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Three Questions CEOs Should Ask Before Pursuing Purpose

Leaders need to ask themselves some important questions if they want to ensure their pursuit of purpose actually delivers the trust and transformation they seek.

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BY Adam Fridman - 08 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Have we entered the era of purpose? It seems as if organizations everywhere are asking whether they have a reason for existence that goes beyond simple bottom line concerns. Do they exchange products for money, or do they deliver something that is truly meaningful to their "tribes": the employees, customers, partners and other stakeholders that touch their organization every day?

One reason many organizations are asking these questions is the issue of trust:

everywhere you look, it's declining. According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 37% of respondents find CEOs to be trustworthy - a drop of 12% since 2016. Trust in employees of organizations only fell four points, to 48% - but that's still less than half. Trust is also lacking within organizations. A recent survey by EY found that only 46% of professionals trusted their employers; 39% were indifferent, trusting their employers somewhat, and fully 15% said that they had little to no trust in their companies or leaders.

Statistics like these leave many CEOs wondering whether purpose is the key to restoring that lost trust. I recently interviewed Vivek Bapat, SVP & Global Head of Marketing Strategy at SAP, whose research into best-practices and psychology has impacted how he approaches purpose and engagement at the world's third-largest software supplier. According to Bapat, leaders need to ask themselves some important questions if they want to ensure their pursuit of purpose actually delivers the trust and transformation they seek.

Are We Ready to Make an Investment in Purpose?

Companies come at purpose from a number of angles. Some have it from the beginning, others come at it later, similar to the way a mid-life (or quarter-life) crisis leaves people wondering, "is this all there is?"

Says Bapat, "Companies are either born from purpose, they have a founder who has purpose in his or her DNA, or their purpose is something they discover over time. Companies that aren't born from purpose might have great ideas as they first form, but at some point, many think beyond product or service orientation about the larger purpose they want to achieve as they grow."

Regardless of where you start, pursuing purpose - finding your "why" - requires CEOs and organizations to invest time and effort not just in discovering that purpose, but how it will change what the organization values and how it operates. To inspire trust and create profound, lasting change, purpose isn't something that is determined by a few individuals in a board room. It's a process of discovery that involves and affects everyone in the organization.

Purpose journeys can be especially challenging for organizations that have existed for a while without it because change - as we all know - isn't always easy. Bapat says, "Many companies struggle with this because steering the ship towards purpose is a culture change - it takes a lot more than just a vision statement."

How Will We Inspire and Engage Our Workforce Around Purpose?

Purpose and values risk being nothing more than words on a page if they fail to inspire people. And if people aren't inspired, the trust needle won't move. According to Bapat, People are at the heart of Purpose. By involving and including people within the entire organization in discussing what Purpose means to them, leaders can help employees understand how it changes the way they do their jobs and discover opportunities of shared purpose.

Says Bapat, "If you don't have people actually living your values, you don't have purpose. The 'Why' is important but you also need to think about the 'What, How and Who.' What are our values, what do we stand for? How are we going to carry our mission and vision forward? Who will be the messenger? Who's responsible for bringing purpose to life in real life situations?"

Purpose impacts how the organization does business, even at a micro-level. It transforms how people do their jobs, how their performance is measured and in some cases, who those people should be. Says Bapat, "There has to be a quantifiable outcome, a way of measuring purpose. It should be part of performance management, so we reward and recognize people for becoming more purpose driven. It has to be central to everything you do."

It also impacts hiring and retention. "Leaders can also support purpose by hiring for it, hiring talented people who believe in our purpose in addition to hiring for the requirements of a specific job," Bapat explains. "When someone believes in your purpose and has the right mindset, you can find a way to grow and shape the function around that person so that they strengthen the overall team."

Hiring for talent and purpose pays off in trust, engagement and innovation. "Hiring for purpose creates enormous trust between the individual and the organization," says Bapat. "You get the person's most innovative ideas because they know their ideas are valued."

How Does Purpose Align With Our Current Brand?

Knowing where you are now is the first step to figuring out how get to where you want to be. It follows that aligning purpose with your brand and how your company is currently perceived makes it easier to get your tribe - your employees and customers - engaged. It's a small shift in mindset rather than a big leap.

To align brand and purpose, companies need to ask some critical questions about how their current brand is perceived both in the marketplace and within the organization. Where perceptions are positive, brand and purpose should align; where they're negative, purpose may be the key to changing those perceptions. "Becoming a purpose driven company is a business strategy, not just a purpose strategy," says Bapat. "It boils down to a few things: does the purpose fit in with or enhance your unique identity and brand proposition? And how will it affect the way you engage with customers and employees?"

Answering these questions may require organizations to think more broadly about what they really do. What fundamental need in society does our organization serve, either for individuals or for other businesses? Says Bapat, "the way to look at purpose is through the lens of our customers and partners, not just through the eyes of our own organization."

Purpose transformation that inspires trust doesn't just happen: it requires leaders who are willing to ask the right questions and truly listen to the answers. But for the organizations that succeed, the payoff can be profound. Engagement surveys find that purpose fosters confidence and connection between brands, employees and customers, making its pursuit a worthy investment for organizations that want to inspire or restore that trust.