Do the right thing, right away

by Andy Milligan, Founding Partner, The Caffeine Partnership

Decisions are quicker and better when you follow your purpose.

Within hours of President Trump’s Executive Order banning all visitors to the USA from seven mainly Muslim nations as well as all refugees from anywhere, AirBnB offered to house immigrants in its properties. Explaining its decision, it cited its purpose to give people a sense of belonging not just a sense of place. “Anyone can belong anywhere.” I am unaware of any hotel that followed suit.

The New York Taxi Drivers’ Alliance organised a strike at JFK airport citing their purpose to welcome all visitors. “We go to work to welcome people to a land that once welcomed us.” Uber, on the other hand, faced fierce criticism for not joining the strike and also for lifting its surge pricing policy at the airport, a move interpreted as an attempt to gain commercial advantage from the situation. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, was stung by the criticism but by the time he had clarified his opposition to the ban, #deleteuber was already trending and a reported 200,000 Uber accounts were deleted.

You are what you do

We’ve been to this movie before, as the Americans say. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard of the USA, leaving millions without power or water and more than 80 people dead. American Apparel ran ads offering 30% off all clothes for 48 hours if people were “bored of the storm.” It was an offer condemned for crass commercial exploitation of a tragic event. Meanwhile, Duracell brought trucks full of chargers down to affected towns so people could charge their mobile phones and Tide brought trucks full of washing machines so people could clean their clothes. Tide and Duracell are both owned by Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Faced with the same situation, American Apparel sought to sell, P&G sought to help. The fundamental difference in response was driven by the degree to which a sense of purpose before profit drove day-to-day decision-making. P&G’s purpose is to touch and improve the lives of their customers worldwide through their products. It’s an inclusive, optimistic and human purpose. They have, for example, championed women’s sense of self-worth and challenged the limitations that society puts on women and women in turn can put on themselves through their inspiring Always ‘LikeAGirl’ communications.

It’s no surprise that they were one of the companies fastest out of the blocks to protest against the immigration ban.

Purpose brings pace

Speed of decision making, reacting quickly in the moment and in the right way, is one of the leadership benefits of having a clear purpose that everyone in the organisation understands. It acts both as a stimulus to action and a litmus test for that action. It not only enables you to make the right decision at speed; it helps you explain your decision immediately. When you are faced with a crisis or a critical decision-making moment, doing what is right in accordance with your purpose accelerates action and brings rapid results. You don’t have to triangulate, you don’t have to wait for research — in fact you can’t wait for research. You have to go with what you know. And in moments of crisis, all you really know is your purpose and your values.

You don’t have to wait for a crisis to show you mean business

Swift decision-making isn’t just required in moments of tragedy or political crisis. It’s needed at any moment when a critical choice will reveal your true priority. The purpose of Premier Inn, the UK’s leading budget hotel chain, is to make guests feel brilliant through a great night’s sleep. It’s a simple statement but it requires difficult choices. During a workshop the CEO asked his executive team what they needed to do to fulfil that purpose. One key action, he was told, was a major £multi-million investment to upgrade air conditioning in all rooms nationwide. When he asked why the investment hadn’t already been made, his CFO reminded him bluntly that each year they had deferred the decision because the cost was so big. There and then, in that workshop, the CEO said OK, let’s do it, now. No need to conduct any more research or feasibility studies, no need for a further cost-benefit analysis. Logic led to decisiveness: if that’s what was needed to fulfil the purpose, that’s what would be done.

Purpose brings a brutal simplicity to decision-making and that in turn brings a sense of relief for impatient leaders who want things to happen quickly.

Trust your people to make the right decision

One of the most successful organisations in the world is the Royal Navy. It practices extreme delegation because, in the chaos of combat, it has to trust the moment-by-moment decision-making of its people. But it can do so because it has ensured everyone knows the common purpose.

The best businesses allow the same kind of extreme delegation that the Royal Navy practices. It helps of course if people believe that they won’t be fired for acting on purpose ‘in the moment.’

Southwest Airlines is famous for allowing its people to do whatever they think is right for the customer. Herb Kelleher, the former CEO, told this story by way of example. One particularly bad winter, he received an email from an employee who had been working for the airline for only a few months. The airport was snowbound and passengers stranded. She could have apologised, offered to refund or put people on the next flight whenever the airport was open again. Instead, she decided to organise a fleet of coaches to get passengers on to their destination immediately. It was costly. But it got the customers what they wanted most — home as soon as possible. Her email to Herb referenced the company’s ‘customer-first’ mandate to all employees. She ended it with, “Herb, I hope you believe what you say.” He did. He gave her an award for her resourcefulness.

You show you believe what you say by the decisions you make in a moment of crisis. Purpose makes those decisions at pace — call it: doing the right thing, right away.

Originally published at thisiscaffeine.com on February 16, 2017.