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Welcome to the new era of purpose – why we should care?
Peter Baumgartner, senior strategic adviser at Etihad Aviation Group, offers his thoughts on 'purpose'

Welcome to the new era of purpose – why we should care?

‘Purpose’ seems to be on everyone’s mind – again.

Is it merely a hype and academic quibble?

Or is it a real game changer in driving brand equity, credibility with customers and inspirational connection with your employees?

One thing is for sure: the discussion has caught the attention of both academic lecturers and corporate executives alike – and evolved quickly in interesting and important ways to become highly relevant across industries.

Here’s my perspective.

When I noticed this interesting trend, honestly, it baffled me at first: over the last months, the issue of ‘purpose’ has kept popping up in discussions, articles, conference programs – and even small talk – every time management topics are concerned.

Out went ‘vision’ or ‘values’, in came ‘purpose’.

Now, if you’ve been following corporate and strategic discussions for some time, you are certainly aware that this is nothing new at all.

We’ve already discussed companies’ ‘purpose’ ten years ago – or even further in the past.

So, is it just the latest management fad – a recycled one, even?

I don’t think so.

Yes, of course, some of it is indeed sheer hype.

It conveniently fits the ‘reason why’ narrative many companies and c-level executives have built as a reaction to the perceived shift from shareholder value to stakeholder value.

Also, it’s being employed as the next best formulation of the good old ‘corporate responsibility’ range of topics.

And naturally, many companies use ‘purpose’ as a fancy management tool for corporate development and chief executive positioning.

At the same time, I still encounter colleagues that are of the conviction that the highest purpose a corporation can possibly have is to provide a quality product or service that fulfils a real need.

This in itself, ideally, ‘makes the world a better place’.

And I see where they’re coming from.

Purpose as a navigational tool

But ‘purpose’ – today – is so much more than that.

We live in an ever more uncertain environment in which almost all long-established legacy institutions have lost their traditional credibility and power to ‘explain the world’.

Even basic ‘facts’ are being challenged.

There really is a fundamental shift in how corporate reputations are built and maintained.

Look at it this way: it does make sense to think about purpose simply because it can do so much more than just nicely tick a corporate PR box.

It creates the ‘glue’ in ever more complex organizations, it attracts and retains talent, and it inspires confidence in investors:

According to a recent study by PwC, 79 per cent of business leaders surveyed believe that a company’s purpose is crucial to its success.

In a study by Cone/Porter Novelli, eight out of ten consumers say that they are more loyal to brands with a purpose than those without a recognisable purpose.

Employees, especially millennials, who attest a purpose to their employer are five times more likely to remain loyal to that employer.

Even Blackrock’s Larry Fink, not known for being overly sentimental, is being quoted with: “Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.”

And that’s certainly new.

It’s new because it goes further than how the corporate ‘raison d’être’ has traditionally been formulated through vision, mission and values.

The challenge is real – and so is the opportunity

The crucial point here, I think, is to embrace the fact that ‘purpose’ encompasses much, much more than just words or ‘communications’.

Sure, things are challenging right from the start: it’s never easy to find words that fittingly describe an authentic, comprehensible, meaningful, differentiating and truly credible purpose for a specific company – without sounding “me too” and tacky.

Yet, those are ‘just’ the words: coordinated implementation within an organisation – from communication to operation – and the activation towards all stakeholders are absolute key tasks, too.

That’s when a purpose becomes a credible claim to fame; that’s where the difference is made, today!

I hear you ask: Can an airline ever have a credible purpose given the many challenges, constraints and controversies we are exposed to in today’s world?

Well, maybe it really is easier for some to work on (and with) their purpose – say, NGOs, research-focused companies, healthcare businesses and so on.

And when I look at what our industry is currently communicating – and doing – in this respect as a collective, I admit that there is still work to be done.

But let’s build that narrative from the ground up, namely from the foundation of our strength.

The transportation sector is and remains highly relevant to support a hyper-connected world with sustainable impact: we connect millions of people, in uncountable ways, every day.

We are evolving, and doing so fast.

We have been at the forefront of technological innovation for decades – and with some extra collective effort, we will get right back there.

We really do make an impact on the world today.

It is in our hands to drive innovation in a way that we become a solution to the seeming contradiction between the connectivity demands of the human population and the sustainability of our planet.

Together, as an industry, we can achieve this. The contribution of every participant of the ecosystem remains crucial.

Well, if that isn’t one huge display of a ‘purpose’, I don’t know what is!

So, we better get started, and define and deliver our unique purpose as an industry, and as the individual brands that we are, if we don’t want to be left behind.

The rediscovery of meaningfulness offers us a real opportunity to usher in a new age.

And as I believe in the unique role we play in people’s lives and the future of the global community; I am really excited about that.

Tell me: what are your company’s challenges in finding its purpose?

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Peter Baumgartner is senior strategic adviser at Etihad Aviation Group.