Serisha Beosumbar: Purpose-driven leadership is about action

The TechnoDyn Group CFO unpacks why purpose-driven leadership has been attracting new interest.

Although purpose-driven leadership is not a new concept, it has been attracting renewed interest in the wake of the pandemic, as businesses turn to prioritising their purpose and people over profit. These events highlighted just how important people are to the success of any organisation. Sadly, this fundamental principle is something many decision-makers have neglected in recent times.

In today’s hybrid work environment, people with purpose are more productive, lead healthier lives, and are less anxious than if they feel like cogs in a large corporate machine. Having a purpose becomes even more critical when strategies seem to change continually and more advanced technologies are available that can lead to people potentially feeling isolated from one another.

But while aligning employees to the core purpose of the company might sound like something logical and easy to do on paper, the practicalities of doing so are more challenging. One of the key elements to achieving this is that leaders must ensure that employees understand the why of the organisation. It’s not about profitability and being competitive. The purpose is to look at a business's broader social impact.

Purpose in action
Dove is an excellent example of a brand embracing purpose-driven marketing in everything it does. While the company started as any other soap brand, it repositioned itself in the early 2000s to not even talk about its product. For Dove, being purpose-driven is about advocating for women and redefining how people view beauty.

Closer to home, Isuzu Motors South Africa highlighted the power of being purpose-driven in 2020. Working with Farmers Assist South Africa, the automotive company provided much-needed aid to farmers and communities affected by drought. This included transporting fodder, farming essentials and food.

Hollard Insurance’s “Big Ads for Small Businesses” campaign is another example of how being purpose-driven can change people’s perception of a brand. The campaign sees the insurer using its advertising assets to promote selected small businesses across the country.

Leadership guidance
What makes being purpose-driven so challenging is that leaders struggle with their sense of purpose, never mind trying to distil the organisational purpose into something every employee understands. Purpose is a nebulous term that proves difficult to define when it comes to individual and business success. “Helping people do better” and “unlocking their potential” are just some of the ways leaders try to describe their purpose. But this is hardly definitive and difficult to translate into practical interventions.

Even before the pandemic, there was a shift toward being more purpose aware. A study in the US found that 78 percent of Americans believe companies must do more than make money. Furthermore, 66 percent would switch from a product they typically buy to a product from a purpose-driven company. Perhaps most importantly, 77 percent said they feel a strong emotional connection to purpose-driven companies.

Admittedly, the financial incentive on driving profitability might seem contradictory to the ethos of being purpose-driven. Still, there is no getting around the fact that companies must make money to survive – the difference centres on how these motives are packaged. Purpose-driven certainly puts a lovely wrapping and bow over corporate responsibilities, making it more human. Such is the potential that becoming purpose-driven has for a company, that the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) introduced a short course this year to teach business leaders how to use purpose-driven strategies to outperform competitors and capture market share.

Rethinking business skills
Just because it’s difficult to work out how to be purpose-driven does not mean it’s impossible. Leaders can apply several skills to enable them to capture this sense of purpose and communicate it to employees more accurately.

It begins by focusing on the long-term objectives of the company. Yes, bottom line and revenue are important, but so is a business’s impact on society and what it can do to improve this. To help accomplish this, leaders must remember they do not operate in an ivory tower removed from what is happening on the ground. They must stay in touch with employees and customers alike to understand their challenges and identify how to help overcome those issues.

A company can make money legally, but is its approach ethical? Being ethical becomes a guiding light, and putting ethics first in all aspects of the decision-making process is a critical building block for becoming more purpose-driven.

The most successful purpose-driven organisations are the ones that continually talk about their purpose and the role they fulfil in society. Turning words into action every day of the year cements the organisation’s vision, guides leadership, and gives employees that much-needed sense of purpose that they belong to a greater good. It’s not a once-off tactic forgotten in the next financial quarter.