Leading a business through purpose: a leader’s responsibility

Simon Slater

What’s a leader and what are they responsible for? Simon Slater, Special Adviser - Legal and Professional Services, shares his thoughts.

What’s a leader and what are they responsible for? A question most would answer with a varying degree of similarity. But the definition is starting to shift with the expectation businesses need to be more than the service they provide.

In a divisive social and political era, business has topped the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, after a three year-on-year increase for being the “only institution viewed as both competent and ethical.” However, coming in at eighth on the 'The Trust 10' list is people believing businesses should do more to address ESG commitments like “climate change, economic inequality and workforce reskilling.” 

With such a title comes responsibility. Businesses can’t rest on their laurels. Organisations and those who are in positions of leadership now have an obligation to act with purpose in order to maintain trust and confidence. So, how to rise to the occasion?

It starts at the top

Bright Space Specialist Adviser, Simon Slater, says finding purpose starts with introspective thinking, “you need to find your own personal North Star and clearly articulate it.”

“There needs to be authenticity about what you believe as leaders and align that with the purpose of your organisation.”  

The data couldn’t be more revealing. Accenture research released in January suggests nearly 30-percent of employees see a link between their day-to-day work and their employer's broader purpose. If the workforce doesn’t see that personal North Star “people won’t engage, you as an organisation won’t make it, you won’t have impact,” says Simon.  

When Starbucks was treading water last year, revered leader and former CEO synonymous with the brand, Howard Schultz, stepped into the breach to reunite the company. In his initial letter to employees Schultz put rebuilding the company’s purpose at the heart of his personal mission. Unsurprisingly share prices swelled.  

Bridging the gap

Research undertaken by Bright Space last year found advisory businesses in the UK are lagging behind when it comes to articulating their purpose. We found only 52% of the top 50 accountancy firms and 42% of the top 50 law firms had a clearly defined purpose.  

But when 64% of the UK’s largest companies, presumably these firms’ clients, can articulate their higher purpose*, it puts these firms behind the eight ball. “Stakeholders are increasingly scrutinising an organisation's ESG credentials and basing their decisions on what they find,” says Simon.

“That absolutely plays to the need for purpose, or aligning your personal North Star with your organisation's North Star. It’s also for the people working for you to feel there's meaning and what they're doing is beyond just creating profit for the shareholders.”

The way forward

Zeno Group say 81% of global consumers believe a company's CEO should embody the company's purpose and mission in their personal life. The challenge for leaders then lies in finding authenticity in that purpose.  

It’s all too easy to jump on a bandwagon with ambiguous goals and lofty buzz words in a box ticking exercise. Honest, relatable and in-touch is a promising place to start.

“As long as an organisation's purpose relates to the triple bottom line; profit, people and planet, then that's a pretty good step in the right direction,” says Simon. “People are assessing their lives and how what they do for work aligns with their own personal values.”

Those hanging out in the C-suite should be no different. The philosophical contract between worker and employer, or worker and client, or supplier and client is changing, so the way we lead with purpose should evolve too.

*KPMG Purpose driven work (The future of work series)

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