Want a purpose? Ask your cleaner

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When it comes to consumers and clients believing a company has a strong purpose, the messenger is, in many respects, more important than the message itself

Behavioural science tells us we trust people who look like us, sound like us and share our values. So why do we hear so much on purpose from the boys in the boardroom?

Some 70% of FTSE 100 CEOs are men. We can count the number of non-white chief executives quite literally on one hand. More than 60% went to one of Oxford or Cambridge – take your pick – and a great majority don’t take public transport to work.

Do we trust the men in suits the most? The answer is no. Invariably they don’t walk, talk or indeed travel like us.

When asked from whom they most trusted information about a company only 12% of people said the CEO. More than three times that trust employees at the company. Those we trust most are the people we personally know at the company.

Why is this important? If you want to run a company that people trust it needs to be built from the bottom up. Which is why when it comes to consumers and clients believing a company is purposeful, the messenger is, in many respects, more important than the message itself.

If a prospective client asks me if I can help them ‘write a purpose’ my answer is simple: ask the cleaner. If employees are axiomatic to purpose then why aren’t we asking them what it is? CEOs would get more clarity from the cleaner, and many others throughout an organisation, than asking pricey consultants.

Millennials will make up 75% of the world’s working population by 2025 so understanding the expectation of this employee demographic is critical to being trusted and, in turn, purposeful. To be clear, the Millennial generation not only includes urban-dwelling hipsters, but people like me in their early-thirties with social anxiety issues. And, in time, the establishment crust comprising the captains of British industry will be replaced by a more diverse set with new values.

The Millennial manifesto is a very different one to that which companies are used to. Consider that 75% of this generation would take a pay cut to work at a purposeful company. More than six in 10 consider “creating change” as a life goal and more than nine in 10 will only buy brands with a “purpose beyond products”.

Articulating a company’s purpose starts with listening to the answers to three easy questions:

1) What’s the reason you get out of bed in the morning and come to work here? The essence of what motivates anyone to work in your industry, at your company, in the job they do, is key.

2) How do you explain to a friend what your company does? Rather than talking in corporate jargon try speaking the language of most people.

3) Why do you do what you do? When interviewed for the FT, the CEO of a Chinese food company was asked how he would explain to an interviewee what his company did. “Kill pigs and sell meat” was his response. When asked why: “to feed people who can’t usually afford it”.

Add to this one final question. Why was this business brought into the world? Most companies created since 1950 have been founded on a simple principle: to give people or businesses access to something – from food to furniture – they didn’t have access to before.

There are three quick wins for purposeful companies.

  • Get out of the boardroom and listen. Talk with Sita in operations and John in finance. Engaged employees will be the vanguard of selling your company’s why – not just its what.
  • Create a shadow board. If you have no women on your board; no gay or Asian men; no-one from a working-class background; if you’re nervous about how investors will react to quotas, create a shadow board with the richness of this diversity. And get them to advise you directly. EY’s seminal work on the revenue return from a diverse boardroom creates your business case. Your decision-making will be nourished from it.
  • Empower your employees to talk. Tear up the 90-page employee communications handbook. If a 22-year-old who works in your Norwich operations centre can answer the three purpose questions let them. Not just in the pub, but through their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on. Your customers will believe you more.

Put your employees at the heart of defining and bringing to life your purpose. They will surprise and delight you. And your purpose will be more than well-crafted words on a website.

Paul Afshar is head of purposeful business at communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn

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