialogue that engages employees as well as other stakeholders in delivering purpose-related goals. By providing opportunities for greater involvement around purpose, organisations can gain an understanding of the societal issues that are foremost in the minds of their workforce and how these evolve over time. Employees can further recognise the meaning and impact of their work, and both employees and employers can unite towards achieving shared objectives.
Adopt a ‘profit with purpose’ strategy
While there’s no denying that profits are important, organisations need to consider how profits are generated, and whether value for society and the environment is created at the same time. If organisations adopt a ‘profit with purpose’ strategy, they can pursue financial gain at the same time as – and in many cases as a result of – delivering value to customers, communities and the public, and thus, truly differentiate themselves from organisations whose purpose goals are just an afterthought. In addition, adopting an appropriate framework to measure the impact of purpose may be particularly powerful, along with aligning core products and services with the organisation’s purpose goals. What is evident is that purpose cannot be separated from business strategy, and that profits can indeed be driven by the organisation’s societal initiatives.16
Close the purpose gap in leadership behaviour
To close the gap between purpose and leadership behaviours and help leaders genuinely act with purpose, being able to measure the value that purpose brings to different functions in the organisation is key. Further, purpose needs to be embedded into the core operations of the business – into roles and responsibilities as well as performance goals and how these are assessed and rewarded.17 More frequent communication at the team level and highlighting real-life stories to humanise what could otherwise be seen as a rather distant corporate message can also further increase transparency and reassure staff that leaders are indeed committed towards achieving societal impact. In addition, greater collaboration between senior leaders in different functions is needed to ensure that purpose relates to the wider strategic goals of the organisation – rather than being pursued in silos.
Conclusion: stand out through purpose
As macroeconomic challenges besiege individuals, organisations and societies as a whole, purpose can make organisations stand out. It can support organisations in their pursuit of talent and differentiate them from their competitors by highlighting the value they bring to customers, investors, regulators, local communities and the broader society.
Consistency between the externally facing purpose-led brand and the internal employee experience of purpose, however, is critical, and companies need to ensure that they effectively integrate purpose and draw on the workforce’s ideas in their business strategy. Adopting a more dynamic approach to managing purpose and having appropriate mechanisms for increased transparency and accountability may help organisations deliver on their purpose ambitions and shield them from accusations of purpose-washing. In addition, translating purpose into the operations of the business and involving both employees and senior leaders in embedding purpose can create a greater sense of ownership and employee loyalty. In short, purpose is not a cost for businesses. The most successful businesses of the future, those most appreciated by workers and consumers alike, will be those who deliver profit with purpose.