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Fostering a purpose-driven, inclusive workforce

What companies must do to succeed in the new paradigm of employee empowerment

Fostering a purpose-driven, inclusive workforce

We’re living in an age in which employees expect company leadership not only to espouse values, but to live by them. Organizations that aren’t guided by a social purpose risk losing the confidence of their staff. But by factoring their values into key business decisions and inviting workers to take ownership of the business mission, companies stand to reap the benefits of an engaged workforce of social entrepreneurs.

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At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival, the Elevate Prize Foundation hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss why companies need to structure their businesses around a social purpose and foster a culture of employee empowerment. They shared examples from their own organizations of the power of a purpose-driven workforce, the principles that inform their decisions, and the challenges organizations might encounter as they attempt to adapt to this new paradigm. Here are four key takeaways:

1.Inspired employees drive innovation.
Every organization wants a productive, innovative team. But conventional incentives can only get you so far. These days, values are the more reliable motivator.

“How do we actually get innovation? How do we get high performance?” asks Wendy Woods, vice chairman of social impact at Boston Consulting Group. “We start with inspired employees. They’re inspired because they’ve got a purpose beyond just the financial performance of the company.”

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When that purpose is unambiguous and pervasive, inspired employees will find ways to advance it. Ben Steele, executive vice president and chief customer officer at sports outfitter REI, cites an example from his company. Inspired by REI’s purpose—to awaken a lifelong love of the outdoors—a store team in Southern California took it upon themselves to partner with a local nonprofit committed to rewilding the Los Angeles River. “That [provides] more access to the outdoors for more people,” Steele says. “It doesn’t come down from on high from corporate. It comes from the passion of somebody who lives in a community and wants to see it made better.

2.Get comfortable sharing power.
Carolina García Jayaram, founding executive director of the Elevate Prize Foundation, believes many private-sector organizations struggle to invite employees into the decision-making process. In part, that’s because companies may be reluctant to empower employees to take action on their own. “To evolve to this new place [of] free-flowing ideas, communication, and exchange of values is a big leap,” García Jayaram says. “I think a big part of it is going to be a relinquishing of power.”

García Jayaram notes that the foundation’s goal is to invite more private-sector organizations to change their concept of corporate responsibility from something they fund in one silo of the company to something they build their entire mission around. For instance, companies need to do more to demonstrate their values than simply supporting a local nonprofit or holding a gala event or 5k “fun run” to raise awareness of a social issue. “That’s just not going to cut it anymore,” García Jayaram says. “Especially for the newer generations—the workforce that’s coming in.”

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3.There are consequences to not listening to your team.
The fact is, employees are more empowered in this new age, whether companies accept it or not. Organizations that ignore their employees’ concerns risk incidents that jeopardize their reputation and operations, such as employee walkouts, employees unionizing, employees leaking internal memos, employees sharing controversial opinions on social media, and more.

“When we see thousands of employees walking out—thousands of them protesting—it’s because they don’t have a voice otherwise,” Woods says. “It’s about ensuring that people have a voice and [their voices are] heard—and most importantly, acted upon.”

4.Employee resource groups build trust and dialogue.
Employee resource groups can be an effective way to invite employees to bring their personal backgrounds and lived experiences to contribute to work projects. At Xbox, these groups have helped advance the Microsoft brand’s “Gaming for Everyone” initiative. Katie Jo Wright, director of Gaming for Everyone, says Xbox’s approach to inclusive design follows a motto: Not about us without us. “We can’t create a project, game, or anything about a certain community unless they’re involved, in order to make sure that it’s a relatable experience,” she says.

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To that end, when the company developed a game with a transgender protagonist, it was important to involve Xbox’s internal LGBTQ community at the center of the project. The existence of an employee resource group meant that the infrastructure was there for a productive two-way dialogue.

“We had the communities, and the product teams knew how to reach out to them and have that discussion,” Wright says. “And then everyone was incredibly proud to launch that game to the world.”


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