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Purpose is the new bottom line

By Melissa Waggener Zorkin

Global CEO and founder of WE

The US endured a spate of mass shootings this year. In August, a 21-year-old man opened fire in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 innocent people. This was the second shooting at a Walmart store over the span of two weeks.

Following these events, the retailer chain made a bold announcement: It would discontinue the sale of handgun ammunition in its stores nationwide and ban its open-carry policy.

From one perspective, this was a costly decision. Before the announcement, nearly 20% of ammunition sold in the U.S. came from Walmart. Now company officials expect that market share to shrink to somewhere around 6%.

Companies need to work for more than just shareholder interests. They need to live their values and stand shoulder to shoulder with their employees and communities.

But those numbers only tell a small part of the story. Walmart made its decision amid a mounting outcry from consumers, employees, and communities—people from all walks of life who pushed the company to look beyond the bottom line and take an active role in addressing the issue.

From my perspective, that is the bottom line. Companies need to work for more than just shareholder interests. They need to live their values and stand shoulder to shoulder with their employees and communities. They must act on a clear, bold purpose. If they don’t, they won’t survive—and I’m not sure they should.

WE has always been a purpose- and people-driven communications agency. We believe that if a company puts purpose and people first, success will follow. In August, Business Roundtable issued a new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” that reflects an expansive commitment to customers, employees, communities, and shareholders. Businesses across the world are recognizing this dedication, and we are seeing many different stages of transformation and commitment from our clients as well.

Purpose comes from people 

A recent study conducted by WE and Quartz Insights, called “Leading with Purpose in an Age Defined by It,” found that nearly three-quarters of surveyed business leaders agree that purpose is as important as financial performance. That means the values of customers and employees are driving business decisions—full stop.

When you put it that way, it’s easy to see that purpose isn’t a bolt-on that leadership can farm out to a department or project team. Genuine purpose comes from a company’s heart and soul: its people. And it belongs to everyone, from the C-suite to interns.

For company leaders, this means engaging with employees on every level about the things that matter most to them, and using those values as the North Star that guides every decision you make—no matter the size.

Putting purpose into action

80% of leaders agree they have a moral obligation to engage on a social issue when it impacts their employees.

Our study also shows that 80% of business leaders agree that they have a moral obligation to engage on a social issue when it impacts their employees. For instance, Walmart heard from its employees that they felt unsafe at work, so the company asked customers to stop carrying visible weapons in its stores—even in states where open-carry is legal. It wasn’t an easy choice for Walmart, but it was the right one. As CEO Doug McMillon put it in a statement to the company’s associates: “The status quo is unacceptable.”

On the ground, this means acting with boldness, bravery, and conviction. Whether you’re a small business owner or the executive of a Fortune 500 company, here are four steps you can take to help your organization chart its purpose and pivot into action.

  1. Define yourself: Look to the strengths of your current mission statement as a starting point. Be courageous, and be specific. The most resonant purpose strategies are broad enough to inspire, but concrete enough to be impactful. For example, since the company was founded in 1947, Dr. Bronner’s Soaps has been committed to progressive business practices. It gives 10% of its revenue to charities, shares its profits with workers, and tells the story of its values right on its products’ iconic, 3,000-word labels. And as global wealth inequality continues to grow, leaders at Dr. Bronner’s have pledged never to make more than five times what the company’s lowest-paid employees earn.
  2. Engage and listen to your stakeholders: Communication starts with employees who want to feel part of something bigger. But employees are just the beginning. Discussions about a company’s purpose and values should also incorporate its customers, shareholders, like-minded advocacy groups, and community members. Inditex, the Spanish parent company of fashion brands like Zara and Massimo Dutti, listened to consumer and stakeholder perspectives on the wastefulness of fast fashion. In response, the company announced that beginning with Zara in 2025, all its collections will soon be made from sustainable fabrics. In other words, stakeholders identified a concern, and the company changed the way it does business—and inspired other companies to do the same.
  3. Align your story and your actions: Make your communication meaningful. A full 81% of those surveyed say a fragmented message is as ineffective as no message at all. Choose a simple, focused, and repeatable point, and make sure you live it out. At WE, we use communications to move people to positive action around the world. We do the same with one another, by supporting employees’ personal philanthropic goals as well as their professional development. Every staff member gets extra paid time off for volunteering, and through the Global Pro Bono program, employees get the opportunity to spend four weeks supporting nonprofits and social enterprises around the world.
  4. Activate and build a movement: Connecting with the outside world is where the rubber meets the road. In fact, the strongest purpose moments don’t emerge in isolation. Instead, they’re part of expansive social movements dedicated to changing the way the world works for everyone. For example, Mastercard is now making it possible for customers to use their chosen names—that is, names that reflect their true identity—on credit cards. It’s a practical shift that matters particularly to people in the LGBTQIA+ community. It also reflects a much larger commitment to inclusion and acceptance, in both the company and the broader community outside it.

Our research with Quartz Insights shows that now, more than ever, the public expects brands to take a stand, and back up its values with meaningful action. It also shows that purpose can be a brand’s lifesaver, bolstering customer loyalty through good times and bad. Finally, and most important: Our research shows that brand purpose is a group commitment. It doesn’t swoop down from leadership or shareholders. It rises organically, and it lifts us all—together.

Read the full 2019 research report to learn more about WE’s insights for helping companies and employees lead with purpose. 

Melissa Waggener Zorkin is the Global CEO and founder of WE, a purpose-driven communications firm. Melissa has over 40 years of experience helping brands use purpose to navigate transformation and has counseled some of the world’s most influential technology and business leaders. 

This article was produced on behalf of WE by Quartz Creative and not the Quartz editorial staff. Sources are provided for informational and reference purposes only. They are not an endorsement of WE or WE’s products.

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