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You don’t have to be the top boss to be a purpose champion

A marketing executive explains how to turn purpose into a team sport.

You don’t have to be the top boss to be a purpose champion
[Source Image: sinemaslow/iStock]

As companies increasingly talk about their values and place in society, many managers have started to talk about leading with “purpose.” Ideo designer and doctoral student Nina Montgomery invited several senior executives to share their own experiences navigating the intersection of business and social responsibility; she compiled their essays in a book, Perspectives on Purpose:Leading Voices on Building Brands and Businesses for the Twenty-First Century, which will be released in February. In this excerpt, Maryam Banikarim, who has has served as a senior vice president at NBCUniversal and chief marketing officer of Univision, Gannett, and Hyatt Hotels Corporation, notes that corporations that are serious about mission and values need a a high-ranking purpose champion to keep the entire company on track.

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I’ve seen purpose led by human resource leaders, innovation leaders, operations leaders, and others, depending on the company and its players. The purpose champion can come from any discipline as long as he or she is someone senior enough to be directly connected to the CEO, someone who believes in purpose, and someone who will chase it like their life depends on it.

There are a few characteristics I’ve seen that are particularly critical for purpose champions to possess. The first is an instinct for action. If the CEO plays the lead advocacy role, the champion, as his or her right hand, must be a lead “doer,” or activator. The purpose champion mobilizes people, liaises with the agency partners involved, and raises their hand to say ‘how does this align with purpose’ in critical decision-making conversations. Great champions of purpose are also great listeners. Purpose must be authentic to an organization’s people, and the purpose champion needs to hear the language, sentiments, and themes bubbling up and be insistent that the organization’s purpose represent these views. I’ve often found that being an ‘outsider’ new to a business has been immensely valuable here since I was able to serve as an objective, unbiased, and empathetic listener.

Finally, purpose champions must also be top notch leaders. Purpose requires all heads of business to deploy and advocate, and it requires all employees around the world to participate and own it. A great champion of purpose is a cheerleader, captain, coach. Sometimes you cheer others on from the sidelines. Sometimes you authoritatively call the shots. Sometimes you are on the field leading the play–rolling up your sleeves and doing. A good purpose champion knows when to wear each hat, and how to wear it successfully.

At the onset, you need this senior, dogged purpose champion who “gets it” and has a mandate from the CEO to bring their purpose agenda to life. In other words, the purpose champion needs to “own” purpose. We all know “owners,” who pick up slack no matter how big or small. We also know “renters,” who think it’s not their job, or wait for others to do the work before them. To make purpose a reality you need someone who is an owner. Someone who will make sure the ball doesn’t get dropped no matter what. At NBC Universal, for example, even though we had the green light from then-CEO Jeff Zucker to do purpose work, it took dogged conviction to actually get it done at a time when the company was being sold to cable giant Comcast, which planned to bring in new leadership.

We worked hand in hand with human resources and communications across both organizations, being conscious of the political dynamics that were in play but also staying true to representing every brand within the combined portfolio. The project started with Jeff Zucker, but was finished for incoming CEO Steve Burke–a tricky dance to say the least! But an important one to ensure that the work of purpose would live on as the CEO mantle was being passed. My role as the purpose champion here was to ensure that no one dropped the ball when there were so many things competing for CEO attention during this time of organizational transition.

The purpose champion never does this alone; he or she is always working with others to make purpose happen. Purpose is a team sport and picking your team is critical. Over the years I’ve had the privilege to work with so many incredible owners on purpose work. The team included many–so many I can’t possibly name them all here. In fact, it’s probably more of a small army than a team. But two key people, Debbie Goetz and Sandra Micek, have been on several of these purpose journeys with me and I am grateful for these two fervent purpose owners and evangelists. They are truly incredible. Debbie, Sandra, and I all had different roles wherever we went–the purpose team should never be clones of each other–but brought our different perspectives and styles together. For example, at Gannett, while Sandra used purpose to overhaul the USA Today brand inside and outside the company, Debbie used purpose to galvanize over one hundred local and digital portfolio companies to work together and with partners in ways they never knew possible. At the same time, I worked with human resources and investor relations to reframe the way we hired and retained talent, and evolved our positioning from a value investment to a growth stock.

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It’s the combination of all these efforts that allowed for a successful turnaround at Gannett. And this would not have been possible without the core team. This core team is made up of early adopters who can help cascade purpose throughout the organization–because at the end of the day, success depends on bringing others into the fold. Think of purpose like a movement: you need to find the right, resonant message and get people to believe it, adopt it, and then to champion it themselves. You know your job is done when purpose can live on and grow without you.

Excerpted from Perspectives on Purpose: Leading Voices on Building Brands and Businesses for the Twenty-First Centuryedited by Nina Montgomery with permission of Routledge, a member of Taylor & Francis Group. Copyright © 2019.

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