26 Business Leaders Share How Purpose Powers Their Organizations

Mar 7, 2022 3:00 PM ET
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I used to close each episode of my podcast, Purpose 360, by asking my guests and listeners, “What is your purpose?” Last year, that changed.

The stakeholder capitalism movement has legitimized purpose as a successful, long-term business strategy. If companies have not yet defined their purpose--their reason for being beyond profits, grounded in humanity--they are behind. And so conversations on Purpose 360 shifted to how purpose powers organizations and how it is embedded to influence culture, operations, innovation, stakeholder relationships and communities. Now, I ask my audience at the end of each episode: What is the power of your purpose?

No conversation addressed this question quite as comprehensively as my episode with Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, and one of the founders of IMAGINE. Paul talked about the journey to develop and embed purpose at Unilever, but also shared his thoughts on why purpose is so vital to the future of not just business, but humanity. “We are at a crucial juncture,” he said, “where we have to live together in harmony and in sync with the planet Earth, or become one of the statistics of an extinguished species. I know which side of history I want to be on.”

To celebrate the individuals reshaping the role of business in society, I curated 25 of my favorite episodes from the past 18 months.. You can read these mini-case studies in an eBook, here, and find some of the most compelling insights below.

Leverage purpose to supercharge core competencies

“Being authentic to who you are is the most critical thing. There are a million directions you can go. You talk to different stakeholders, and everybody has an opinion. But to be great, you need to focus on who you are as a company, identify your core competencies, and capitalize on them to drive impact.”

Michael Stroik, 3M

Consider employees your #1 stakeholder for purpose

“They are your ambassadors in the community. They want to be involved, and they are your primary stakeholder in corporate social responsibility. Some may think it’s your customer, regulators, the media or nonprofits, but your colleagues are the ones who really help you get the work done.”

Timothy McClimon, American Express

“The old rule was that employees are a cost of doing business. Today, it is increasingly clear that employees are the accountability mechanism for a company. Employees are your allies: They’re well aligned with the long-term health of the enterprise and open up both risk and opportunity to better view.”

Judy Samuelson, Aspen Institute

“The answer is always inside your organization—it’s just a matter of giving people the opportunity to listen.”

Kelly McGinnis, Levi Strauss and Company

“Culture is much more powerful than strategy. What we’re looking for in entrepreneurs is a paradoxical mix of confidence and humility. You need insane confidence to think you can feed 200 million people or reverse climate change. But the humility is an acknowledgement that you can’t do it on your own, that there’s no single panacea solution for any of these issues, and that the greatness of what you achieve will be through the greatness of your teams and the strength of your relationships.”

Daniel Epstein, Unreasonable Group

Consider purpose a verb

“A purpose without action is just some great words that folks can feel good about. We use purpose as the lens through which we make all of our decisions. We want to have a ripple effect that elevates other individuals and communities, particularly those in need, and raises them in the process.”

Bob Jiminez, Cox Enterprises

"If you’re not aligned, if you don’t have a clearly defined purpose, it’s not only difficult for you to understand what your objectives are, but your customers, the public, your stakeholders don’t know who you are either.”

Jennifer Brunelle, NRG

Give all your stakeholders a role in purpose

“It is incredibly rare for us to put something out there and not offer a way for our community to act on it. If we’re going to put something out there, we want people to do something about it.”

Corley Kenna, Patagonia

“Try to think of a company that, besides just telling you about their social change campaigns, actually gave you a way to take action with them. That’s not the way most brands engage with young people. Yet 50% of Gen Z say they are excited to and want to take action with brands. That’s 30 million young people.”

Aria Finger, Do Something

“Sometimes you need somebody else to push back on your idea and remind you, ‘Don’t just go toward utility. It’s about your purpose.' If you make time and space for that, it’s really a gift.”

Maryam Banikarim, Nextdoor

Engage in ‘co-opetition’ and purpose-driven partnerships

“It is deeply rewarding for me to see the bridges being built. Maybe you make things and I market things. Whatever the case may be, think of different partnerships you can create today that could really amplify your efforts for doing good.”

Wendy Salomon, Harris Poll

“When you innovate to save the world, you suddenly have an innovation community that will put in their passion, money and time to help you scale it.”

Erin Meezan, Interface

“No CEO or company alone can solve the issue of plastics in the ocean, stop deforestation or move a sector to regenerative agriculture. So the first thing to do to make your business models more robust, to lower negative externalities, and seize these opportunities is to work with the people in your value chain.”

Paul Polman, IMAGINE

The time is now, and the need is urgent…

“It’s a myth that looking after more of your stakeholders and investing in your people, your communities, and the environment must come out of the pockets of shareholders. That doctrine is going the way of the dodo. Increasingly, companies are competing for talent based on their core purpose. They’re having to meet the needs of more stakeholders because it makes them better companies and it makes them more competitive.”

Martin Whittaker, JUST Capital

…but it’s important to remember that with the right team, you’re not alone.

“When the work gets hard or the days get long, remember the joy that is truly this work. Surround yourself with a great team. Be patient with people. Meet them where they are. Help them move forward. And finally, be gentle with yourself, because when there are bumps in the road, you need to be able to be resilient, recover, and get back at this very important work that has so much impact on people and communities.”

Reba Dominski, US Bank

For more insights from these guests and others, download the Purpose 360 Podcast eBook, and subscribe to the show.