Should the CEO be the Chief Purpose Officer?

by Sophie Lambin, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Kite Global Advisors and Head of Programme at the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society

This story was originally published on LinkedIn.

Beth Brooke, Lisa Jackson, Isabelle Kocher, Maurice Levy, Barbara Lavernos, Bertrand Picard, Alexis Herman, Sue Stephenson, Helen Durham — all spoke the at the Global Meeting

At the 2017 Global Meeting of the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society in Paris, 2,000 leaders came together to discuss how to take on global challenges under the theme of daring to lead in a disrupted world. The conversations I heard moved swiftly from ‘these are the problems’ to ‘this is what we should do.’

The solutions were as diverse as the participants, but the common thread that ran through all of them was disarmingly simple. Amid expanding expectations and responsibilities for the private sector, businesses need to articulate purpose to navigate global challenges.

It all comes back to ‘why’

To tap the potential of business in addressing global issues, to create the diverse and inclusive organisations of the future, and to truly engage employees in the endeavour — you need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you create value beyond profits. In short, you need to articulate your purpose. Participants expressed this notion of purpose in different ways, but again and again they returned to the idea.

Indeed, clarity of purpose allows leaders to maintain their vision amid the push and pull of a changing world. Isabelle Kocher, CEO of Engie, spoke passionately about the role of leadership in defining the connection between long-term vision and day-to-day operations, using purpose to animate strategic decisions and carve a path in this volatile and changing environment.

Purpose has the potential to help prioritise elements of strategy, accelerate decision making, align operations with goals, and inspire employees. In other words, purpose defines the role of the CEO. Perhaps the CEO might be better described as the Chief Purpose Officer (CPO)?

Clarity of purpose allows leaders to maintain their vision amid the push and pull of a changing world

Taking a stance

Articulating a purpose also defines where you stand on important issues, which is increasingly vital for meeting the expectations of a new generation of employees. For example, Sue Stephenson, co-founder and interim CEO of IMPACT 2030, noted that ‘whether they’re in executive or junior roles — people want to feel that they’re more than just coming to work to do a job but be part of the bigger purpose of an organisation.’

Other participants talked about shared values, and the need to not just live those values but have transparent conversations about what you stand for as a company. ‘It used to be that we only spoke on things that impacted our bottom line,’ said Alexis Herman, chair and CEO of New Ventures and board member of the Coca Cola Company. ‘Today, especially millennials, they want to really know what you stand for and what are your real values’.

‘Today, especially millennials, they want to really know what you stand for and what are your real values’

‘We should not forget that all corporations are part of society,’ said Maurice Lévy, chairman of the supervisory board of Publicis Groupe. ‘And we have to deliver to that society what it’s expecting from us.’

From inclusion, to sustainable production, to lifting up women and girls in the tech sector ‘companies should have values,’ said Lisa Jackson, vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives for Apple. ‘They should stand for something in the world. For the young people who love our products, we know that they expect it. It’s the price of getting their loyalty that they expect us to lead on these sets of issues.’

Why the world needs the CPO

This should be a challenge to all of us currently in the private sector — both in terms of how we lead today and in the cultivating and choosing the leaders of the future (whether you’re succession planning within an organisation or a headhunter.)

We’re entering a new world of leadership — one less focused on me and more focused on ‘us’ and ‘we’. Consider how Barbara Lavernos, executive vice president of operations for L’Oréal, put it: ‘It’s a world of collaboration, a world of co-creation, a world of co-development. Your performance means nothing if it is not shared with someone, with your suppliers, [your] employees, your customers, with the planet’.

‘Your performance means nothing if it is not shared with someone, with your suppliers, [your] employees, your customers, with the planet’

Some might find the narrative about purpose as self-evident. But why did the idea seem prominent at the Women’s Forum? I’m not sure, but perhaps, Beth Brooke, global vice chair of public policy for EY, was on to something when she remarked, ‘So many companies today are trying to articulate not what they do but why they do it. That means something, especially for women. We connect meaning with what we do’.

As purpose comes to the fore, so the stage may be set for a recognition of how critical women’s leadership is. Helen Durham, director of international law and policy for the International Committee of the Red Cross, noted that ‘people in positions of authority have woken up to what we have all known. Women have formidable capacities when it comes to analysis, decision-making and engaging in leadership and vision’. What women are doing is daring to lead. And why they do it might come down to purpose.

What women are doing is daring to lead. And why they do it might come down to purpose

I think that Bertrand Piccard, pioneer of the solar-powered aircraft project Solar Impulse, put it best when he said, ‘If you want to have an impact and if you want to succeed, you need to put the purpose first’.