The pandemic has widened existing fractures and fault lines in society, and the challenge to business is to use this global crisis to reimagine and restructure society, the economy, and the environment for a more sustainable and equitable future. But that process can only begin with purpose-led organisations.

Enabling the emergence of organisational purpose

A panel discussion held on the first day of the Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference and moderated by award-winning journalist, Dan Moyane, explored the necessity of organisational purpose, and what it takes to move from compliance: regulatory requirements imposed externally and often grudgingly implemented, to purpose: real resolve that is internally composed and willingly adopted?

Dr Marie Parramon-Gurney, chief transformative impact officer at Skultcha, framed the journey as one of discovery. She called for a reimagining of purpose, which necessitates ‘operating at a different frequency’. It may be an uncomfortable journey, she warned, but it is an absolutely necessary one. “Companies need to be brave, and they need to be comfortable with a non-linear journey to achieve their purpose. It’s about changing mental models. It requires a whole new ecosystem. And it will change your organisational structure, business model, products and services, and the way you engage with stakeholders, plus your monitoring processes.”

But, she says, it starts with the company’s leadership. They need to step back and enable the emergence of purpose. It must be a process of experimentation and discovery. It should not be imposed from above but must be grown organically from within the organisation. Leaders need to understand that it is a deeply transformative, long-term process. And purpose does not change with your staff and leadership: it is locked into the organisational culture. She added that companies need to focus on a legacy beyond just their profit and shareholder value, a legacy rooted in keeping communities top of mind.

Embedding purpose into the organisational ecosystem  

Adeola Tejumola, managing director of Kantar’s Insights Division for the Middle East and Africa, agreed that only companies that take care of their communities will be future fit. He spoke to the fact that “tomorrow’s consumers are only likely to engage with brands that are doing something for society. This is even more pronounced since the pandemic – indeed, the crisis has forced purpose to the fore.”

Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, managing director of corporate strategy and impact at US-based Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose (CECP), believes that to find their purpose, companies need to look both internally, at their systems and culture, as well as externally, at all their stakeholders: “You need a holistic view. But the barrier is that some companies do only one of these, and only look either outward or inward.” This is a recipe for failure, she says, because purpose has to be embedded everywhere in the ecosystem. It has to align with and infuse everything from your comms cycle to your business strategy.

Putting purpose into practice

Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas feels that honesty and transparency are key in the implementation process: “Rankings and ratings are important – they deliver insights to other stakeholders about what is happening in the company – but the most important thing companies can do to demonstrate long-term sustainable value is use their voice. Younger consumers are saying, even if you don’t put this in your reports, or you aren’t tweeting it, we will find out!” It’s imperative that companies are honest with consumers.

For Marie Parramon-Gurney, the proliferation of purpose is important. ‘We need a supergroup of transformative organisations. Companies that are still sitting on the fence need to know that when you commit, magic happens. We need a call to corporate South Africa to have a conversation, to share with and learn from each other, and not let fear stop us.”

Adeola Tejumola summed it up in one hopeful, inspiring statement: “Profit with purpose is completely possible. It will become the new normal. In the future, there will be no business without purpose.”

Written by Loren Anthony

Image: Dr Marie Parramon Gurney

Photo taken by Janelle Strydom