By now we know that the key to building a vibrant and sustainable company is to get everyone from top executives to assembly line workers engaged in everyday corporate sustainability efforts. However, even as companies come to terms with the philosophy and culture of purpose – the answer to the all-important question of “why we do what we do” — more often than not, most companies fail to bring purpose to life for their employees and other stakeholders. As the gap between the rhetoric of a purpose statement and the urgency to activate it grows, that of consumer cynicism becomes darker. Sustainability – which jumps out as a priority when the purpose is clearly defined and brought to life – has to be more than just a buzzword; it has to become a practice and a responsibility of every stakeholder. To that end, the purpose is the North Star.


Purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a company’s fundamental reason for being – what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders – Larry Fink, BlackRock CEO


Too often, when purpose is treated as a marketing or HR project, it fails to connect with employees. As a result, employees and executives believe that companies are not doing enough to instill a sense of purpose.


As COVID restrictions start to ease out and boardrooms that once looked like war-zones prepare to build back better, the question is – what should the new normal look like? How do we now define principles that guide development of purpose thus outlasting the systemic damage endured over this period of time?


To lead employees to their purpose epiphanies and unlock barriers that prevent its implementation, I base my sustainability ownership framework on three key principles: 


#1 Nudge the root driver to activate purpose

Having purpose is the result of rethinking why a company does what it does. All, or at least most companies, provide customers with a societal benefit which must be clearly articulated and cascaded internally. Embedding corporate ambition in an employee’s DNA requires leaders to engage employees beyond intellectual, strategic engagement, and base the relationship on an emotional link (i.e., sustainability ownership) with the organization. The objective should neither be to impose a strict strategic agenda nor to inspire employees towards a staggering goal, but rather should give the employee freedom or autonomy to interpret the broad objectives and creatively align the employees’ personal values to the company’s purpose.


I recall that while teaching executives at KOC University in Istanbul, Turkey, a young man having trouble with the concept of purpose in the context of his company said … they only thought about making money. When I asked him where he worked, he said he worked for an automobile spare parts manufacturer. As we brainstormed in class, it started becoming clearer that the proper functioning of the part helped prevent cars from breaking down thus helping people avoid distress… the actual purpose of the company. One of the preconditions for sustainability ownership is that people can get behind what to own – the object or idea has to be personally appealing, meaningful and desirable to begin with. Purpose trumps profit every time in this regard!

A well-defined purpose that views the company as providing a service to society has morality embedded into it.


#2 Build sustainability ownership by using principles of psychology

Employees don’t just want to work for a company. They want to belong to an organization.

Three key human motivations are efficacy, self-identity and belonging; these fuel desire to target and own something. As humans all of us want to leave our mark, express our identities and find a sense of belonging. Structuring sustainability ownership by giving tangible and creative opportunities to achieve sustainability goals helps inject meaning, security and comfort, enabling the crucial shift in mindset required to take such ownership.  Sustainability ownership offers employees a chance to express themselves and be part of something larger than themselves and the organization.  A  former Unilever executive, once told me about a global handwashing program launched around the anti-bacterial soap Lifebuoy to teach children the benefits of simple hygiene, which, thanks to the active work done by their employees to spread the message, gradually transitioned its brand purpose to being institutionalized as a public policy initiative. That’s a veritable win-win for all! It’s thus important to incubate ownership and galvanize action by sowing the core message of a company’s purpose and truly walk the talk. Move beyond just advocating for #ClimateAction and the other SDG’s and really act. 


#3 Lead by example to build a purpose-driven company

A leadership committed to a higher business purpose and one that drives employee ownership of sustainability – that is the difference between the best and the rest. Driving purpose requires strong leadership; purpose must be defined and lived from the top. While the mission, vision or value statement of a company constitutes the traditional motivation toolbox, purpose goes a step further by combining reason and passion, left brain and right, head and heart. Sometimes business transformation initiatives with an eye on the future remain meaningless to employees, particularly if they believe that such transformation is in the quest for profits alone. Clearly expressing purpose and tying it to the societal benefit offered by the company makes one’s job meaningful and inspires employees to take ownership of sustainability. 


“Every Ship needs a good captain, especially when there’s a storm and the sailing get rough. So, it starts with a firm commitment from the CEO” – Paul Polman


Although achieving acceptable financial objectives is clearly important for a company’s survival, it rarely galvanizes action. If people are to put in extraordinary effort, they must be able to identify with the underlying reason. Leaders that are able to infuse the work of their employees with purpose are nothing short of transformational. As effective as clear verbal communication can be, it is essential to understand that purpose is really best communicated by action. Leadership by example is key. Moreover, journeys and goals are never static and thus it is important to check periodically if employees still understand and live by the original purpose. If they don’t, then it’s important that leadership finds out if communication – in word or deed – is at fault – and take necessary corrective action. 


For net-zero targets to succeed, employee engagement and sustainability ownership is paramount. We no more have the time to walk our way to our targets; it’s time we run the Race to Zero and move beyond mere advocacy. It’s important for us to link everyone’s journey to their personal aspirations in order to ensure sustainability becomes a way of doing business. The larger concern of execution will only be addressed if we authentically align with social and environmental causes and not just want people to work from paycheck to paycheck.


Our time to be the change is here, whether we pick up the baton or not is up to us.  




Based on interviews spanning 25 global multinational corporations and 100+employees, middle managers, and senior leaders across multiple sectors, this is the first book to connect sustainability to the theory and principles of psychological ownership and to propose a succinct, easy-to-digest model of managerial use. 




This fortnightly knowledge byte series is an effort to simplify the understanding of sustainability and share insights that help everyone be part of building a future that is just, equitable and sustainable for all.

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