by Emma Pownall
   29th January 2021

Episode 13 - 

Putting purpose to work

Hi, I'm Emma Pownall, and welcome to Business Futures, the show from Datel where we take an honest and challenging look at the technologies and people that are shaping business. 

As the pandemic teaches us to work, sell and engage very differently, many companies are discovering the new value in purpose. Customers want to buy from businesses with a real mission. Employees want to work for bosses who get up for a good reason every morning. So we thought it was time to take a look at purpose and its role in business, and I'm joined by two guests who have both put purpose to work in their operations.

Russell Atkinson has 15 years at the top of major UK businesses, including Labara Mobile and most recently NAHL Group plc, the quoted business better known as the National Accident Helpline.

And first we'll hear from World Class communications specialist, Miguel Veiga-Pestana. Today, he's SVP Corporate Affairs and Sustainability for RB, one of the world's largest consumer goods conglomerates. His previous credits include senior positions with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Unilever. I started by asking Miguel for his definition of purpose.

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
It's why you exist. It's what are you in service of? And that's something that many companies increasingly ask themselves, it's often what we as people ask ourselves. So it's a question that we often pose at different phases of our life. But certainly today, companies have to speak to their corporate purpose, and their brand purpose.

Russell Atkinson
In its very essence, purpose is what you are it's what you're trying to do and what you're trying to achieve at both a corporate and a brand level, they can be slightly different, but it helps if there is some general alignment to the purpose at a corporate level as well. Boiling it down, at its very essence, it's why you exist in what you're doing.

Emma Pownall
And why does it matter so much to organisations to have that defined?

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
Funnily enough, here in the UK, we have the Companies Act and section 172, for those people who haven't heard of it, actually requires the company to specify what their corporate purpose is - to be clear about why they exist. And I think that's something which perhaps is new to some people. But nevertheless, if you are a listed company, that's something that you will actually be obliged to do. I think, secondly, corporate purpose, what defines why you exist and what you're in service of, is really important to the employees at the company. They don't just want to show up every day and do the job they do they want to be proud of the company they work for. And they want to know more about what that company stands for. And what does that company aim to do to the wider world. And I think this is a kind of difference from maybe a few years ago, where often companies thought that they were there to talk about the value they brought to the shareholder. Increasingly, that narrative is about the value that they bring to all stakeholders in society. And I think that evolution, if you like, is started or rooted in the corporate purpose.

Russell Atkinson
Essentially, most people would have thought that the corporate purposes is you have to make profit for your shareholders. And of course, you still do, that's the oxygen that we breathe to a certain extent. But much more than that is required. Consumers require understanding more of an organisation, and what it does and how it does it much more than it used to in the past. So purpose has become significantly more important over the years and really boiling down getting to the essence of your purpose, finding the definition and the words that sum it up easy for people to understand, is very important.

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
If you're doing it right, it's the thing that frames the strategy, it's the thing that defines the strategic direction in which the company goes. But obviously, two things can impact it. One is changing cycle expectations, which are also evolving over time and so what people expect of a company has changed. And that means you have to often look to your corporate purpose to see whether it's truly reflecting or embodying what it is that the world outside expects of you. And I think secondly, it is an evolution of your strategy. For example, if you sold a piece of your business off or indeed acquired a new company or a business, or changed the strategic focus of what you do, then you will at some stage have to revisit that corporate purpose because it needs to be reflective of what you do in the world.

In our case, if I look at the RB purpose, I spent some time working on that with our new CEO last year, we talk about our purpose. Our corporate purpose is to nurture, heal and protect in the relentless pursuit of a cleaner, healthier world. Now all of that sounds like a lot of words, but actually it really isn't. Protect heal and nurture is representative of the categories we're in. So it speaks to the nutrition business that we have, to the health business that we have, and to the hygiene business that we have, but it speaks to it in human language. It doesn't speak to it like a business category. It uses very human words. It's a reflection not just of the business categories, but the role that we play. And it defines not just how we impact people, but also the planet, because we have the same goal. It applies to not just our social impact, but also to our environmental impact. So you look at those words, and each one of them signifies something that's important. And we've very carefully chosen those words. And they are very much then driving why it is that we're able to then say, how is our business reflecting that, because then the strategy of the business is driving behind each one of those words, and is a manifestation of it.

And how you can express a purpose, in my opinion, it should be something you can actually get people to say. And remember, they might not get all the words quite right or in quite the right order. But it should be something that people can actually stand up and say, and it means something to them. Because it has to resonate as much with the individuals inside the company. It shouldn't just be something you stick on a wall and feels a bit arbitrary, it has to feel like it's part of the DNA.

Emma Pownall
Let's talk a bit more about employees. What makes employees purposeful? Is it a connection to the organisation? Is a connection to them as individuals?

Russell Atkinson
Probably the most important manifestation of purpose is with the employees of the company to a certain extent, because it creates the buy in that they have to the jobs that they do to the work that they do and the reason that they're there. All of the surveys would show that a highly engaged employee will create and deliver so much more, and work with you in so many more circumstances, no more so than COVID - all the difficulties that we had during that particular crisis, we had a massively engaged employee base, who really helped us because they understood what we were doing, where we were going and why we had to do it. And therefore that engagement with purpose does create organisational performance. Ultimately, a good purpose and people following that purpose will generate the profits, provided you're running the business properly, you don't necessarily have to start with the profits. So if your employees understand what it is they're there for, and it may differ between brands and between service offerings between divisions and companies a little bit, you don't have to be able to recite it.

But you do have to be able to understand it and live it and create pride in what you do. And one of the divisions that we operate in, frankly, has a bad reputation which is personal injury. And that reputation is as an industry sometimes deserved as a company, absolutely not the way that we operate with the things that we did, we were known as the white knights of the sector. And that in talking to our employees about the purpose of that particular division was, if it's wrong, we make it right, then they got behind that purpose. And they realised the important things that they did and were able to create a really positive environment for our customers and for the business to thrive and prosper because they understood the purpose and what we stood for. And the more you can boil it down, the more you can have people intrinsically understand that as opposed to recite it, as I said, then the more effective that purpose is going to be.

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
I think first and foremost, it has to be owned. And it has to be lived. A company is ultimately just a group of individuals that are part of a collective. Sometimes we think of them as amorphous, almost anonymised entities, but they're not they're made up of living breathing people who come to work every day. And what a purpose does is it galvanises them in the same direction, it gives them a sense of what it is that you're trying to do as a collective. It's also trying to often connect it to the individual's values and their personal passions as much as anything as well. And if those two things align, then you definitely have more motivated, more passionate, more engaged people. And that helps ultimately with your productivity and your ability to innovate. It is a driver of your growth if you get it right. And it very much is how you then have to bring it to life in terms of the culture that you created.

I think the other thing you have to understand is that increasingly, this is about how you attract talent. And people want to come to work for a company that they feel is trying to do the right thing by the world around them. They want to believe that they can sit around a dinner table with their friends and family and say good things about the company they work for. That's important for people. Edelman did a trust barometer piece of research - Edelman has been doing a lot of work in this area of trust for a long time. What you saw is that big uptick and consumers expectations - I think 70% of consumers are saying now they're choosing not to buy a brand, if they don't think the company behind that brand is doing the right thing and isn't going to contribute in some way, shape or form to building back better. So how a company has behaved, how its treated its employees, what it's done, how its managing its value chains, what's it doing to help consumers through these tough times increasingly has a big influence on how consumers see things.

The same is true of employees. 60/70% of employees say they don't want to work at a company that they don't think is aligned to their core values. And that's increasingly because employees feel that in some cases, they're pretty powerless. They don't always have a lot of trust in the political institutions. And they wonder what kind of impact they can have on the world. How much time you spend in the world of work pretty much means that sometimes people think the place they can have a good impact is in the world of work. So they want a company to do the right thing and be standing for the right things, and it matters to them. So it isn't some artificial construct. And it isn't just a bunch of words on a page, what you have to do is think very carefully about how you bring it to life, and how you embed it, and how you sustain it.

Emma Pownall
That point about how purpose is cultivated is so interesting, and one that I want to touch on how do business leaders manage that within their organisations. So you've set out your purpose, you've got your strategy, how do you then take that forward and communicate it and live by it within the organisation, as a leader?

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
The word you use there is very important, it's how you live it. Leaders cast a very big shadow. So if they're not living the things that they say are important themselves, then you can hardly expect other people to follow it. And so it starts from the top actually. And the purpose, in a sense, creates the framework, but then you have to look at other things. So in our case, we've taken a four step approach to this. So we started with our corporate purpose, the corporate purpose defines the why you exist. We then have adopted something internally, which we call our corporate fight. And that's really about what are we trying to do as we live our purpose, so the impact that we want to have. And for us, that's all about giving people access to improve nutrition, to improve hygiene, and to improve well being. And what we say there is that we want to make that a right and not a privilege. And so it's quite an unusual one, we thought very carefully about the notion of the word fight. But that's partly because again, it goes back to that sense of our own DNA - being a company that feels very entrepreneurial and there's nothing more that an entrepreneur loves than having a competitor to compete with, or somebody to beat. So actually, it plays into the DNA of our own company.

The third thing we did is we created a what we call a compass, and there are five things in that. And the compass is how we guide the business, it defines the five things that you can hold us accountable for as a company, and that we expect our people to also feel that they're accountable for as well. And then the last piece of the jigsaw for us has been developing a set of leadership behaviours, and keeping those very simple. And those are the things that the leaders themselves, we expect them to do in the way that they show up, in the way that they lead. And it's this combination together of all of these different things that then hopefully, enables you to make real progress, meaningful progress, because you can actually say, here's why we exist, here's in service of what, this is how we show up. And this is what we expect of you when you come to work. And these things all taken in concert is the way that we can then make progress in the organisation. And if we can do that, and then we can incentivize the rest of our teams, then you can start to make it become a reality right through the organisation the way it cascades through an organisation. And that's really important.

Because if you're not seen to be living it yourself, then it's very difficult to tell someone else that they have to. And if you're not owning it, and you're not clear about what it is that you're expecting of people, then people will inevitably say to you, but you never told me that's what you expected of me. This is all about partly communication, yes, being clear about what it is you're of asking people. And the last comment I'd make to you is, reward and incentivise people, acknowledge people for leadership when they've stood up and done something amazing, say so. Praise people. It's not a big stick all the time. It's not, you need to do this.

Russell Atkinson
Absolutely. The purpose is driven from the top it's driven from the behaviour of the management, and the behaviour from the executive and from the board and from everybody within the organisation. And what's critical to a successful purpose is all of those behaviours being aligned with a culture. You can't just create a culture overnight, cultures are created over years and I was very interested in what the government was saying before about trust. I work with The Trusted Executive Foundation that Dr. John Blakey runs and [he's] very passionate about the fact that leaders have to be trusted by the people that work with them. And that then creates the ability to develop a culture. And so we at NAHL group, we've developed our values over a period of years. But we recruit by those values, we reward by those values, we train by those values, and we live by those values. And that created the culture that when you put the purpose together with the culture, then it becomes very strong. If they're misaligned, so if the behaviour of the executive is completely at odds and all they seem to be doing is feathering their own nests and giving themselves pay rises from the point of view of the employees or the customers, then the whole thing is a house of cards if that happens. But if it properly is aligned with culture, behaviour, trust, purpose and strategy, then you've got something incredibly powerful.

Emma Pownall
That's really positive, thank you. Given the effects that COVID has had on businesses this year, how important has purpose been throughout this period of uncertainty? And why do you think it's come up the agenda for businesses?

Russell Atkinson
It's been critically important, because COVID was something that a couple of weeks before March the 23rd, all of us were thinking would go away in one form or another, or we wouldn't have to deal with and it struck incredibly quickly, in a way that I don't think many of us have ever seen or experienced before in leadership positions. And it caused us to have to react very quickly to a massively changing set of circumstances, make decisions on the hoof without as much reference as normal to the staff and to the strategy and to all of those things. Now, some of those decisions are tough decisions to make. I know I had to make decisions about furloughing people about closing offices and moving people away. And where purpose came in to that, purpose and trust to a certain extent as well, it came in because it was the glue that held us together, why people understood why we had to do what we did. I tried as often as I could, and I communicated and communicated to stand at the front and explain why we had to do these things, not what the things were, that was quite obvious. And the fact that we were having to save cash, we were having to reduce our costs and our overheads, and that we were doing it for the long term benefit of the business and therefore the employees.

But unfortunately, some level of pain would have to be hard. Because people understood our purpose and trusted in the leadership team, not just me but in the leadership team generally, because we've been working on that people understood and bought in with it, not everybody loved it, but they bought in with it and they followed it through. Building trust and building up a solid purpose it's like having a bank account and in the good years, you're creating the balance that's in that bank account. COVID for me felt like we were making huge withdrawals, as an organisation we were drawing on our employees, we were asking them to work longer, we were asking them to work harder, we were asking them to work in different ways, work from home, and people were making big personal sacrifices. And we were drawing down on that bank account of trust and purpose if you like. But because it was there in the first place, we had something to draw down on. And that became very important as we went through it. And that's down to having a strong purpose.

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
And I fully agree with everything Russell's just said. I started at the outset by talking about our corporate purpose in the case of RB, well, we've pretty much been at the frontline of this agenda, because we make the products that actually, in the case of Dettol and Lysol, were those brands that actually helped to improve public health and reduce the risk of COVID. Also a lot of people by the fact that they were at home and working from home more, were cooking more and using things at home more. And so cleaning products and dishwashers were being used a lot more because suddenly, people actually discovered the thing called cooking - that actually drove consumption.

So for us as a business, the challenge was actually meeting all those needs, and trying to do that in a way where you try to keep every single person safe. So when you have thirty-something-thousand people still in the factories working every single day who have never stopped working throughout this entire COVID period, and you want them to do more, because we're now on 24/7... we make Dettol, right? We produced more Dettol in one month than we produced in the whole of last year. We've had a twenty-fold uplift in the production of Dettol in six months. So therefore we're asking a lot more of our people.

But it comes back to, in service of what? Actually it was in service of that cleaner, healthier world. It was actually helping people stay safe and stay alive in some cases. And that makes a big difference to why people are prepared to work harder, why people were willing to come into the factories. And so right across the RB, I think it's fair to say our people have really stepped up because it meant that we could do something in service of that purpose. The other thing we did actually is in the middle of all of this, we decided to create something called our Fight For Access Fund. So we decided from now on, 1% of all our net profits are going to be allocated into programmes or projects, but a range of different things - everything from sending about a million care packages to NHS workers. I can't tell you how inundated we were with requests from frontline health care workers, particularly in care homes, but also in hospitals saying we have no sanitiser left. And that really does galvanise people because people feel very passionate that we're doing something to really help people. The pandemic, if anything made us realise two things; The human frailty that we all have, and it's also made us realise that the world is quite a fragile place. So it goes back to the expectation that companies are going to do something to address that.

Emma Pownall
I think the other challenge really has been that remote environment and how you bring that culture and purpose along into this virtual world. Because a lot of culture is about artefacts and logos and all of that sort of thing. How do you then make sure that comes with an organisation that's sitting remotely, suddenly got lots more challenges than they've had previously because they're dealing with families and pressures, and all of the things that have been brought this year? How do we get that purpose to remain and sustain through whatever the next working environment looks like?

Russell Atkinson
Let's be honest, all of us who live in executive worlds, we've lived in this sort of slightly distant bubble for a long time anyway - I won't hesitate called an ivory tower up in my personal passion is to make sure I'll walk around and see people and speak to people, but at the same time, they don't see you very often, and they don't get much chance to interact with you. For me, I was always in the city, I was here I was there, I was everywhere. So actually, in some ways, the virtual environment helped me to focus more on the people within my organisation, because I knew that I had to do something about it. And therefore I instituted something I called donut meetings where we had a series of our top 40 managers and every week, I spoke for half an hour to at least four of those people, and had a complete agenda for each hour, how are you, what's happening, how are you living with COVID?

So in the three month period, I was getting through the whole organisation and starting to go through again and getting them to do the same. That was our way of doing it, we're quite lucky. We're a relatively small organisation in people terms. So I think we well would have bigger challenges, but communication, town halls, we have our own communications department, and they were surveying our staff on a regular basis, and taking the temperature and keeping it going. They were all things that we tried to do and will continue to do going forward. I think our view was that we would come back in some form of hybrid way, there would be still people in the offices, but actually you have to force that. One of the things that became an absolute realisation to me, was what the hell do I need a huge office for? I'm a CEO, but [that] doesn't mean I need a huge office - actually, I'm in the office two days a week, if I'm lucky. So therefore, when we were moving offices around, I just said, close my office down I don't want one. And I don't want any of my executives to have one, we'll find a way and we'll come in and if I have to sit in the call centre I'll sit in the call centre.

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
I think people were feeling their way through this. And don't forget, at the beginning, nobody really knew how long it was going to go on for. So we're looking at this with the benefit of hindsight, in many ways, and we have to learn some lessons from it. But I think a few things, I think that regular communication, the engagement with people, the sharing of things, because most people experience the role of work by physically being in an office or being with their colleagues and having a cup of tea with them or chatting over lunch, you're doing a lot of the human engagement. And for some people, that's really important to them. The world of work is as much for them about the human connection as it is about the actual thing they're doing or the salaries they get paid. So not everybody is the same. Some people are much more relaxed about being remote, and some people find it really difficult.

The other piece of this is people in the middle - people who just want to feel safe in the workplace, they want to feel supported in a workplace. They're not either side of the spectrum, but there's also a component of people who just, I want to know how I'm going to be looked after. It means how are you looking and safeguarding my interests as an employee? So I think it's multi dimensional. So my last point would be, I think what it's putting on a company is this human piece, it's being empathetic. And it's being human in the way that you treat people. You may still have to make those tough calls. And I think it's always going to be an obligation on us as leaders to do that. I think it's the way you do it. And I think it's the way that you show up as a leader, and if you demonstrate that you actually care. And I was interested by Russell's comment before when he was talking about his experience, is that these things have to be done sometimes. Nobody wants to make these tough calls. But as long as people understand that's how you feel about it, that it's not an easy decision for you, and in fact it weighs heavy on your own shoulders when you make it, then I think people acknowledge that this is you doing what you have to do, not somebody who doesn't really care about them as people. I don't think the same is true for any company of any size, frankly.

Emma Pownall
How do you think purpose is changing with the generations that come into the workforce?

Russell Atkinson
That's quite a hard question. I think what Miguel was just saying before actually sums it up. I think the younger generations of the workforce are more demanding of the organisation. My generation and maybe my Father's generation, it was a job, and you were grateful to have it, and therefore you would stick with it and you would work hard and you'd try and do well. But now I think, and it's a good thing, I think the younger generations, the millennials, and generation X, whatever they all are, they're more questioning, and they're looking for authenticity, they're looking for real leadership, they're looking for purpose, they're looking for direction, they're looking to want to work for you, because they believe they can just go work for someone [else]. COVID might temporarily put a halt to that, but they can go work somewhere else if they don't like the cut of your jib. I do think there are massive generational differences now in how people are reacting, and how consumers are reacting.

So it's not just employees, it's also consumers think and feel in the same way. They trust brands and companies. But trust is hard won, but easily lost, and they'll move elsewhere. So having that strong sense of purpose, that authentic sense of purpose, will give consumers, employees and your stakeholders generally the right idea about your company and your product and whatever you're offering, and then the profits will look after themselves. So I think there is a genuine change. And I think purpose is relatively new for many organisations - they're just getting to it now and just sort of thinking about it. It's probably only in the last sort of 18 months - 2 years that I heard it talked about a lot in the context of what it is today. There's definitely changes and companies are scrambling to catch up.

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
I think what's interesting is that first and foremost, I sit on the exec, I sometimes regard my job as the chief conscience officer. And I think it's interesting that I'm there, and I question probably whether I would have been there four or five years ago. So I think it's a manifestation of how the world has evolved and what it is that people think is increasingly important. In many ways sustainability, which is what I'm also responsible for inside the organisation, is the footprint of the company is the way that the company does show up in terms of how it looks at supply chains. What does it do on climate change? How is it managing plastic waste? What is it doing on a range of different topics? And in some ways, that's how increasingly people judge you. And so this is why I see a very strong correlation between the purpose and the values and the behaviours and all those things we've talked about.

And also how sustainability for me fits into that because it's increasingly the thing that defines what good means outside of your profits. I think when you talk about generations, we're probably one of the most interesting pivot points in most businesses today, which is that we have, roughly speaking, we have a very large chunk of millennial employees today, in our case, it's 52% of our people. And you have the kind of Gen X, which is me, a slightly older, slightly grayer, very depressing generation, where we're in many cases, part of the senior leadership teams of the business. And we're rooted in where we've come from in the world of work of yesterday. And then you have the entry level, the Gen Z's that are coming in, and they're about 10 or 15% of the workforce of today. So if you look at it, you've got this spread across the business, but where millennials today represent the majority of the people in our business, and that's been said before.

If you look at both that Gen Z and that millennial generation, they put a huge amount of emphasis on more than the pay packet. They want the company they're working for to stand for something that they believe in, that they think the company is doing the right thing. And I think this trust issue is key to that it isn't a soft thing, it isn't a sort of artificial thing that you just give to your communications people or to HR to take care of, it has to be wholly owned. And it starts with leadership and expectations of leadership are changing. And that's because employees want to see those leaders standing up and doing the right things, saying the right things, and living the right things. And if they're not, they disconnect, and then you lose them.

Emma Pownall
We're almost out of time. Thank you very much to both of you. Before we do go, what's the one piece of practical advice you'd give our leadership audience if they're looking to instil more of a sense of purpose into their businesses?

Russell Atkinson
To be authentic, you've got to be prepared to put the time in. This is not something that happens overnight, which many people would like it to. It takes a long time. It takes a lot of work. It takes consistency and authenticity and trust. And yeah, it's hard work.

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
I completely agree. If you try to do it in a way that is not authentic, it actually makes it worse. You will have a backlash, you will generate nothing but cynicism. So words alone aren't ever enough. If you don't understand that this is about the very core of who you are, how you show up, how you behave, if you think this is just about words on a page or charts on a wall, then you're destined to fail and all it will do is breed tremendous cynicism, and it will actually be counterproductive.

Emma Pownall
That was communications and brand expert Miguel Viega-Pestana alongside leading CEO Russell Atkinson. Our thanks to them both and I hope that gives you a renewed sense of purpose. In our next programme, we'll have some more motivational tools. We'll meet Piers Thurston, the UK's leading practitioner of Quality of Mind. Its a way of thinking that some business leaders have called transformational. Until then, thanks for listening to Datel's Business Futures podcast.

My guests were communications and brand expert Miguel Veiga-Pestana and leading CEO Russell Atkinson.

In our next episode, we'll have some more motivational tools as we meet Piers Thurston, the UK's leading practitioner of Quality of Mind. It's a way of thinking that some business leaders have called transformational. Until then, thanks for listening to Datel's Business Futures podcast.

This podcast was produced by ModComms, a full-service marketing agency offering innovative approaches to client challenges. www.modcommslimited.com

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My guests:

Miguel Veiga-Pestana - SVP Corporate Affairs & Sustainability, RB.

Miguel is a world-class reputation management and communications professional with over 20 years helping global C-suite stakeholders make better business decisions by demonstrating better leadership. Today he’s SVP, Corporate Affairs & Sustainability for RB, one of the world’s largest consumer goods conglomerates.

His previous credits include senior positions with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Unilever.

Russell Atkinson - NED and Chair of the advisory board, Trusted Executive Foundation. 

Now an NED and Chair of the advisory board at the Trusted Executive Foundation, Russell was formerly Chief Executive of NAHL Group plc which he joined in 2012, and had a pivotal role in implementing its strategy following major regulatory change in the consumer legal services market. He also led its successful flotation onto AIM in 2014 on behalf of its former private equity owners 

Prior to joining NAHL, Russell held senior executive roles at international firms including Lebara MobileBlackhawk Network (a division of Safeway Inc) and was Director of E-Payments at Travelex. 

Business Futures host:

Emma Pownall, Marketing Director at Datel

My team and I provide our customers with a range of events, guides and tools that bridge the gap between business leaders and technology.  From large conferences connecting customers with each other and the software world, to sharing customer stories that explain what is possible with the right business solutions, I'm focused on sharing how people and technology can support business success.