How Purpose Can Galvanise Employees
My first boss taught me the importance of purpose. She was a determined woman, driven by a complex set of values, and yet she was often painted as being single minded. She taught me that purpose is multi-faceted. It’s owned by the people that work with you and for you. It’s not owned by the organisation, brand or plc.
The woman in question was Anita Roddick, famed for her stand on animal testing and latterly, the environment, sustainable business, fair trade and then domestic violence.
Long before Google trumpeted ‘don’t be evil’ as part of its corporate motto, firms like The Body Shop and Lush were creating business models dedicated to the pursuit of social and environmental change.
That mantra attracted a great many customers and employees alike, and as an organising thought it meant the business stood out. Of course, none of this would have been possible if it had not been for the innovative products that sat behind The Body Shop. Skin and hair care treatments that originated from exotic and rediscovered sources like Brazil nut and banana ensured there were great stories to tell. What’s not to love?
But the value of a business’s purpose is truly brought into perspective and gets tested when it is attacked. It’s at points like these that we discover how far the genuine purpose of an organisation lives in the hearts and minds of employees.
In the early 1990s, journalist Jon Entine and Channel 4 programme Dispatches aimed a number of allegations at The Body Shop, all of which were subsequently found to be untrue. The claims focused on the cornerstone of the business, its animal testing policy. One would have expected many of the employees that had joined the business for this very reason to be up in arms, and they were, but I also observed other fervent protest from very different areas.
The Body Shop was, and still is, headquartered in Littlehampton, West Sussex. In the early 1990s, it was the biggest local business by far and Littlehampton was Anita Roddick’s hometown. For all her travel and wanderlust, she was a local girl at heart. She believed in local business, in the importance of local economies and in the pride and empowerment of local communities. When The Body Shop wanted to open its own soap factory, rather than outsource to suppliers it sought out a town similar to Littlehampton. It settled on Easterhouse in Glasgow. Like Littlehampton, it suffered from underinvestment and a lack of what we would today call social mobility. Where other businesses would refuse to open, The Body Shop saw that it could make a huge difference to the local economy.
All this meant much to the values of The Body Shop, but even more to its survival when under media attack. For many of the men and women working in the warehouses and on the production lines of the company’s Littlehampton factory, the animal testing policy and other campaigns meant only a little.
Unless those campaigns were integral to an individual’s own values, it would be hard for some workers to get too excited by the furore. But fight they did.
What those workers had seen – unseen by the public and media – was a genuine commitment to local communities and to job creation. For those on the production line, the purpose of the business went far deeper than that of a campaigning organisation. It was an organisation whose values system extended to every member of the community in which they worked. It was a business where the founders and leaders were well known and made themselves accessible. It was a business for whom the pursuit of social change meant connecting with people in a very real sense. It was one of the first businesses to attempt employee stock options, seeking to enfranchise as many employees as possible.
Don’t pick a fight with an employee body that can see its company living its values every day. Don’t pick a fight with any one member of the employee team – in the case of challenging The Body Shop’s animal testing policy, the head of Supplier Audit, Rita Godfrey – not just because she was a formidable opponent, but also because she was known and loved around the company because of its culture of transparency and openness. Picking a fight risks an onslaught of counter-campaigning from employees. In this case, unstoppable and successful.
For employees, purpose goes way beyond the grand and important claims, eg saving the planet; creating the best technology, etc. It affects every deed and action – the micro-elements of culture as well as the macroactions delivered for customers.
Purpose is everything. Purpose is lived every day.
The Team have been in the business of creating brands and design experiences that drive positive change for nearly 40 years. Specialising in employee engagement, brand strategy and brand activation, we are a blend of consultants, strategists, and designers who connect people to brands to drive business success.
Through brand campaigns, strategy and design, we work with you to create trust with the people that matter most.