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Episode 15: Unearthing and Executing Purpose

 

Our episode today focuses on a company’s purpose and why it matters for sustainability. A company’s purpose matters now more than ever, and social purpose and social impacts have taken a front seat these days as COVID-19 changes the landscape for all economies.

Our guests today are experts in creating purpose statements and leading companies on the journey to find their purpose. Cathy Carlisi, President-America, Ashley Grice, CEO, are with BrightHouse, part of the Boston Consulting Group. They've helped many companies, including BMO, to develop a purpose strategy and drive it towards sustainability outcomes. They discuss what a discovery process for purpose looks like, how culture, business strategy and brand alignment are needed for executing purpose well and who should be involved. We also discuss how purpose and ESG are linked and how getting uncomfortable is necessary to discover purpose. 

In this episode:

  • Why you need to get uncomfortable to discover purpose

  • Why purpose-driven companies are more sustainable, and the financial benefits

  • How BMO’s employees helped shape our purpose statement



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TRANSCRIPT:

Ashley Grice: In our experience, the most successful communication of that purpose is when it is both leader-led but also grassroots-fed, so if it is supported by leaders or the board of directors, and everybody understands what the purpose means and why it is authentic to the company, and it feels authentic and is communicated in a way that everybody inside the organization, no matter where they sit, is able to talk about it in a truly meaningful way. That's the best practice.

Michael Torrance: Welcome to "Sustainability Leaders." I am Michael Torrance, Chief Sustainability Officer with BMO Financial Group. On this show, we will talk with leading sustainability practitioners from the corporate, investor, academic and NGO communities to explore how this rapidly evolving field of sustainability is impacting global investment, business practices and our world.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates or subsidiaries.  

Manju Seal: Welcome to our podcast. I am Manju Seal. Our guests today shared their insights about purpose and why it matters for sustainability in early February. Since then, a lot has changed, COVID-19 pandemic has reached most corners of the planet, with 3.7 million cases globally. This large-scale public health crisis has created impacts of unprecedented proportions for society at large and businesses in general. As we have watched economies come to a standstill with national and regional lockdowns, companies have been grappling with the hard realities of keeping their doors open for business, balancing the needs of their stakeholders - such as employees, customers, and investors - while continuing to move forward against a great deal of uncertainty. How is a company performing on its S or social factors among the various ESG criteria, is especially being scrutinized during the pandemic and assessed by investors. Discussions around a company's social purpose and social impacts have taken the front seat these days. The wisdom our guests shared is now more relevant than ever for businesses leaders and entrepreneurs working through the challenges of the pandemic. Our guests today are experts in creating purpose statements and leading companies on the journey to find their purpose. Cathy Carlisi, President America, Ashley Grice, CEO, are with BrightHouse, part of the Boston Consulting Group. They've helped many companies, including BMO, to develop a purpose strategy and drive it towards sustainability outcomes. They discuss what a discovery process for purpose looks like, how culture, business strategy and brand alignment are needed for executing purpose well and who should be involved. Authenticity is paramount, and when done right, it increases productivity and builds good performance. Finally, we discuss how purpose and ESG are linked and getting uncomfortable is necessary to discover purpose. It was particularly exciting to have a poet with us. It doesn't happen often in my day job.

Cathy Carlisi: Hi, I'm Cathy Carlisi, and I head up the Americas here at BrightHouse. I've been with BrightHouse 20 of our 25 years, and before that, I was in advertising and never, never happy with it, so actually left advertising to pursue poetry and art, and that's when I started doing contract work with BrightHouse. I've been writing poetry even longer than we've been writing purpose statements and stories at BrightHouse, and that may sound fluffy to somebody with a CPA or financial or investing background, but in actuality, poets do something kind of analogous where we take a lot of information in the world, and we synthesize it down, and we bubble it down to really strong statements and stories. So there's a really, really amazing correlation between poetry and the way we do purpose at BrightHouse.

Ashley Grice: Hello, this is Ashley Grice. I'm the CEO and a managing director at BrightHouse. My career actually began, I believe, and has ended up where I am rooted in purpose. I started out with schooling in public health, and one of my first jobs was in consulting using my public health skills, and that piece has become increasingly more important to me as I think about purpose being very much a public health piece that we're able to bring to the world, and so where I started and the circuitous route that I took to end up where I am at BrightHouse really have kind of coincided in a lovely journey.

Manju Seal: Ashley and Cathy, thank you for sharing your personal journeys. We're delighted to have you here and thank you for being with us. So let's delve into your work next. Individual purpose is easy to define, talk about, demonstrate. A group or corporation's purpose is more complex. We are all inspired by the lives of, say, Martin Luther King or Jane Goodall and get what was the purpose for their lives, but we are faced with complexities when we are working with a 1,000 or 50,000 - employee corporation, so how do you help companies work through that dynamic problem and help them discover purpose?

Cathy Carlisi: If you're Dr. King, you are singularly focused and doing something that comes from your heart, so purpose for an organization actually shares those attributes as it does also share the notion of a leader needing to inspire those around him to create a movement or her. What is different, though, is Dr. King may have sat down one day or over the course of his young life and come to that place of purpose, where with an organization, you have to actually do some pretty tough work to find what the shared strengths of the organization are. So our process does an investigative section up front to understand what is authentic about the organization, what do they care about, what are they great at, and therefore, what need in the world can they mitigate, or address based on those shared strengths. So it is finding common ground in an organization versus an individual's thinking, which is why we strongly advise against the sometimes adopted, "Let's lock a few execs in a room for a day and knock it out." The organization will never fully adopt it if it's pushed and not also pulled up.

Manju Seal: In your work, as you engage with clients, how do you like to explain to them the definition of purpose for a company?

Ashley Grice: For us, the definition really revolves around the intersection of two very important things. We really have to look at, what are the very unique strengths that an organization has as part of its ethos, as part of its behaviors, and how are they very unique, not kind of good at these things but very good at certain things that other corporations can't claim? So, if you have that on one side, then we look at another side of our framework, and we say, "What need in the world do we really feel that those strengths of that organization can address?" And it's when you bring the need in the world and the strengths of a certain group together, that intersection, therein lies the purpose. That's the piece where you can take the best of yourself on your very best day and apply it to a greater calling that really gets people inspired, as you said, to get out of bed in the morning. Your purpose generally lies within that space.

Manju Seal: It's often heard that when companies get it right, purpose impacts the bottom line positively. How would you convince the skeptics out there from your experience? It would also be good to understand, what is an example of how a company that got their execution of purpose right?

Cathy Carlisi: There is a misconception, or at least there has been up to this point, that purpose and performance are somehow at odds, and that if you really live your purpose, that all of a sudden, the business equation is going to be left out, and nothing could be further from the truth. The issue is that a lot of organizations who haven't worked with professionals who do this for a living misinterpret the uses of purpose, and they get it confused with things like singular thinking, like a cause marketing campaign or even ESG strategy, and they don't realize that it's actually the umbrella above that, and that it has to guide culture and business strategy and brand. And so, if you think about the incredible data that's in market now, for example, if you're truly a purpose-driven organization, you get 2.25X in discretionary effort, essentially. You get people that much more productive because they are inspired because they understand they're part of something bigger. So, at that point it doesn't matter if you're stocking a shelf or you're out doing sales or you're in the C suite. There is alignment in the direction of all those things, culture, strategy and brand, and there's also executional alignment and how your behaviors are lining up. So, if you think about the dollar signs that some executives may see when they take on purpose now, it's because they are activating it. If you just hang a big banner on the wall, it's not going to drive performance.

Ashley Grice: The first one that comes to mind for me is Delta Airlines. I think they've done a fantastic job holistically implementing purpose across people and culture, across strategy and operations, across their branding and their marketing. This is a company that identified their purpose along with BrightHouse back in 2007, and if you take a look at both their cultural performance, in terms of being one of the most admired companies to work for, and shareholder performance, in terms of having claim to one of the most profitable airlines in the business, you can see how they've come to really fantastic ends, purpose being one of the things they did along the way. We started the work with Delta when they were undergoing some transformation, and it wasn't just purpose that caused this to happen, but purpose was one of the elements as part of that transformation that really allowed Delta to look at the guardrails and the company that it wanted to be and make decisions along that way. And so if you look at it holistically across all three of those spectrums, again, across strategy and operations, across people and culture, across branding and marketing and put programs into place that touch on purpose in all of those spaces, we fundamentally believe that you will end up being incredibly successful as a result.

Manju Seal: Let's explore ESG and purpose next, and let me kick it off by saying purpose is meant to be an anchor and set a foundation for any enterprise. How should execs think about that? We're also seeing a significant rise in the importance of ESG considerations as a means to monitor corporate sustainability or a company's commitment to benefiting society. So then ESG and purpose, are they linked? It would be great to have your thoughts on that.

Cathy Carlisi: Ashley was speaking a minute ago about guardrails. So when we do an organization's purpose with them at BrightHouse, we make sure we craft the foundation for that purpose first, which we call principles, purpose principles. They serve as guardrails. They are not prescriptive, but they help organizations understand what's in, what's out, right? So if you think about it for a tech organization, if they're looking at risk and compliance, for example, content policy, for example, it has to come from a place of authenticity, especially right now when there's not a lot of regulations, but there's a lot of scrutiny. When you think about it with ESG, so you have everyone now waving the ESG flag. For a while everybody was waving the purpose flag but not quite sure how to define it authentically for themselves. We would argue that if you have articulated your purpose and your guardrails, those principles, that those principles and the purpose, so not just the statement but the foundation of your strengths will help you determine and really execute as well your ESG strategy. So it has to be authentic because not every organization is going to focus on the same levers, right?

Ashley Grice: And so many companies have such good ESG intention, but it's difficult to understand where to put that intention for good, and so they go into many places, and that's harder for them to then get penetration and voice on the good that they're trying to do and potentially could dilute the impact. So one of the pieces that we talk about in making sure that purpose and ESG are truly intrinsically linked is around helping companies use those guardrails that Cathy described to make decisions. Where do we put our efforts? Where do we put our investment, and how do we make sure that we're really getting penetration in that space so our impact is as big as it can possibly be?

Manju Seal: What does good execution look like? What are some challenges a company might experience when building a purpose-driven culture? Do you find clients sometimes overly simplify how to achieve it?

Ashley Grice: I think one of the things that we have seen that challenges companies when they're thinking about integration of purpose across the organization is underestimating how holistic it really needs to be so that it's not just another marketing program to people. You really do need to think about it strategically. You need to be thoughtful department across department all the way up and down the chain inside the organization to understand how behaviors are going to be linked with your purpose when you roll it out, and bringing people along the journey, asking for significant co-creation, being empathetic about how purpose affects certain people's positions and realms and the work that they do in certain ways is incredibly important. So the biggest challenge is to really understand that what you're undertaking truly is a journey. It's not something that you're going to be able to implement in 6 months and all of a sudden see immediate. What you're going to need to do is really integrate it inside the organization where it becomes part of the cultural fabric, and when that happens, you see so many benefits, but that takes time, and it takes intention. It takes concerted effort, and so I think making sure that you understand that commitment and how that functions is a really important piece of rolling it out effectively.

Cathy Carlisi: You want to think about cadence, right, and consistency, so it isn't a one-and-done or a five-and-done. You pick something. Is it a quarterly communication? Do you create a dashboard that employees can access and maybe a smaller version that the public can access? But what are the different communications and actions you're going to take in a regular cadence to have consistency of purpose ongoing?

Manju Seal: How do you build a work environment and company culture where innovation thrives? We associate innovation with certain industries sometimes and know that in others, things can stay quite static. Regardless, how should companies think about innovation in the context of purpose? Who champions a new idea is just as important as what the idea is within a company, so how do you all advise your clients around all of this?

Cathy Carlisi: We would argue that what purpose does is not only provide satisfaction but goes all the way beyond engagement to inspiration, and when people are inspired by the work that they do, they are much more willing to put in discretionary effort, and that is from where innovation comes. When you have pockets of effort that people are excited to do because they care about something, that's when they start thinking differently, when they start exploring on their own time, when they're noodling on problems that maybe aren't their everyday tasks but things that they can see as potential for the company. There's a lot of space for innovation there, but you have to be inspired to do it, right? Discretionary effort is discretionary for a reason, so you really want to tap into what motivates people, and purpose can do that to provide a space where innovation thrives.

Manju Seal: Ashley, I read the article for which you were a coauthor, "Getting Uncomfortable on Purpose." I loved it. It would be great to hear from both of you on, what are the benefits in the end of handling and staying with being uncomfortable during the discovery or execution of purpose for a company?

Ashley Grice: Inclusivity and really making sure that people within the organization from the front desk to the C suite feel empowered to share ideas, that's critical, but we do not think that that needs to be a quote, unquote "safe" environment, right? We feel like a lot of really progressive thinking comes from taking risk and challenging one another, so the sense of nice or safe can actually go counter to innovation. You have to have the kind of culture who will challenge one another on their thinking in a constructive, kind way, of course, right, to push it forward, but a lot of us today, and ourselves included, a lot of organizations feel like we have to be a little too coddling. And there's a great book I will plug, "The Coddling of the American Mind," that talks about some of these topics, but you definitely need an organization that's not satisfied, that is not afraid to have the hard discussion and say, "Is this good enough? Can we do better? Can we do more? Let's put our pens back down to paper." And good purpose process is often and should be uncomfortable. When you are really looking at the strengths of your organization, but also areas in which you can improve, when you're looking back at past behaviors, there are ones that you want to move forward, and there's ones that you want to walk away from. And the idea of confronting that is incredibly important to getting to this true ethos that's married with aspiration for purpose. The process at the end is incredibly satisfying and inspiring and exciting, but during the process, it can be quite uncomfortable, and you know you're getting to a nugget of something really good when you're having uncomfortable conversations about who you want to be. When Cathy spoke earlier about one of the fallacies of good purpose is having a handful of execs go into a room and try to craft one in 2-to-3-day workshop and come out with something that feels ethotic to the organization, oftentimes what that group will do, even though they're very knowledgeable about the corporation, they will overlook behaviors across the corporation that need to be addressed. The idea of looking at what we do really well and how we apply that to needs in the world is critical but also looking at what we don't do so well, what we haven't done so well in the past, and being able to confront that and say, "That's not the aspiration that I want. Who do I want to be? How does this purpose modify and really bring in my vision and my mission together?" So I have my what and my how along with my why is incredibly important. So getting to be uncomfortable means often that executives and people across the board have to look and be reflective on actions and behaviors in the past that maybe didn't lend themselves to be their most aspirational selves and understand what goes into that. Part of how we get to that at BrightHouse is when we start looking at the discovery portion of our project is to take a really wide list of people to interview and ask opinions of across the organization. It's looking at people from the very top of the organization to the very bottom of the organization and try to bring in questions that uncover a little bit about things that were great and things that were not so great and then summarizing those, synthesizing those and putting them in front of the company and saying, "This is what we really heard. How do you feel about this? Does this feel authentic to you? Which pieces of this do you want to be involved in how you tackle the need in the world aspects of it? Which pieces feel really true to you, and which are not really who you are but are marked by a certain passage of time or a certain area of behavior?" So the uncomfortable portion is, it comes with access, and it comes with candor, and it comes with the ability to really synthesize and think about those things and accept them and think about how you want to move forward with them.

Cathy Carlisi: And I think Ashley has a saying, so I'm attributing it to you, Ashley. "Brutal truths," which is very poetic and lovely, and Ashley is also a poet. So if you think about a benefit of working with people, whether they're inside the organization or a partner, you want the people who are going to tell you the truth, right, so not what you want to hear but what you need to hear and, again, in a constructive way, but you have to be ready to hear it, and I think in a lot of organizations, people aren't ready to hear the brutal truths. What is broken? Where are the gaps? How can we get better? Let's look at it. Let's open up the conversation to everyone in a way that people can submit ideas. "Here is a gap we found. What are your thoughts on it?" Really through digital I think enables a lot of that discourse and democratic ideation where you can really mine for ideas from anywhere, and I think people have to feel heard, and the only way they're going to feel heard is if leadership listens and acknowledges, right, and practices active listening. "I heard you. You said this. We are working on it."

Manju Seal: As I was getting ready to speak with you and thinking about what are some important factors for a sound execution, one often not talked about is the intersection of ethics and purpose. I think ethics is needed to anchor purpose in the minds of the decision-makers, execs and employees of a company in order to get it right and be authentic both internally and externally. What would be your thoughts on that?

Cathy Carlisi: There is an anthropologist named Agustin Fuentes who we actually consulted with on the BMO project around this notion of morality, and he said something that struck us as brilliant and wise but also extremely surprising which is, it used to be that people thought there were all these common threads. If you read Joseph Campbell or other philosophers or comparative religion people, oh, there are all these common threads, but the deeper you dive into diverse cultures around the globe, the more you find that people's sense of ethics and morality are actually quite different in different cultures, and the only thread he said there really is, is to not hurt others. That's basically it, and so what we like to say with purpose is, you've got to be really, really, careful, especially us, and we remind ourselves of this, not to sound self-righteous, right, not to sound preachy but to really say, "Hey, this is what is authentically right for us. This is what is authentically true to who we are at our best." Now at BrightHouse, we would say that purpose, ultimately you have to have a positive impact on society, so you think about not just total shareholder return, but you also think about total societal impact. So you've got to take all stakeholders into consideration, and that's why ESG is such a beautiful thing. Yet you may go about it in a really different way than another organization may go about it, so at the end of the day, if the impact is moving the needle in things like TSI and ESG, you're probably doing something that maybe within your organization is authentically right. We try to be very careful at BrightHouse not to say there's black and white, right and wrong, but really you have to find your guardrails and live your best self.


Manju Seal: That brings us to the end of our episode on purpose today. We thank our distinguished guests for being with us and sharing their insights. Until next time, this is Manju Seal.

Michael Torrance: Thanks for listening to "Sustainability Leaders." This podcast is presented by BMO Financial Group. To access all the resources we discussed in today's episode and to see our other podcasts, visit us at bmo.com/sustainabilityleaders. You can listen and subscribe free to our show on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast provider, and we'll greatly appreciate a rating and review and any feedback that you might have. Our show and resources are produced with support from BMO's marketing team and Puddle Creative. Until next time, I'm Michael Torrance. Have a great week.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates or subsidiaries. This is not intended to serve as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding any company, industry, strategy or security. This presentation may contain forward-looking statements. Investors are cautioned not to place undue reliance on such statements as actual results could vary. This presentation is for general information purposes only and does not constitute investment, legal or tax advice and is not intended as an endorsement of any specific investment product or service. Individual investors should consult with an investment, tax and/or legal professional about their personal situation. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

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