The Risk Worth Taking

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains why companies should embrace purpose right now.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

While the call for purpose is growing, it isn’t new. Before the setbacks and revelations of 2020, consumers were already moving dollars towards companies that expressed and shared their values.

Recent research has revealed that more than half of respondents expect their organization to showcase a sense of purpose and give back to society, both during the current crisis and beyond.

Think of Nike in 2019, taking a bold stand in supporting Colin Kaepernick, the ex-NFL quarterback best known for his quiet protest against police brutality towards African Americans by kneeling during the National Anthem. In his “Dream Crazy” campaign, Kaepernick posted an image of himself with a quote and the #JustDoIt hashtag. Though Nike experienced blowback, the campaign led to a 1,400% surge in social media activity and $6 billion in sales.

For many companies, risk is a part of the purpose equation.

“There’s basically no one arguing for shareholder primacy anymore,” Julius Krein, founder of the public-policy journal American Affairs, told Fast Company last month. Even so, he added, “[Corporate leaders] don’t want to leave the current model because they don’t know what comes next, and they’re afraid.”

But if we look at what consumers want—and what purpose driven organizations are achieving—I wonder, what is there to be afraid of?

In the early weeks of the pandemic, I published Purpose for the Long Term, which referenced Framebridge, a company that makes picture framing fast and affordable. In the early weeks of the crisis, this small DC-based startup struggled like many others -- scaling back manufacturing and closing its brick-and-mortar stores. Then, an employee had an idea: use the company’s industrial-strength cutting of acrylic to make face shields for essential workers.

In a special edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey of 12,000 consumers, nearly two-thirds agreed that brands should play a “critical role” in helping their country through the current Covid crisis. This is exactly what Framebridge did.

Last week, in a message to the company’s stakeholders, Framebridge’s CEO, Susan Tynan, shared her gratitude to the customers and team members who helped them get through the year.  “We are back and faster than ever,” she said. “We converted our manufacturing facility to making face shields when they were needed most. And this fall, we opened three stores in Atlanta and Brooklyn.” She concluded with the company’s growing concern over social issues, announcing that they were participating in Giving Tuesday for the first time this year, supporting an organization that helps children who have had challenging experiences learn photography as a way to process and reflect on their stories.

In order to leverage the power of purpose, companies would do well to respond to the present moment. One in three respondents to the Edelman Trust Barometer reported that they have stopped using a brand that was not acting appropriately in response to Covid-19.

What does “appropriate” look like? In the pandemic, a corporate commitment to social values has taken more than a few forms: mandatory masks; encouraging employees who can to stay home; supporting employees facing financial hardship; serving at-risk populations; creating assistance programs for suppliers; managing donations to the community; cutting down on packaging; and pivoting direction in order to keep people employed. These are just some of the ways organizations have expressed their sense of purpose. 

Of course, the earlier and more consistent a company’s response, the better. It was late March—early in the pandemic—when Unilever, the world’s biggest soap company, decided to offer €500 million ($590 million at the time) of cash flow relief to support their small- and medium-sized suppliers. Retailer Patagonia has been providing healthcare to retail employees and onsite childcare at headquarters for decades, well before other companies did the same.

It’s not too late for any organization to operate from values. I would argue that the rearranging and reimagining it takes to prioritize purpose is well worth it. The research and the stories are pointing in a single direction: brands who address society's concerns around health, safety, and equality—especially during the pandemic—can bet they will come out stronger in the long run.

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