Reputation Management, Millennials and Corporate Purpose – Part 2

This article, by Tony Langham, CEO of Lansons, for PRWeek, conflates reputation management, millennials and corporate purpose – three hot topics, each deserving commentary of its own. I started with reputation management – now let’s look at corporate purpose.

Millennials and their older siblings want to understand why a business exists. They want to know its purpose and what it stands for. They want to see corporate citizens that play their part in the community.

Corporate Purpose – Shiny Object Syndrome?

The evidence that genuine purpose improves corporate performance is compelling. The concern is that having a purpose is seen solely as a means of achieving the performance improvement.

Two things:

  • Spending considerable amounts of time and money on identifying a shortlist of purposes for your company – as many do – seems a flawed approach. Either you have a genuine purpose, or you don’t. And if your purpose is making the most amount of widgets at the best price, then so be it
  • Purpose, for many, seems to be inextricably linked with corporate ethics, whereas, to my mind, a purpose might reference an ethical agenda but it doesn’t have to in order to be valid

Employees are not engaged by engagement, and having a corporate purpose does not make your stakeholders purposeful. Creating engagement and purpose amongst your employees and having external stakeholders build a purposeful relationship (one that will be acted on) with you are both functions of many and varied factors – and buying a tailored statement of purpose isn’t one of them.

Having a corporate purpose should not be confused with having positions on diversity, equality and sustainability and being prepared to share them. Nor should it be confused with CSR programmes. These are simply ethical behaviours. While I am not wholly convinced that ‘people, planet, profit’ is the correct order of things, they are the things that matter, regardless of whether you have a statement of purpose or not.

Purpose, Mission, Vision – What’s The Difference?

Assuming the role of interested layperson, it is easy to search for ‘purpose’ in connection with some of the world’s best known corporates – Google, for example, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tesla, Starbucks and Coca-Cola.

And the interested layperson finds that, amongst the missions and the visions, there are very few mentions of purpose. Facebook has an updated purpose, but this is also reported as being a mission and a goal. IBM ‘translates company purpose through (three) values’. (And uses ‘mission’ and ‘purpose’ in the same sentence to describe the same thing.)

Having a credible vision, mission, and set of values is important. They are three of the many and varied factors that lead to engaged and purposeful employees. To the outside world, not so much. External stakeholders shouldn’t have to be told what your values are – they should be able to deduce what they are through corporate behaviour. That is, of course, if they actually care.

It says something about the concept of purpose, however, that some of the world’s largest companies seem to be simply re-working – or re-labelling – their missions, or their goals, or their values in order to tick the purpose box.

Purposely Distracting

Needless to say, this approach delivers a hotch-potch of styles, approaches and themes – from the sales-driven (Apple, Amazon) through the product-led (Tesla, Starbucks) to the almost hopelessly idealistic (Coca-Cola, Google).

To misquote Alec Guinness, these are not the purposes that stakeholders are looking for. (If indeed they are looking at all.) At best, they have been designed by committee (you can see this in Apple’s 2017 mission statement compared to Mr Jobs’s original and personal ethos) at worst, you might be forgiven for thinking that they’re an attempt to distract from what the company – or its leadership – is really doing.

In terms of facilitating understanding of why a business exists, its purpose and what it stands for, they are not up to the task. They are complex and lack authenticity. Arguably, these companies would be better off without, and letting their corporate behaviour speak for them. Supposing, of course, they trust it to do so.

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