Have the last six months left you feeling hopeful and clear about what tomorrow will bring?
I didn’t think so.
We’re living through extraordinarily difficult and uncertain times, and there are no easy solutions to the issues we face. But as business leaders—and as human beings—it’s our job to figure out a path forward and to do so in a way that creates positive change in the world.
The coronavirus pandemic triggered an economic disaster that continues to unfold. In a recent survey by WE and Quartz Insights, a whopping 80% of business leaders called economic downturns the biggest threat to purpose leadership. Although it may be tempting to prioritize quick economic fixes over values, every indicator shows that brands whose purpose persists through these hard times will thrive where others won’t.
It takes courage to put purpose at the center of your recovery plans. So, how do you build one that’s resilient? It comes down to making it central to every decision, guiding leadership as we evolve our businesses to meet our values.
Prove the power of now
Leaders, we’re at a turning point. We can bring about powerful change by showing up for our people—employees, customers, and communities—and showing the value of purpose-driven leadership.
We can spark new ways of helping. We can build industry connections and collaborate for the common good. We can start genuine conversations with our customers, breaking out of marketing bubbles to connect through our shared humanity. And we can go far beyond standard definitions of employee engagement, deepening our internal relationships and working together in even more meaningful ways.
Build resilient change
It’s time to ensure your mission makes sense in today’s context. Is it relevant? Have your priorities shifted in response to the pandemic, recession, and urgent calls for political action? What are your moral imperatives? How have your employees’ and customers’ needs changed? What do you stand for, and what do you stand against?
Like any element of business strategy, your purpose must be strong enough to weather storms and flexible enough to grow. As we’ve seen from past downturns, resiliency is the key to long-term survival.
Meet crises head-on
As a CEO, I know from experience that leading with purpose is a lot more complex than putting a mission statement on your website. A resilient purpose will let you know when you’re on the right track and pull you back when you’re not.
Outside the sphere of my own clients, here are three examples of organizations that have done an extraordinary job responding to the moment.
- Be brave. Just as countries tiptoed their way back to reopening, we experienced yet another turning point: the horrific death of George Floyd and the anguish that followed across American cities and around the world. Ben & Jerry’s is a longtime champion of purpose leadership, and its response to structural racism is no exception. In 2016, Ben & Jerry’s declared its support for the Black Lives Matter movement when few other organizations would, using its platform to raise awareness and calling on its customers to take action. As other companies hurried to react against racism and injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Ben & Jerry’s was already in action mode: They issued a powerful statement calling for the ‘dismantling of white supremacy’ and shared a four-point plan with specific policies to address racial inequality and hold police accountable.
- Dedicate resources. Even when budgets shrink, resources must align with your mission, and that can mean looking at costs and revenues in new ways. The Mount Sinai Health System began losing millions of dollars per month as it admitted staggering numbers of Covid-19 patients. In April, the hospital’s executive team pledged to redirect 50% of their salaries to front-line needs “for as long as necessary.” Will this make up the system’s shortfall? No. But it’s a positive step and sign of solidarity. Meanwhile, Mount Sinai’s social media team launched an effective fundraising drive, tapping that “I want to do something, but what?” sense most of us have felt. Donors saw a link between their gift and a result—for example, $5 supplied one protective mask—and giving was as easy as snapping a barcode with a smartphone.
- Get creative. Baldor Foods, one of the largest distributors of produce and specialty items, used to deliver its goods to restaurants and other institutions. When lockdowns began, Baldor’s customer base disappeared, leaving warehouses full of food and empty trucks with nowhere to go. Meanwhile, panic buying emptied store shelves, fueling fears of food shortages. Shoppers clamored for grocery delivery to avoid virus exposure in stores, and many services struggled to meet demand. So, despite having no consumer experience, Baldor quickly revamped its supply chain, warehousing, and transportation systems to offer direct-to-consumer grocery sales. Shifting a decades-old business model couldn’t have been easy. But it’s proof that creativity can keep you afloat while pitching in to solve problems.
Plan for what’s next
Purpose is a living, breathing investment in long-term success. Its strength lies not in its rigidity, but in its resilience. Your purpose must be consistent enough to ground you, flexible enough to evolve with the times, and clear enough to navigate the inevitable unknowns.
Believe it or not, there is a world on the other side of this crisis. We don’t know what it will look like or how our businesses, communities, and needs will change. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that minding your purpose as well as the bottom line will help create a better, more sustainable, and more equitable future.