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5 principles to shape corporate purpose during crisis

Executives are uniquely poised to bring corporate power, guided by social purpose, to make an indelible mark during a time of crisis.
Bill Schaninger

Designs and manages large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening business performance through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems.

Advises aerospace, basic materials, and healthcare clients on operations, performance transformation, cultural change, and continuous improvement

Global corporations have never had as much power as they do right now to benefit society in a time of global crisis. However, executives have never had a more intense spotlight trained on their actions.

The choice to act has the potential to shape leaders’ and organizations’ identities well after a crisis has ended. Those with a carefully honed sense of purpose will find the necessary resources to guide critical and decisive action. For others, this moment may represent the first steps toward deliberately defining their corporate purpose.

In either case, following the below principles can help an organization and its leaders shape a critical course of action – and build a lasting sense of identity and purpose – during a crisis.

  • Understand how acute your stakeholders’ needs are now.

    Examine what is at stake for employees, communities, customers, partners and owners. Listen carefully to stakeholders that are well placed to inform you. Each stakeholder group has its own important needs, so be prepared for tension, as trade-offs will arise.

    Anticipating its stakeholder needs, a Canadian grocer moved quickly as COVID-19 physical-distancing measures took hold. The company opened stores early for elderly shoppers, pledged to keep prices at pre-pandemic levels and increased compensation for its frontline workers.

  • Bring your greatest strengths to bear.

    Take inventory of any organizational strengths that can be utilized to make the biggest difference for stakeholders. Perhaps your unique logistics network can help bring aid to those in need, or your manufacturing facility can create urgently needed medical supplies.

    Small and large businesses alike are redeploying capabilities to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. A New York wedding dress boutique shifted to produce protective masks for healthcare workers. French perfume makers and alcohol distilleries are using their resources to pump out hand sanitizer. Taking meaningful action in a crisis can unleash unique synergies and creative solutions that stakeholders will respect and remember.

  • Test your decisions against your purpose.

    At a time of great uncertainty, “gut check” your decisions against your values as a leader and as an organization to ensure they align with your identity. Clearly communicate your decisions, rationale and any trade-offs considered.

    Also, do not borrow from one ESG area to support another. While the temptation may be to scale back programs to support acute social needs, you run the risk of appearing that you are abandoning deeply held stakeholder causes.

  • Involve your employees in the solution.

    A crisis provides an opportunity to build a common sense of purpose with employees, fostering collective unity and a sense of belonging. It can help with identifying a new generation of leaders within your team. There is also a benefit in drawing employees together to tackle problems in new ways.

    Purposeful leaders share execution plans broadly with staff for input and engagement around organizational challenges, including any difficult trade-offs. When decisions derive from what an organization stands for, it becomes easier to convey confidence in positive outcomes, even when decisions are painful ones.

  • Lead from the front.
  • Communicate early and frequently, even with incomplete information. Stay nimble and adapt to changing conditions and new information. Offer perspectives on today’s crisis details, with a microscopic perspective to reassure stakeholders of competence and a telescopic view of what recovery may look like in the future.

Executives are uniquely poised to bring corporate power, guided by social purpose, to make an indelible mark during a time of crisis. By following the principles above, their actions have the potential to leave a lasting, positive legacy.

For more information, we recommend reading our article, “Demonstrating corporate purpose in the time of coronavirus.”

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