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Attacks on corporate purpose show its growing strength, not its weakness argues Lewis Iwu, founding partner of Purpose Union

In today's complex world, tackling issues like health inequality and climate change demands a direct confrontation of challenges. However, over the past year, a new obstacle has emerged: a vocal minority that has decided to undermine businesses' efforts to create positive change.

Businesses aligned with values are more likely to generate financial value. This perspective drives business goals, leading businesses to integrate purpose into significant decisions and focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. It supports their employees in understanding the social impact of their work.

The ascent of purpose-driven businesses was bound to spark reactions. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted self-reflection about one's purpose, which extended to companies. This introspection led to paradigm shifts and terminology changes, triggering opposition.

Resistance has spanned from weaponising the term ‘woke’ to dismantling inclusive initiatives and even removing purpose-oriented CEOs. It has materialised as executive actions curbing the rights of marginalised groups—downplaying structural racism in the UK's 2021 Race Report, erasing minority contributions from education, opposing affirmative action, and infringing on LGBTQ+ freedoms, as seen in parts of the US.

Addressing this challenge requires action, but how?

Introducing The Purpose Grid

This framework dissects why many companies struggle to balance competing agendas when engaging with societal issues.

  • Islands are entities with minimal purpose integration, showing little innovation in addressing social and environmental concerns. They lack advocacy and involvement in broader debates.
  • Walls demonstrate internal purpose integration. Leadership supports a purpose-driven mindset, but external engagement is sporadic and tactical.
  • Flags align public image with internal practices, yet decisions lack purpose-driven rationale.
  • Catalysts fully commit to purpose, internally and externally. They fuse purpose with business functions, innovate against challenges, and shape societal debates.

Amid higher standards, Catalysts can fortify their position by stepping into moral and practical leadership. To combat scepticism about purpose-washing and inconsistency, they seek consistency, sometimes declining transactions incongruent with their values.

This grid also showcases where sceptics want companies to remain—Islands. However, aspiring to be Catalysts can benefit all companies and offer more business opportunities. While challenging, being a Catalyst is rewarding. So how can catalysts solidify their standing?

Purpose Resilience

Catalysts must champion their purpose, align actions with their mission, and openly debate societal issues. Establishing criteria for purpose-driven solutions enhances resilience. Leaders should develop public speaking skills to drive change. Effective communication entails compelling narratives that resonate even with sceptics, emphasising real-world outcomes.

While an ideal world doesn't exist, one where businesses have clear social missions is preferable to their detachment from pressing issues. Defending purpose-driven businesses necessitates showcasing their positive impact. In a world grappling with complexity, embracing purpose is a crucial stride forward.

Article written by Lewis Iwu, Founding Partner, Purpose Union

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