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A CEO's Perspective: 7 Insights to Discover and Activate Authentic Purpose

This article was originally published in Sustainable Brands.

Your taste buds may be familiar with the work of Kerry Group — even if the name doesn’t ring a bell. The Irish multinational food and ingredients company’s products are in 70 percent of the foods we eat. Behind each product and innovation is a singular purpose — Inspire Food. Nourish Life. — which guides Kerry’s 22,000+ employees across 150 countries.

Much like the company’s storied, 50-year history, the journey to articulate Kerry’s purpose through those four simple words was all but straightforward. In 2018, then-new CEO Edmond Scanlon found himself at the helm of a company with a rich legacy, but facing a challenging future given the food industry’s rapid pace of change. After multiple acquisitions, Scanlon believed that defining the company’s purpose could be a worthwhile investment to better knit together Kerry’s people, culture, operations and performance.

Now, nearly five years after launching the purpose-discovery project with my firm, Carol Cone ON PURPOSE, I revisited the journey with Scanlon and Chief Corporate Affairs and Brand Officer Catherine Keogh on my podcast, Purpose 360. What follows is a C-suite perspective on how this $7 billion global company united tens of thousands of employees through the process of identifying, articulating and activating an authentic purpose. Read on for a glimpse of what became a “journey to the center of Kerry Group’s soul.”

1. Purpose statements are an articulation of what already exists in an organization.

The purpose statement itself is meant to be a cultural artifact that creates powerful alignment and resonates deeply with employees.

“The big question was the ‘why’ — why we do what we do,” Scanlon said. “We found it really easy to talk about what we do, how we do it, how we measure ourselves, or where we are going. But nobody had a crisp answer to the question of ‘why.’”

2. Uncovering purpose requires C-level leaders to commit time and resources to the process.

This involves listening to employees at all levels, as well as external stakeholders. The process provides valuable data, strengthens employees’ emotional connection to their employer, and facilitates buy-in when the eventual purpose statement is socialized.

“Edmond was acutely aware that this cannot feel like a top-down exercise,” Keogh said. “That was a clear directive from him; it has to come from the regions — not just the English-speaking regions, or not just the US and Europe, but every part of the world.”

Scanlon was also clear the process needed to reflect the full diversity of the organization — from different cultures and beliefs to gender, race and functional areas.

3. Listening is the most important part of identifying purpose.

A series of over 200 stakeholder interviews, listening sessions, focus groups and 10 regional workshops — held over the span of months — helped gather input from all levels of the organization. “A lot of people still remember that whole ‘journey to the purpose’ very fondly,” Keogh said.

CEOs should play a hands-on role in the listening process and be visibly engaged at appropriate times. But that doesn’t mean that they can dictate the process or override input from stakeholders.

“Whether you were the chairman of the board or somebody driving a forklift or filling a bag at the end of a line, everybody was equal in our workshops,” Scanlon said. “The level of ownership this process drove, and the emotional attachment and emotional engagement it drove, with the company was phenomenal.”

4. Employees should be empowered to ‘own’ purpose in their roles and day-to-day work.

“It was really interesting how senior leaders around the room were making the purpose their own and talking about, ‘Oh, inspiring food means creativity and innovation, or culinary insights,’” Scanlon said. “Nourishing life was about making products healthier and more sustainable. It was about how we could have an impact on consumers by working with customers to improve the nutritional profile of their product without compromising on taste and minimizing impact on the environment.”

As part of this process, employees should be given opportunities to explore how their personal values systems and purpose align with that of their employer. It’s critical that they see and feel how their work links to the company’s purpose.

5. Once a purpose is identified and articulated, key decisions should be made through the lens of the purpose — including acquisitions and divestitures.

This also involves auditing the company’s current situation in terms of operations, investments, strategic plans, people and culture, etc — which are all the result of past decisions. If these approaches are not aligned with the new purpose, then it’s time for change.

“We looked at our portfolio — at the markets and categories we were serving, the geographies we were serving — and asked ourselves, ‘Is this where we want to be? Is this really the type of company we want to be?’” Scanlon said. “That was an important element of making purpose real within the organization — making sure that we were living it, and holding ourselves to account that as we were making major decisions, they were fully aligned to our purpose.”

While some organizations say that their purpose is fully embedded into their business strategy, Scanlon says that for Kerry, it’s the other way around: “Our strategy is fully embedded into our purpose.”

6. Purpose should be embedded and embraced internally before it’s unveiled externally.

Otherwise, it may fall flat. To launch the company’s purpose, Scanlon brought the company’s top leaders back to where it all began: Killarney, Ireland.

“Some people would say, ‘Why would you go to Killarney? Why wouldn’t you go to Paris or London?’” Keogh said. “Edmond was clear that he wanted our full leadership team to come back to where it all began. We visited the first factory. We visited the earliest sites. We brought people out on a farm — some of our people had never been out on a dairy farm.”

Kerry’s purpose — unveiled to a cacophony of cheering — wasn’t unveiled to the world for another year. “We determined that we would not reveal our purpose externally until it was truly embedded and understood internally — there was no point in communicating anything externally until we really understood it,” Keogh said.

“Embedding purpose into the organization before we did the big launch externally was a really, really important message because it wasn’t about a launch,” Scanlon said. “This was about doing work that was really meaningful — really embedding, and getting individual and personal values aligned to company values.”

7. Once your purpose is out in the world, the real test behinds: It must be ‘lived’ and practiced daily.

“Purpose has to be of the people, for the people. It can’t be generic; this is good business,” Scanlon said. “This is the best way to align your people — because you’re not just getting to people’s heads; you’re getting to people’s hearts and souls, as well.”

To learn more about how Kerry Group developed its purpose, watch the company’s purpose video here, read the Harvard Business School case study here, and learn about CCOP’s role here.


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