Purpose Begins (And Ends) With Principles

Say what you want about the Scots but they have a pretty binary worldview on many things. Growing up with a Scottish mother meant I would get unvarnished and unapologetic missives on a daily basis.

Paraphrasing slightly but her two favourites revolved around two basic opinions:

“Talk Is Cheap” and “You’re known by the company you keep”

Like many parents (including me) she was trying to instil in her wayward son a set of principles or values that she hoped would provide a barometer for my future decisions. 

Importantly these were her principles and she certainly wasn’t telling me they had to be mine. In her words – and her deeds – she was providing me a role model.  

Principles are as important for organizations as they are for individuals. 

Events in the United States over the past week have brought into sharp focus the principles of individuals – and organizations – across the political spectrum.

My intent here isn’t to debate the folly or wisdom of the Executive Orders. Rather to point out that it is in the most difficult times, the most contentious times, the most emotional times that the true mettle of an individual or organization is judged.

And, if you believe Simon Sinek’s view that people buy why you do something not what you do, it is at times like these that organizations show the true mettle of their Purpose.

Not surprisingly Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has been one of the most vocal business leaders to speak up. In an eloquent, and much praised, open letter entitled “Living Our Values in Uncertain Times” Schultz outlined not only his opinion, but the actions his organization are taking across North America.  

Ride-sharing poster-child UBER have received the opposite reaction for their reaction to recent events. By joining an economic advisory board convened by President Trump, CEO Travis Kalanick was arguably stating what his principles were. In fairness, let’s not forget that Tesla CEO Elon Musk is also a member of the same advisory. But it was the action of suspending surge pricing in New York to break a taxi driver boycott that many saw as a flagrant attempt to profit from an emotional situation.  For an organization already under fire in Bloomberg magazine for the supposed exploitation of their drivers, this hasn’t been a banner week. Not surprisingly the hashtag #deleteUBER has begun trending.

Principles and Purpose are not a Popularity contest

Let me be very clear on this point. 

Just like no brand can be built for everyone, your organization’s Purpose cannot become a popularity contest open to the inherently fickle and forgetful whims of the market. 

Your Purpose is yours and only you can write it, build it, nurture it and own it.

Similarly, if you’re prepared to nurture it, you must be prepared to defend it – especially when it flies in the face of popular opinion.  

In June 2012 Chick-A-Fil COO Dan Cathy spoke out about same-sex marriage and incurred a media storm that raged for the better part of three years. While I may personally find that stance objectionable and ignorant, it was – and remains – the perspective of the organization. Amidst all the calls for boycotts from mayors, LGBT support groups and private citizens, Chick-A-Fil actually saw sales grow 12% in 2012. Evidently a sector of the market actually aligned themselves to the opinion of Mr Cathy.

In 2014 Ben&Jerrys took on not only the biotech and food industry, but their own parent company Unilever, over mandatory GMO labeling on their food. While Ben&Jerry’s has been famously outspoken over the years about subjects like same-sex marriage, gender equality and fair trade, taking a stance against one’s parent company gives you a sense for how critically important they believe sticking to their Purpose is.

As a leader you determine what your organization stands for or against. You define the principles that matter to you. As business leader, it’s your right and obligation to define its Purpose.

Similarly, as a potential customer it is my right and obligation to support or boycott organizations whose Purpose I align or object to.  

Advertising doyen Bill Bernbach said it best when he quipped “I have come to the conclusion that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”

To my mind, he could just as easily have been talking about Purpose.

Ultimately, if you’re unwilling and unable to stick to your Purpose when the going gets tough, I question whether you’re genuinely a Purpose-driven organization.

In uncertain times like these, is there no more important obligation than knowing what your Purpose is?