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How Purpose can galvanize employees

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My first boss taught me the importance of Purpose.

She was a determined woman who taught me that Purpose is multi-faceted. It’s owned by the people that work with you and for you. It’s not owned by the organisation, brand or plc.

The woman in question was Anita Roddick, famed for her stand on animal testing and latterly, the environment, sustainable business, fair trade and then domestic violence.

Long before Google trumpeted ‘Don’t be evil’ as part of its corporate motto, firms like The Body Shop and Lush were creating business models dedicated to the pursuit of social and environmental change.

That mantra attracted a great many customers and employees alike, and as an organising thought it meant the business stood out.

But the value of a business’s Purpose is truly brought into perspective and gets tested when it is attacked. It’s at points like these that we discover how far the genuine purpose of an organisation lives in the hearts and minds of employees. In the early 1990s, journalist Jon Entine and Channel 4 programme Dispatches aimed numerous allegations at The Body Shop, all of which were subsequently found to be untrue. The claims focused on the cornerstone of the business, its animal testing policy. One would have expected many of the employees that had joined the business for this very reason to be up in arms, and they were, but I also observed other fervent protest from very different areas.

The Body Shop was, and still is, headquartered in Littlehampton, West Sussex (Anita Roddick’s home town). In the early 1990s, it was the biggest local business by far. She believed in the pride and empowerment of local communities. When The Body Shop wanted to open its own soap factory, it settled on Easterhouse in Glasgow. Like Littlehampton, it suffered from underinvestment and a lack of what we would today call social mobility. Where other businesses would refuse to open, The Body Shop saw that it could make a huge difference to the local economy.

All this meant much to the values of The Body Shop, but even more to its survival when under media attack. Unless those campaigns were integral to an individual’s own values, it would be hard for some workers to get too excited by the furore.

But fight they did. What those workers had seen – unseen by the public and media – was a genuine commitment to local communities and to job creation. For those on the production line, the purpose of the business went far deeper than that of a campaigning organisation. It was a business where the founders and leaders were well known and made themselves accessible; for whom the pursuit of social change meant connecting with people in a very real sense.

Don’t pick a fight with an employee body that can see its company living its values every day. Picking a fight risks an onslaught of counter-campaigning from employees. In this case, unstoppable and successful.

For employees, Purpose goes way beyond the grand and important claims, e.g. saving the planet; creating the best technology, etc. It affects every deed and action – the micro-elements of culture as well as the macro-actions delivered for customers. Purpose is everything. Purpose is lived every day.

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