30/09/2014

By Geoff McDonald, London-based thought leader, advisor with global experience and a 25 year career at Unilever.


What’s the purpose? This is a question organisations need to consider in order to really connect with and benefit society as well as achieve long term success.
Businesses need to identify their purpose and leverage it throughout their organisation, driving real cultural change. However, this isn’t at the expense of the bottom line. Defining a purpose doesn’t mean turning your back on profit and growth. These factors, of course, remain key to an organisation’s success and are in fact the result of a purposeful approach.

What exactly is a purposeful approach? It’s one that takes into account the environment in which the organisation operates, considering the environmental impact and the social impact of its activities.

Take Unilever for example. 90% of Unilever’s products involve using domestic water. However, washing hair, clothes, soaps, tea and in 2035 water is going to be scarce, so if Unilever wants to continue its success in the future they need to produce products that use less water. The company’s sustainable living goals include driving innovation, meeting customer needs, enhancing employee morale – there is a very clear business case for this, as well as a moral case.

Organisations must refine their objectives so they remain relevant in the business climate of tomorrow. Businesses need to take a good look at environment around them and the future landscape in which they will be operating. Consider this: energy will be in short supply, and yet by 2030 demand will have increased by 50%, demand for water will also increase by 30% and yet it is becoming more scarce, while there will be a 50% increase in demand for food by 2030. It is also predicted the world’s population will rise from seven billion to nine billion by 2050.

A purposeful approach takes into account these world challenges and distils them down to strategic actions within an organisation. However, with many businesses, particularly one as large as Unilever which has 170,000 employees around the world, it can be a challenge.

This is where leadership comes in. Effective leaders can help create change and drive a purposeful approach through their knowledge of the business and links with employees. These leaders need to have the following traits: systemic thinking; authentic and not driven by ego; results oriented but through purpose; can collaborate and partner effectively; are resourceful and are sensitive to the wellbeing of their employees. It is essential to engage staff with the purpose of the organisation. If the message is communicated externally, but not internally, it will fail. Leaders can work with their teams to drive enthusiasm for the company’s approach, helping it to resonate throughout the organisation.

In many ways, a purposeful approach is one that many employees can easily connect with – after all, we all want to make a difference and improve the world for future generations. It will help employees to play their part in making a positive change and leave their mark.

Employees play a major role in driving forward a purposeful approach within an organisation, but this can only happen if the infrastructure is in place. The correct systems and processes need to exist to support the overall purpose. For example, consider investing in a performance management system to help monitor and evaluate activity. An organisation’s purpose needs to be re-evaluated at frequent intervals – does it still fit the culture and offering of the organisation? Is it still relevant to the current and future environment?

Big businesses can no longer afford to turn their back on society. Organisations not only have a responsibility to help the world meet the challenges of climate change, a growing population and dwindling resources, but its consumers will expect them to and in doing so will ultimately hit the bottom line, helping it to continue to grow and be profitable.


Geoff is delivering the opening address at the World of Learning Conference, taking place at Birmingham’s NEC on 30 September – 1 October 2014.
For more information and to book tickets, visit www.learnevents.com.