18 minute read 10 Nov 2020
Regatta sailboat and catamaran in Mozambique channel

Four ways to put your purpose to work

By Monica Dimitracopoulos

EY Global Long-Term Value Leader

Transformation leader focused on delivering long-term value for clients, people and communities. Deliberate optimist. Loving wife and mother of three boys.

Contributors
18 minute read 10 Nov 2020

How to move your corporate purpose from ambition to action

In brief
  • Leading organizations bring their purpose to life by driving alignment across leadership and creating opportunities for employees to engage.
  • They also make purpose central to how they engage customers and draw on their purpose to anchor their strategy and inform critical business decisions.

Responding to, and recovering from, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented set of challenges for governments, businesses and communities around the world. At the same time, this crisis intensifies existing societal pressures, from access to healthcare to income inequality and racial inequity. These global challenges don’t stop while we work to address the consequences of the pandemic, and people expect businesses to be part of the solution.

Last September, the EY CEO Imperative study found that “67% of CEOs feel moderate to extreme stakeholder pressure to address global challenges,” a number that rises by 10 percentage points for leaders of the largest organizations. The same survey found that four in five CEOs “say that government, business and the public will reward companies for taking meaningful action on global challenges.”

EY CEO Imperative study

67%

of CEOs feel moderate to extreme stakeholder pressure to address global challenges.

In fact, the pandemic has intensified this pressure. According to a June report from Edelman, 80% of people expect brands to “solve society’s problems.” Meanwhile, in the United States, JUST Capital found that 89% of Americans agreed that the COVID-19 crisis “is an opportunity for large companies to hit ‘reset’ and focus on doing right by their workers, customers, communities and the environment.” A focus on revenue alone will not meet these expectations or guide companies through this fluid and uncertain moment in history. Nor will it help solve the challenges of today, whether a global pandemic, climate change, or jobs creation.

So, what’s the problem? While many companies have defined their purpose, few have taken concrete steps to meaningfully embed and activate it throughout their organizations. To lead and succeed through this current period of uncertainty requires businesses to show through both words and actions that traditional ways of operating are no longer sufficient.

Purpose is not an add-on. It’s not something you do on the side. Purpose has to be a core part of your business model and your long-term strategy.
Carmine Di Sibio
EY Global Chairman and CEO

Today, organizations are expected to serve a broad set of stakeholders, from employees and customers to communities, the planet, and society. That demands an aspirational purpose addressing more than short-term profits and shareholder returns. “This is a pivotal moment for business,” Di Sibio says. “It’s clearer than ever before that success is about more than our bottom line today. It’s also about helping those around us thrive in the long term. CEOs don’t have to choose between doing what’s good for business and good for their stakeholders. They can – and must – do both.”

The EY purpose journey accelerated in earnest in 2013 when we articulated our purpose of Building a better working world. We wanted EY people – and clients – to know not just what we do, but why we do it. We initiated the dialogue around our purpose both internally and in the market but we soon learned that EY people wanted to see our purpose come to life in more visible and meaningful ways.

As we’ve reflected on our work with clients and listened to the voices of EY employees, we’ve identified four key pillars of activating organizational purpose:

  1. Align leadership around your purpose
  2. Engage employees in your purpose journey
  3. Embed purpose in your customer experience
  4. Anchor your strategy to your purpose 
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Chapter 1

Align leadership around your purpose

Purpose starts at the top.

Purpose starts at the top. A company will not have a mandate to bring its purpose to life without the commitment, involvement and engagement of the board and senior leadership team. And even with that mandate in place, it’s nearly impossible to truly embed purpose without senior leadership’s shared understanding and commitment to what it is and what it means. Being purpose-driven requires difficult trade-offs that only leadership is in a position to make, particularly with respect to prioritizing long-term investments over short-term returns. These are strategic decisions, not marketing or corporate responsibility decisions.

I’ve worked with countless organizations, large and small, that are seeking to articulate a compelling and authentic purpose. The companies that are successful have one thing in common: Their leaders are actively involved in the entire process. They make this a priority. They’re willing to set aside as much of their most valuable resource — their time — as it takes to get it right.
Jennie McLaughlin
EY Oceania Purpose Leader

In 2018 and 2019, we worked closely with a global consumer products company to support its CEO transition. The outgoing CEO had made long-term value a core part of the company’s purpose, which led to consistent growth, strong shareholder returns and increased trust across customers and employees. Despite this positive direction, it was unclear whether the company’s commitment to purpose would be sustained through the leadership transition.

It took collaborative workshops and coaching over the course of nine months to reaffirm a collective commitment to the company’s purpose among the new leadership team. And that process required tackling an uncomfortable challenge: surfacing, accepting, and reconciling a “say-do” gap in the company’s portfolio. More specifically, there were a number of brands within the business that did not match the company’s public commitment to sustainability, a core part of its purpose.

Living your purpose sometimes means making and owning hard decisions. “A renewed commitment to purpose from leadership and the new CEO does not, by itself, guarantee that the company will remain successful in living its purpose,” says Anna Kahn, EY Global Talent Development Leader & People Advisory Services Global Executive Member. “But success would be almost impossible without such leadership buy-in.”

Whether a massively complex global company or a small local firm, an organization succeeds in inspiring an authentic commitment to purpose only if its leaders actually believe in it. That requires leaders to go on their own personal journey and take the time to explore deeply what they — and, by extension, the company as a whole — believe and stand for in the world.

That’s what we found at EY. While we were the first of the Big Four to articulate our purpose, Building a better working world, we quickly discovered that articulating it alone wasn’t nearly enough. We had to meaningfully engage EY people and clients around this ambition, a process that began with our leaders.

Last year, we surveyed EY member firm partners around the world. They told us that they are passionate about our purpose, but that they want to see it more deeply embedded across the firm.“We have a fantastic and still-relevant purpose,” said Demet Ozdemir, a Strategy and Transactions partner in Turkey. But, she noted, “‘walking the walk’ is so critical: what specific actions are we taking to achieve it?” Stuart Chalcraft, a tax partner in the UK, put it similarly: “We need to embed our purpose in everything we do.”

Last August, Carmine Di Sibio was one of 180 U.S.-based CEOs to sign a Business Roundtable statement declaring that the “purpose of a corporation” is to serve all of its stakeholders, not just its shareholders. Reflecting EY’s intention to turn these words into actions, two months later we revealed that our strategy would be anchored in our purpose and built on a foundation of creating long-term value for clients, people and society. As part of that effort, we are actively working to draw concrete connections between our purpose and our actions.

Even today, more than seven years since we put our commitment to Building a better working world into words, we’re continuously revisiting and adapting the approach we take to activate our purpose. Only when purpose remains a priority for all of our leadership we can ensure it is meaningfully experienced by our people, clients and those we work with. 

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Chapter 2

Engage employees in your purpose journey

Commitment to purpose must be demonstrated at every level of the organization.

Leadership engagement is critical but not sufficient. Commitment to purpose must be demonstrated at every level of the organization. That requires support and resources to enable people to fulfill two important steps: helping individual employees identify what is most meaningful to them and empowering them to use this as a filter for decision-making by showing how their personal purpose connects with the organization’s purpose.

A few years ago, one global financial services client found itself at an inflection point, recognizing that shifting global trends in digital, generational and geopolitical arenas required it to think, act and operate differently. The company’s new CEO wanted its purpose to serve as the foundation and compass for reshaping the organization. Purpose would be linked to everything else it did.

Developing an authentic purpose statement and vision for the organization required holding structured interviews, focus groups, and executive group sessions to capture the voices of all stakeholders, including the board of directors. The company then developed a roadmap for activating this purpose-led culture across the organization, tackling not only “big” questions such as strategic and operational goals, but also “small” questions such as whether and how its purpose resonated with individual employees. By involving employees in the process, the company saw engagement improve in its annual people survey, with double-digit increases in certain markets and improvements in almost all questions about whether employees recognized and believed in the company’s purpose.

This company’s experience reflects the opportunity for individuals – and the organization as a whole – when employees have the option to discover, engage, and utilize their purpose and connect it with their work. As human beings, sometimes we process the concept of individual purpose in different ways. Some people think of personal purpose in terms of what motivates them and what provides them with meaning, as individuals. Others think of it in terms of the goals they want to achieve. No matter how you define it, having clarity around your personal purpose helps you better understand what matters most to you. That leads to better performance by empowering you to connect your priorities with those of your organization.

Moreover, being clear about your purpose provides the basis for gaining greater satisfaction at work, increasing your impact and bringing out the best in others. Yet many of us are far more comfortable talking about purpose in the context of our work, and much less comfortable articulating what really matters to us as individuals. This lack of comfort and clarity around the topic leaves us struggling to connect our personal purpose with our employer’s purpose.

Why does this matter? High-performing organizations create environments in which employees can readily connect their individual purpose with their company’s purpose. Research by Harvard Business Review suggests that when people have a sense of meaning behind the work they do, their performance improves. They report better health and wellbeing, are better team members and bounce back faster from setbacks. Not surprisingly, working in an organization with a strong purpose has a positive effect on people engagement, resulting in significantly higher employee energy levels and reduced attrition.

At EY, we seek to bring Building a better working world to life by supporting EY people on their personal purpose journey from the moment they join the company. That journey continues even for those who leave the organization to become part of more than one million alumni around the world. Part of this effort includes rolling out a series of purpose learning experiences, which vary from a foundational eLearning module to quarterly discussions within our well-established counseling families and a dedicated program that focuses on helping EY people discover their personal purpose and create the direct linkage to the company’s purpose.

These experiences are embedded throughout the employee career journey – from recruitment to the highest-level – allowing everyone to articulate, understand and feel inspired by how their work contributes to our purpose. In our experience, nothing brings purpose to life as effectively as authentic stories. That’s why we make storytelling a foundational part of all purpose activation efforts, demonstrating how EY people lead with their personal purpose in daily tasks, whether by doing extraordinary work with extraordinary clients in service of society, or simply enabling them to make more informed, better business decisions that care for the benefit of their stakeholders. 

  • Bring it to life with a story

    All of our work for clients is driven by our purpose of Building a better working world, but at EY we know firsthand how stories of personal commitment can resonate and encourage people to own their company’s purpose.

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Chapter 3

Embed purpose into your customer experience

An organization’s purpose should be front and center for its customers.

Leading purpose-driven organizations communicate their purpose clearly, candidly and consistently to their customers and make it a central part of the overall customer experience.

We recently worked with a technology start-up that has developed a global reputation for making high-quality graphic design easy and accessible. It might not be immediately evident how a creative platform simultaneously uses its purpose to engage customers and deliver against broader societal expectations. Yet this organization delivers directly on the promise made within its purpose statement by developing a tool that allows a broad range of people to do their jobs more effectively. 

The company’s early success can be credited to finding a gap in the market for online design and continuously listening to customer feedback as it developed its products and services. Its rapid growth, however, was achieved by consistently embedding the company’s organizational purpose in how it effectively engaged its customer base, its focus on the employee experience and its ability to create an ecosystem with an online learning curriculum, broadly available product suites and partnerships with like-minded organizations.

This organization’s focus on purpose also heavily influenced our actions while working together. By being clear and upfront about its guiding principles and expectations, it became imperative that we shifted our approach to match their intent. In our work with this company, we sought to align our own purpose with the company’s purpose to help support its growth into a multi-billion-dollar business. “I cannot put a value to the power that has come from our shared purpose,” says one of the EY team leaders. That human-to-human connection between our organizations provided the foundation for the company to create trust and build deeper and more meaningful relationships with its customers, even as it expanded rapidly.

Examples abound of organizations that have brought their purpose to their customers, sometimes even sacrificing profits in the process. Consider, for example, a clothing company that offers to repair its products for free so that customers don’t need to purchase replacements as frequently. Or a consumer goods conglomerate that champions its values in its brands, empowering consumers to take a stand with their everyday purchases. Or an oil and gas company that is making steady profits when it decides to shift its entire business model to wind power. Or a global healthcare and pharmaceuticals company that makes its purpose statement visible in everything from its strategy communications and R&D efforts.

Regardless of their differences, these companies share one important thing in common: They all put their purpose front and center in how they interact with customers. As circumstances change and customers’ needs change, purpose-driven organizations respond accordingly. They leverage their purpose to meet the challenges before them and innovate to effectively deliver against their customer needs. 

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Chapter 4

Anchor your strategy to your purpose

For companies seeking to serve their many stakeholders, purpose is not a type of corporate social responsibility — it’s a strategy.

A global pharmaceutical client started the year 2019 believing that its ways of operating were no longer sufficient to meet its stakeholders’ expectations, particularly with respect to environmental and sustainability commitments. From attracting and retaining employees, meeting the demands of clients and maintaining an authentic, purpose-driven brand, to better serving the communities in which it operates, this company had many reasons to evolve its sustainability position.

With EY’s support, the company developed a framework to make sustainability an integral part of its business strategy. The unifying framework and new metrics enabled the company to assess its sustainability initiatives, rework them as needed, track their progress, and include its sustainability strategy in its annual shareholder reporting. The company also strengthened its decision-making for new investments by ensuring sustainability criteria are incorporated into the process. Actions like these, which embed sustainability into core business functions, are what will drive sustainability into the company’s DNA.

Just a few months ago, the company’s board approved the new sustainable development strategy and gave its executive team a mandate to roll it out. While this existing momentum must now cascade from the top levels of the company across dozens of different country offices, in many ways the organization has completed the most difficult part: shifting its understanding of sustainability beyond monetary donations (corporate philanthropy), volunteerism (CSR), or environmental compliance into initiatives that are fully integrated and delivered through the core business.

These efforts can be enhanced and strengthened when like-minded organizations look beyond their own boundaries to advance purpose-driven business more broadly, particularly with regard to tracking and reporting on the non-financial metrics that reflect whether an organization is actually doing what it says. That’s the thinking behind EY’s focus on helping companies define and deliver against their long-term value creation strategies.

For example, an ongoing collaboration between the Big Four, Bank of America, and the World Economic Forum International Business Council (WEF-IBC) is working to develop a common set of metrics that align how organizations report non-financial aspects of their business performance, including setting a purpose that creates value for all stakeholders, employee health and safety, pay equality, limiting greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other ESG performance indicators.

In September, following a detailed consultation process with the 120 WEF-IBC members and several other companies, investors, and outside organizations, the initiative was officially launched at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit. This partnership has the potential to dramatically improve how companies measure their performance and ensure they serve all of their stakeholders, from their employees and customers, to their supply chain, the communities they operate in, the planet, and society as a whole.

The story of one of our global consumer goods clients underscores the potential of these efforts. This company faced a dilemma common to organizations that have good intentions but are unsure how to turn them into action. It already had a strong purpose statement, but its leadership wanted to go beyond just a well-meaning statement to truly understand the financial and non-financial impacts of its products and services on its stakeholders. By developing a framework that measured a wide range of impacts, we helped this organization to not only better understand these impacts but also use the data to inform business decisions.

Having a common set of trusted, high-quality, and widely used metrics against which organizations can report means companies can spend less time trying to figure out how to measure their service to their different stakeholders and more time actually serving them. In turn, by communicating their progress against non-financial metrics openly and transparently — even where they may have fallen short of their goals — organizations can measure and communicate their progress against their purpose. That builds trust, engages customers, sparks new partnerships and demonstrates the authenticity of their commitments.

Today, people expect companies to deliver more than just financial value. Authentically purpose-driven organizations serve all of their stakeholders by delivering consumer, societal, and human value. Our long-term value approach enables them to develop the metrics that demonstrate how their strategy provides value to investors and other key stakeholders.
Barend van Bergen
EY Global Long-Term Value Methodology Leader

At EY, we track progress delivering against our purpose of Building a better working world across four long-term value pillars. In fact, in 2019, for the first time, we anchored our annual global review around how we create long-term value for EY clients, people and broader society. This year’s global review continues that focus, outlining our progress against these long-term value commitments across our stakeholders.

These aren’t just abstract commitments. By putting them at the heart of our strategy, we’re endeavoring to move toward a place where they will be used to inform our most substantive short- and long-term business decisions.

Conclusion

Many companies are focused on defining or redefining their purpose. The fact that organizations of all sizes and geographies recognize the need to serve all of their stakeholders is itself a sign of progress. But articulating your purpose is just the start. What really matters — what creates meaningful change — is having a clear and integrated approach to embedding purpose across an organization internally and externally.

Every phase of the purpose journey, from leadership alignment and people activation, to customer engagement and strategy, is critical and ongoing. An organization cannot define its purpose and consider its work complete. Purpose has to be activated every day, through every employee, every customer interaction, every leadership statement, every short- and long-term decision and every aspect of strategy. As conditions around us change, we use our purpose to consistently guide us and invest it with new meaning.

Organizations are simply aggregations of individuals, and our ability to put our purpose into action is only as strong as our ability to inspire and engage everyone at EY. While we don’t yet have all the answers, we are making a genuine effort to reorient how we do business and move forward with a commitment to delivering long-term value grounded in our purpose.

Summary

Leading purpose-driven organizations bring their purpose to life by aligning their leadership, creating opportunities for employees to engage in their purpose journey, and making purpose central to how they engage customers. Underpinning all of these steps is a commitment to anchoring their strategy to their purpose and using that purpose to inform real business decisions.

About this article

By Monica Dimitracopoulos

EY Global Long-Term Value Leader

Transformation leader focused on delivering long-term value for clients, people and communities. Deliberate optimist. Loving wife and mother of three boys.

Contributors