Your business needs a clear Purpose to survive

Expectations of business and CEOs are high, but they are not being met, says Jessica Yellin

The old saying, “If you’re not a communist at 20 you have no heart, but if you’re not a capitalist by the time you are 30 you have no brain” seems to be so deeply ingrained into the Western psyche that I fear we will have to wait for all the old bulls to be put out to pasture before the desperate change that the world so requires has a chance to emerge.

I met with a potential client the other day and halfway through explaining to him how the old economic order is coming to an end and why it is now critical for a business to have a sustainability-based Purpose, he interrupted with, “And I suppose you believe in fairies, too?”

I should have stood up and left right then but I took it upon myself to show him the light. As they say, none so blind as those who will not see! I wasted an hour and a half and all I can hope is that when he eventually goes bust, his employees jump ship before they drown.

Yes, there are a couple of enlightened C-suites who ‘get it’ and are making a difference and I suppose one could argue that market forces will weed out the weak, but it dumbfounds me that so many (mostly white, middle-age men) have ‘achieved’ as much as they have when they are clearly only interested in money. How did we allow this to happen?

Whatever the cause, the writing is clearly on the wall for those who are willing to see it. If we just look at the SA market, trust (which is the cornerstone of reputation) in business has dropped by a staggering 10 points among the informed public. You can be sure that in the wake of the Tiger Brands fiasco, this is now even lower.

Hand in hand with this alarming result is the stat that 77 percent of the general public expect CEOs to take the lead on change. In other words, expectations of business and CEOs are high, but they are not being met.

This is not an interesting piece of information that you can look at, mentally agree with and then just ignore, carrying on regardless. Inaction will lead to bottom-line failure. How clearly do I need to spell it out? If I don’t trust your company or your products, I won’t buy from you!

Different companies will have different drivers of reputation, but the global averages show that having a great product is just a table stake and that it is the elements of leadership, governance and citizenship that differentiate. In fact, who you are is twice as important as what you do.

While the global reputation index dropped for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis (more writing on the proverbial wall), several companies bucked the trend, including Microsoft, which has the highest ranking for its positive impact on society and for having a strong and appealing leader. Indeed, Microsoft’s purpose-driven leadership is called out as an example of how to drive reputation. Apple, conversely, dropped 38 places on the back of significant declines in governance-related issues. And, needless to say, Uber doesn’t appear anywhere in the rankings…

The Lego Group, meanwhile, has again proven that a purpose-driven business strategy is the key to reputational success. They are the leaders in transparency and social contribution and are the only company to have strong scores in both citizenship and governance.

The time for Purpose is now, but this must be approached authentically. I was horrified by the recent Accenture report on “Retail with Purpose”, which is just a blatant conflation of Purpose with Greed. Purpose is NOT about exploiting the insecurities of women by hoodwinking them into spending money they don't have on a dress that will make zero difference to their self-worth. Purpose is about teaching young girls their value from birth and giving them equal opportunities in education, employment and society.

Leaders who understand the difference and implement impactful Purpose in their businesses will be the ones that leave the planet a better place, win the hearts and wallets of consumers, have the happiest and most productive employees, and deliver the most sustainable returns for shareholders.