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From purpose to problem-solving: the next big shift to help ‘save the world’

Shared goals are what bring people together, so in the wake of the pandemic it’s time that companies stepped up to do the ‘right thing’ going forward – whatever that may look like for you and your people.

7th Jan 2021
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two lawyers working collaboratively to problem solve at a boardroom table
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Over the last few years I have spoken at a number of HR events around the world. I have often felt like the ‘customer engagement guy’ in a room of experts whose priority is employee engagement, but I would argue that the two things go hand-in-hand. In fact, studies have showed that satisfied employees lead to satisfied customers – but not necessarily vice versa – so I would always urge marketing professionals to work closely with their HR counterparts.

The strength of tackling concrete problems in a concrete way is that it brings clarity for people. 

One of the areas where marketing and HR consciously overlap is when it comes to ‘purpose’. I would bet most HR leaders have, at some point, sat through discussions about the ‘purpose’ of their organisation, but part of the problem is the unclear definition of what the 'purpose' concept is supposed to be.

Should your purpose be about creating social added value? Should it be about the problems you are solving for your customers? Is it actually just the company's raison d'être, or the very reason for which it was founded?

Time to start with your ‘why’

Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why is a great resource for any purpose discussions. He talks about the 'golden circle' concept and the three questions companies need to ask themselves: what do we do, how do we do it, and why do we do it?

Most organisations are ok with the 'what' part, e.g. ‘we are a company that sells lawnmowers’, for example. The 'how' goes into a bit more detail; ‘our lawnmowers are fitted with state-of-the-art AI, allowing them to mow your lawn automatically and with a perfect finish’, but that is often where it stops.

Only occasionally will someone add a 'why', for example, ‘we want to create more free time for families, so that they can enjoy their perfectly mown lawn’. It is this ‘why’ that becomes really powerful when it comes to company strategy, marketing communication and employee engagement.

Purpose discussions start with good intentions, yet so often, achieves no differentiating effect whatsoever. I work with some of the biggest brands across the world, and even there, presentations about ‘purpose’ sometimes say very little about what makes the company so special. For one bank, stating their purpose as ‘empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business’ and another saying ‘banking better, for generations to come’ are just different words saying exactly the same thing, with no differentiation in the eyes of customers or employees.

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What societal problems will your company solve?

In cases where you feel the ‘purpose’ initiatives are failing to make a real impact, you should try thinking about a real societal problem that you can actually help to solve.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted many good examples of this. Certain organisations have stepped up, identified specific needs in society and used their strengths to satisfy those needs, wholly or in part. They were worthwhile actions in the short-term that had immediate positive effects, and that made staff and customers alike proud to be associated with the brand name.

The actions during the crisis were mainly of a temporary nature, but crucially, the best contributions were made based on a company’s own strengths. Lego was producing 13,000 face masks per day – some of which looked exactly like the plexiglass in the helmets on the miniature Lego figures that children around the world play with every day, and even needed clipping together so medical staff got a genuine Lego experience! This kind of solving of societal problems gave a boost to people's energy and sense of solidarity, both inside and outside the organisation.

As we look beyond the crisis though, the trick will be maintaining this same altruistic mindset in years to come. I am hopeful that many companies will seize the opportunity and lessons offered by the events of 2020 to think more deeply about their societal impact. First and foremost, I would like to think brands will consider what is the ‘right thing’ to do, but strategically I think this mindset will help organisations to differentiate themselves from their competitors in the war for talent. As a company, please don't wait for the next world crisis before you start to consider what you can do to improve society – the crucial question is to decide which social problems the strengths of your company are best suited to help solve.

The strength of tackling concrete problems in a concrete way is that it brings clarity for people. It is not an everlasting mission that is always on the distant horizon; it is a specific challenge. Every employee and every customer will know exactly what problem you are trying to solve, which also makes your communication about objectives clear and transparent. Likewise, measurability will be similarly straightforward.

By making the right choices, the world will be able to follow the extent to which you are getting closer to your goal, and there is nothing like an exciting goal to truly engage people’s hearts and minds.

Steven van Belleghem is one of the world’s leading thought-leaders, speakers and authors on customer engagement. His new book, The Offer You Can’t Refuse is out now.

Interested in this topic? Read Social purpose on the inside: engaging employees in trying times.

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