How Companies Activate Purpose with their Employees

If business strategy had a twitter feed, purpose would be trending. Whether it’s global conferences like Davos and the EY Growth Forum or more targeted conferences like the recent National Association of Insurance & Financial Advisors, purpose is a hot topic. And it should be.

Businesses with a strong sense of purpose outperform those who don’t. Employees with a sense of purpose and meaning at work outperform those who don’t. But in every conversation about purpose, one issue always emerges: how do we activate purpose? That was the theme of last week’s 10th annual Sustainable Brands conference – four days devoted to the how.

I was fortunate to moderate a panel that focused on how embedding sustainability can activate purpose, impact and meaning in the workforce. It featured leaders from Timberland, Harrah’s, Clif Bar, Disney Pixar, and Kohler. They shared the goals and outcomes of their programs, the challenges they faced, and their successes. Here are some of the highlights:

Atlanta McIlwraith from Timberland shared how they embedded ownership for its program across the company through its Global Stewards program. What is so smart, and unique, is that the role has a two-year term and people apply for it even thought it’s a “side” commitment. Global Stewards take the lead in working on social impact at the local level, making sure the central corporate strategy and direction makes sense on the ground. Through this program Timberland has seen engagement levels rise, innovative ideas come to fruition, and developed a united culture.

Brigitte Dillman-Cruze from Kohler spoke about the efforts they are making to engage the notoriously hard to engage manufacturing workforce. Their secret sauce seems to be powerful in-person sessions where they not only share their strategy, but listen to their employees, and review and implement their new ideas. As a result, they’ve seen increases in engagement as well as reductions in waste, energy and water costs.

Daniel Alvarez from Disney’s Pixar probably got the most buzz going by admitting what didn’t work -- after talking about their highly successful Earth Week program. “We took away everyone’s trash cans one night and moved them to central trash stations. Some people were furious.” Several audience members jumped in to say “it can work!” and provided ideas and encouragement to try again. Daniel’s story is just one example of the many struggles leaders experience when trying new ideas, sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t, but feedback, education, and determination can go a long way.

Harrah’s Southern California VP of marketing, Beau Swanson, really honed in on the metrics they were trying to drive with a program to encourage employees to learn about sustainability and then share that information with guests. Harrah’s will soon be measuring the impact of this program by using Net Promoter Score and assessing teammate satisfaction.

Finally, Keely Wachs from Clif Bar shared one of the most stunning statistics of the week. 98% of employees are proud to work for Clif Bar. That compares to the nationwide average of 70% of employees who are proud to work for their company. What drives pride besides working for a company that makes pretty delicious healthy energy products? Positive impact initiatives like 90% waste diversion, 90% employee volunteer rates, and a cumulative total of 83,000 volunteers hours since 2001. Hats off to everyone at Clif Bar, that is no small feat.

All of these stories, and the leaders behind them, are inspiring and provide something for everyone to learn. For purpose to be truly powerful in the long run, it needs to be embedded in the culture, activated regularly and consistently proven that it is absolutely key to better profit.