The highs and lows of communicating corporate purpose
By Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick
Once upon a time, before any of us had heard of purpose statements, a company proudly sent us its mission statement. The communications team had worked hard on its presentation, and there had been a recent focus on engaging people in the mission and values. The imagery looked appealing.
It was quite wordy, with a good dose of business jargon. So it took a bit of decoding to understand what it actually said. We persevered, and discovered that the mission of this company was …
To make money and grow.
Behind all the words, this was the only substance. We looked again, in search of something perhaps related to how the products and services this company provided might benefit their customers or society. There was nothing. The pretty pictures and carefully articulated words were an attempt to engage people in making money for shareholders. And helping the company grow, in order to make even more money for shareholders.
We actually sat and stared at the document for a while. And wondered how this company had managed to ‘engage’ people in its mission. How did people find meaning in their work? What difference did they feel their efforts were making?
The EY Beacon Institute (2016) suggests short-term profit focus is no longer enough in today’s business environment. More and more, people expect companies to address social challenges, work in environmentally sustainable ways and think long term.
Enter the concept of purpose.
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman describes having ‘meaningful purpose’ as ‘using your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you are’ (Seligman, 2002: 249). In the workplace, it prompts fundamental questions about why a company exists. Quite literally, what is its purpose in the world? Why did its founders set it up? (Hopefully not just to make money and grow!)
Given that a meaningful life is one of Seligman’s three paths to happiness, it follows that a strong corporate purpose can be a way of bringing employees together around something fulfilling. The difference between being asked to go the extra mile to keep shareholders happy … or in the service of making a bigger and more meaningful difference.
A classic example is the story often told of a janitor at NASA. As the story goes, in the 1960’s, US President John F Kennedy was touring NASA headquarters. He introduced himself to a janitor cleaning the floor, and asked about the employee’s role in the organisation. “Well, Mr President,” said the janitor, “I’m helping put a man on the moon”.
Fast forward a few decades, and the sentiment expressed by the janitor has become fashionable in modern business. Purpose statements are set out proudly alongside the mission, vision and values. We sneaked a look back at the company with the beautifully-worded mission statement we read all those years ago. It does, indeed, now have a purpose statement.
We’re curious to know if anything in that company has changed. Is the organisation now genuinely pursuing a rediscovered sense of purpose? Has the daily experience of working there changed? Or were the comms team called in to work their word-smithing magic and produce something pretty, to serve as the public face of an organisation in which the daily focus is still on short-term profits? Have the conversations, decision-making and leadership actions inside that company moved on? Or is all still focused on making money and pursuing growth?
The purpose statement shines a spotlight on the role of internal communications professional and can help us reflect, in turn, on our own personal purpose and values. Do we revel in a reputation as skilled wordsmiths? How does it feel, to be asked to ‘put a positive spin’ on something? Is our role mainly to articulate – whether in writing or through video or imagery? What about if we find ourselves twisting and turning, to find the ‘positive spin’, where there isn’t one? How would we respond, if our company asked us to help formulate a purpose statement, when everything about our daily experience of that company and our knowledge of its leaders’ intentions, said the focus was resolutely on short term profit and shareholder returns?
Our belief is that a communicator’s role should serve a bigger purpose. Just as genuine corporate purpose should be about so much more than nice words on a page or screen, surely as communicators, we must yearn to contribute something more. It brings its challenges – being prepared to challenge if leaders’ words and actions are out of line, for example. Or if we might know in our heart of hearts that a much-trumpeted initiative to involve people in formulating a purpose statement is just window dressing. Or if the purpose statement itself is just a fudge-like collection of words which could be applied to multiple organisations and means absolutely nothing. But, in the end, the outcome brings its own rewards.
EY Beacon Institute (2016) The state of the debate on purpose in business (Online) www.ey.com/
Seligman, MEP (2002) Authentic Happiness, Free Press
Stewart, H (2017) Dan Pink: How Drive would be different if I wrote it now (Online) https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dan-pink-how-drive-would-different-i-wrote-now-henry-stewart/
Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick are longstanding collaborators. Although they work independently for clients, they have come together over the years to create the original and renowned Melcrum Blackbelt training programme for communicators and to research skills and competencies. Their work has resulted in multiple articles and most recently, in the book Successful Internal Communications published by Kogan Page in 2019.