How COVID-19 is the ultimate test of ‘purpose’

Organizations must strive to show how they are valuable members of the communities they serve. How you respond to this crisis might well be what your reputation is based on for years to come.

How to maintain purpose

Brands, companies and organizations are operating at a time of unprecedented stress and challenges.

On top of operating their business, company leaders are being put under a microscope to take care of their employees, give back to pandemic initiatives and straddle the fine line between authentic communication and self-promotion.

Difficult and often murky questions are being asked in virtual board rooms across the country that are challenging leadership and shaking many company’s sense of purpose to its core. According to APCO Worldwide research, 74% of Americans say the way a business treats its employees during the COVID-19 outbreak will influence their decisions to purchase from the company. Additional research also indicates that 74% don’t see a single company or corporate leader standing out.

This shows that going forward, performance and value won’t be measured by dollars earned or company stock value, but increasingly in how a company and its leadership serve the community and fulfill a higher purpose that goes beyond what they sell. This means that companies and organizations are going to be expected to have an unwavering sense of self and how that identity benefits their various stakeholders and communities. All of those decisions must point back to the purpose of their existence.

Every decision should be tested against a company’s defined purpose. These decisions are what will define if a company retains its various stakeholders. This is when businesses are defined for who they are and not just by what they sell.

And this is an opportunity to show the world who you really are. Leaders and organizations must ask themselves: Do these decisions connect to our overall strategic framework for why we’re here? Are we being consistent with the persona we put out into the world? Is that purpose one that is authentic to us, but also positively benefits the community we’re so entrenched in? As with all actions taken during this time, there are moments of uncertainty and questioning around important decisions being made.

If these decisions are made with short term fear and not aligned with the purpose a company lives by, then they will fail to live up to their stakeholders’ expectations and will come out of any crisis or pandemic in a weaker position than before.

Where to start

All companies and organizations have a variety of stakeholders that they need to account for when making decisions—including  employees, clients, customers, investors and communities. These stakeholders have varying urgent and rapidly changing needs that are important to fully understand and prioritize critical decision making.

For example, beverage companies with distilleries, big and small, are adjusting their production numbers and pivoting to create hand sanitizer to directly benefit their community and healthcare workers. This comes at a clear cost to the company, but they have identified a need and a way to contribute both as stewards of their community and a positive force for change during a time of global crisis.

As a token of their appreciation, people have started buying the companies’ original products to support the businesses, as well as donating to increase the production of hand sanitizers. Only time will tell whether these efforts will have a long-lasting impact on brand reputation, but given that people seek purpose and value beyond products, these companies are likely creating long-term advocates and supporters.

Another stakeholder that is critical in this pandemic are employees. Employees often naturally buy into a united sense of purpose, and in times of need or upheaval, will naturally turn toward leadership to assess how they can be more involved in moving forward.

Purposeful leaders have an opportunity to involve their internal stakeholders in decision-making that further creates camaraderie and community among people who are critical to achieving business objectives. This requires intentional action that aligns with the overall purpose for a company’s existence—without employees there isn’t much of a company and without purpose there is nothing for the employees to advocate for or rally behind.

When employees advocate on behalf of the business’ mission, it creates a united front and shows the world the value a company offers at every touchpoint, from employee to community.

What you can do

Leaders are made during times of crisis and the actions they take, decisions they make and connections they develop have long-lasting implications that can make or break the reputation of an organization. Companies and their leaders will be assessed based on the actions they take during this pandemic, how they treat their employees and what they stand for.

The ability to reengage with key stakeholders and at a level of credibility the market will demand will be a direct reflection of these actions. Companies and leaders have an opportunity to nobly pursue a purpose beyond their core product or business value, but in the value they bring to their key stakeholders and communities in hard times.

As Denis Leary says, “Crisis does not create character, it reveals it.”

Nicole Monge is a senior associate director at APCO Worldwide.

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