2022 will be the great reckoning for corporate purpose

This article was originally published in FastCompany.

Amid an ongoing pandemic, climate crisis, Great Resignation, and battles for the most basic human rights, stakeholders continue to demand more of organizations. Employees are leaving companies not aligned with their values for others that offer a greater sense of purpose, consumers are boycotting brands whose values differ from theirs, and investors are shifting assets to companies that demonstrate long-term ESG commitments. To help leaders navigate the months ahead, I asked members of the Purpose Collaborative, the world’s largest collective of purpose-driven firms, three questions about purpose in 2022. WHAT CAN WE EXPECT IN 2022? The societal challenges of 2021 will remain with us in the year ahead. “There will be more global purpose initiatives,” says Shayna Samuels, cofounder and principal of Ripple Strategies. “COVID-19 demonstrated we’re all in this together.” These continued challenges can either overwhelm or empower individuals and organizations to create change. Success will require collaboration, focus, and innovation. Look for leaders to go beyond net zero actions to net positive actions that focus on restoring, reinvigorating, and regenerating the environment and society. “As the climate crisis accelerates, so too does the need for collective solutions,” says Melissa Orozco, founder, CEO, and chief impact strategist of Yulu PR. Expect “co-opetition,” says Phillip Haid, cofounder and CEO of Public Inc. “We are going to see more and more brands that normally compete with each other come together to solve pressing societal issues because the problems facing our world are just too big for any one company to go at it alone any more.” More companies will adopt standards to demonstrate their commitment to operating responsibly and ethically. “We have seen massive growth in the B Corp movement across the U.K. and Europe, as it provides a powerful framework for businesses working to be a force for good,” says Amy Bourbeau, cofounder and chief impact officer of Seismic. “Developments like this have the potential to make purpose mainstream on a scale never before imagined.” “Expect a continued blurring of the lines between environmental sustainability and social impact when it comes to brands’ engagement and communication on critical issues,” says Raphael Bemporad, founding partner and chief strategy officer of BBMG. “People are recognizing the intersectionality of issues like race and gender discrimination with threats like food insecurity, climate migration, and limited access to healthcare.” Empathy is one of the most critical skills to adopt an intersectional view. “We must apply the learnings from a devastating period,” says Fábio Milnitzky, CEO of iN. “For that, purpose gains in relevance and empathy should be on the forefront of companies’ value propositions.” Acting on those value propositions will be new measures by which companies are evaluated. “A company’s reputation will increasingly be assessed on how well it delivers on its activated purpose, not the aspiration of its purpose,” says David Evans is a research analyst at Reputation Leaders. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST BARRIERS TO PURPOSE? The path to identifying and embedding purpose authentically has many barriers. For some organizations, it can be challenging to “let go of what has been done in the past,” says Cory Grabow, cofounder and chief creative director at the Bruxton Group. “Change is already here; there is no more waiting to see what happens.” Another potential challenge stems from “not investing the time or energy into transparent reporting,” says Brittany Hill, founder and CEO of Accelerist. “Take the time now to lay the reporting infrastructure your company will need to properly report on social and environmental impact progress throughout the year.” Companies that have not developed purpose with employees at the center may face conflict across the organization. This can lead to significant misalignment “on the issues their organization should address,” says Evans. “Business leaders need to listen to their employees first, to understand the issues that matter for them.” And, remember that “you don’t have to change the entire world overnight,” says Michelyn Dion, director of sustainability at R&G. Purpose initiatives fall flat when companies fail to focus. “Start by selecting a few key issues most important to your organization and focus on culture changes and embedding them into the business. You’ll start to build buy-in across your team and see internal benefits early on.” WHAT WILL BE KEY TO ACTIVATING IMPACTFUL PURPOSE IN 2022? Embedding purpose into operations, start with employees and a sharp lens on equity. “In 2021 we saw drastically fewer business leaders asking about the ‘why’ of purpose and more about the ‘how’,” says Bourbeau. “Leaders are now increasingly looking for guidance on how to embed and live their organization’s core purpose.” Fortunately, one of the best resources for embedding purpose is close by. “Employees are the key to unlocking the power of purpose,” says Annie Longsworth, founder of the Siren Agency. “Yes, customers matter, too, but when you have internal support, purpose becomes a way to activate culture, make smarter decisions, and demonstrate authenticity.” A focus on employees can help organizations navigate the ongoing volatility of the marketplace, as they are the best ‘sense-makers’ for purpose,” says Elliot Kotek, founder and CEO of The Nation of Artists. “The energy that authentic purpose will generate in those closest to you will strengthen the fundamentals of your business, and the loyalty, dedication, and devotion of your key stakeholders.” Keep in mind that the pandemic has driven employees to try “a different way of working, living, and connecting with their environment, friends, and families,” says Harold Hamana, managing partner at Knight & Pawn. “The biggest purpose-driven impact going forward will be an alignment at the core level of employees’ beliefs that purpose is not a value-added trend, but the basic reason why they gravitate, connect, and identify with their organization, brands, and products.” The great unlock for a highly engaged employee population involves helping them to discover their personal purpose and then finding the alignment with their organization’s purpose. This unleashes tremendous energy, which gets translated into innovation across the enterprise. This will become even more important as Generation Z enters the workforce in greater numbers. Wise leaders will “look to the younger generations for leadership and vision,” says Grabow. Gen Z is demonstrating an unprecedented zeal for social issues and change, and we should expect the same from Generation Alpha. Finally, it’s no longer enough to just “do good,” if that good isn’t equitable. ”Purpose needs to incorporate justice and equity,” says Samuels. “Who is impacted by the issues you care about, and how? Are there disproportionate impacts on some more than others? Justice and equity must be an essential part of purpose.” Purpose is now table stakes for any company that wishes to be relevant, competitive, and at the highest levels, beloved. Those organizations without a clear purpose are already behind—and can expect to face a “great reckoning” of their own in the year ahead.