Purpose means nothing unless you actually do something

Actions speak louder than 'thought leadership'.

by Robert Phillips
Last Updated: 17 Feb 2020

Communications programmes, unsurprisingly, follow fashions. The current obsession is about ‘purpose’ – every organisation suddenly needs one, preferably with ‘integrity’ at its heart. Few stop to think whether the word ‘integrity’ carries any real meaning for ordinary people but, hey, at least it looks convincing in a mission statement or annual report.

Purpose, as I have written elsewhere, cannot be the property of the soulless organisation. Only real people – co-workers, customers, suppliers – can understand and celebrate legitimate purpose. This is why it can’t be imposed from the top down or bought off the shelf from an ad agency, then paraded on giant transparent screens in antiseptic corporate atriums.

I take issue with those who tell boards that they can sort their purpose for them, as though it’s little more than the corporate equivalent of a microwave ready meal. It’s only authentic if co-produced and negotiated from within. This is much tougher, time-consuming and probably inconvenient for any corporate leader - but it is the only way.  

Proper purpose will play a central role in future business. Organisations need to stand for something, to offer a rallying point and to campaign on what they believe in. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan is the most frequently quoted example – but it is not the only one. Think about M&S’ Plan A; or Timpson's or Halfords’s work with ex-offenders; those declaring war on plastic bags and bottles; or KPMG’s global programme on responsible tax (disclosure: Jericho client).

These are organisations that are leading with actions, not words. The danger, however, is that elsewhere the search for purpose  can become an end in itself: as long as you are on the journey, you are de facto on the side of better or good. The journey offers some sort of path of redemption.

In this fragile world, the journey is important but is no longer enough. Organisations need to do, not just say (or, as is frequently the case, say they are thinking about doing something). Author Margaret Heffernan gets quickly to the point: ‘just ****ing do something’.

Actions speak louder than words

In 2015, as a ‘repentant spinner’, I suggested that PR was dead – a twentieth century model wholly inappropriate for a 21st century world. Now is the time to consign ‘thought leadership’ alongside propaganda and spin. This is not to say that thinking time is over – but thoughts and words without actions remain shallow and ultimately pointless. Thought leadership alone is not going to help deliver the common good. Action leadership is urgently needed now. As Neal Lawson, chair of the good society pressure group Compass, often reminds me ‘sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul’.

(I have a confession: I have lazily used the term thought leadership before and built ‘successful’ programmes around it for two decades. In a brand and communications world brimming with banalities, demonstrating what we stand for and showing we’re clever is always welcome - and let’s face it, it offers a stimulating distraction from everyday operational drudgery. But to properly ensure words are matched with actions, I’m going to stop talking about thought leadership and would urge others to do likewise.)

Just do something

A decade or so ago, I drafted an alternative plan for Fortune 100 CEOs at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Twenty of them would line up in a new coalition and make a pledge to Just Do Something. One thing only: a single issue, prosecuted brilliantly. A commitment to re-cycling or the circular economy. Ambitious and accountable targets for carbon-reduction. A mitigation of trans-fats in fast foods and/ or sugar in fizzy drinks. Every company should have its own transformative crusade that collectively would make a huge difference for the good of us all.

That Davos plan came to nothing. The CEO culprits knew what needed to be done and what they could actually do in very real terms. They still do. But then, as now, it was more convenient to speak to the journey and the wider agenda, rather than the specific action, and hope that Angelina or Bono would rock up for the inevitable photocall elsewhere. Too often, their PR and policy people stood in the way. Such thinking was of course entirely short-term. There is pain in doing the right thing – otherwise there is no point - but ultimately it is more rewarding and more effective.

This idea of an outcomes-based global business coalition still stands, beyond the Davos hype. CEOs of global multinationals could each still focus on a single issue where they have legitimacy and can make a real difference. We know that business school orthodoxy likes such ruthless focus. Meanwhile, as one CEO/ Chair pointed out to me recently, the case for responsible business has been well made and is well worn, if not won. Which business leaders openly set out to be ‘irresponsible’ anyway? The fight now is to make responsibility real.

True responsibility lies in making commitments and being held accountable to them, not in pointless PowerPoint charts. This is why I have often used the term ‘standing naked’ – so leaders can be judged by their co-workers, customers, supply chain and peers, not their echo chambers, based on what they do, not what they say.

We recognise the biggest issues of our time: social mobility and inclusion; poverty in the global north and south; climate change and resource scarcity; automation and the role of humans in the workplace, to name a few. These are challenges where business can and must lead and make a difference.

This article is a call to CEOs and their management teams. Decide on your issue and your commitments. Focus on the delivery of change. Form coalitions of the informed and like-minded. Work together to achieve what you can, where you can. Help make the world a better place. Be prepared to stand naked and be accountable. And do it now.

Robert Phillips is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers and the author of Trust Me, PR is Dead. He is a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, University of London.

Next: Do leaders really have to be authentic?


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