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Vittorio Cerulli, Founder and Managing Director at Purpose House

Last Monday I was invited to share my thoughts at the Business Fights Poverty 2020 conference in partnership with Pearson on: how can we embed purpose into business, as we rebuild better? The thought-provoking conversation with companies, academics, and NGOs reminded me of one thing: besides being a powerful force for change, purpose is a way to uncover business blind spots.

Avoiding difficult conversations, blaming others for our own mistakes, or going it alone too afraid of asking for help. We know what are personal blind spots and why they hold us back — even if we pretend we don’t.

Similarly, by business blind spots, I mean those beliefs that companies are not aware of having, things they do not know, and that block out more enlightened ways of how to do better business.

Yet, in the present, unprecedented global social and economic outlook, business’s role of supporting societies and tackling the impact of the pandemic are too important to be held back. In this article, I deal with the rather urgent case of business blind spots - hoping to inspire new initiatives to transform talk of purpose into meaningful and consistent actions.

Before founding Purpose House I was a Global Insights Partner at Unilever, working in brand teams to innovate and embed a sustainable purpose into their businesses. Now at Purpose House, I help companies across industries transitioning to a sustainable purpose. Thanks to my latest international projects (in Germany, Italy, the UK, and Ghana) I realized that learning how to overcome business blind spots is critical for managers across the organization: from innovation to talent, branding, and sustainability.

In particular, there are 4 blind spots that I experienced consistently across the companies I worked with:

Having a purpose is not the same as having a sustainable purpose, and being sustainable does not mean having a purpose.

It sounds like a riddle but it is a useful distinction for companies to be 100% clear from the start. Isolated sustainable actions do not have the same impact as the organisational alignment that comes with a purpose. At the same time, defining a purpose is not enough to be sustainable. I was prompted to make these distinctions working with Visa, GSK, and Unilever on a Business Fights Poverty project aimed at increasing collaboration between companies and financial institutions to embed purpose into business. From the start, we realised that to establish a common language, we needed to address the distinction between Purpose, Sustainability, and Sustainable Purpose.

The difference between generating transactions and building relationships.

People care little about brands and companies. They care about their lives and the lives of others. A brand steps into people’s lives when it takes a stand on something people care for. The majority of companies want to generate linear transactions with people (e.g. consumption). Whereas a purpose-led approach builds relationships between the company and the outside world bringing mutual inspiration.

For example, as part of Purpose House’s approach, I create bespoke communities of social entrepreneurs working to tackle societal tensions (e.g. wellbeing, gender equality, food transparency, etc). Inspiring people like entrepreneurs are willing to take part only when the companies’ ambition is driven by their same purpose. That is one of the reasons why some companies are most likely to stay ahead of trends and future proof their business. A good example is the German food company FRoSTA. Their sustainable purpose of challenging the status quo in the food industry allowed them to collaborate with inspiring local partners and enter a competitive food market like Italy.

Real innovations come only as solutions to real challenges.

Think purpose and you will get to real, meaty issues. That’s what motivated me to pilot a new innovation approach for a sanitation challenge in Ghana. Back in my consumer research days, I moderated discussions about products of many types. Taking culture into account, allows me to tell when an innovation is exciting for people. I would not have expected a toilet to be among the most innovative and award-winning products I worked on!

Yet, American and Japanese engineers at SaTo teamed up to create a simple, clever and affordable toilet. It is innovation at its best because nobody else with their engineering, manufacturing, distribution, and procurement skills was doing this.

Increasing the shelf’s stand out of your packaging is an important task to ensure the success of your brand, but it is not a meaty challenge. So don’t get your innovation team swamped with tasks. Give them real challenges!

What you and your team do, represents what your company stands for.

Purpose lasts when employees are driving the change. For some companies, this sounds harder than it is. Therefore, I use a straightforward approach that makes it easier to implement: sit down with your HR partner and integrate elements from your purpose into your team’s job description. Do the same thing also in the job postings that you advertise. The day after you will receive totally different CVs. Few months after you will have changed your team completely.

An interesting study done on Microfinance companies shows that purpose-led organisations have longevity only when they use hiring policies to create a common organisational identity. Get your HR involved and purpose can transform your team. A good example is the work done in Mexico by the ice cream brand Holanda. They changed their recruitment criteria and hired people with disabilities to live, as a team, their purpose on inclusivity.

So, here are 4 business blind spots that I experienced consistently across the companies I worked for with Purpose House.


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