Twenty-four years ago, Dov Seidman founded LRN with a powerful vision that the world would be a better place if more people did the right thing. With its focus on “Inspiring Principled Performance,” Seidman has grown LRN into a global business that has helped to shape the ways millions of employees, managers and leaders behave and interact all over the globe.
Seidman, the author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything, recently spoke with Interbrand Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Sullivan about purpose-inspired and values-based corporate cultures, leadership and governance that can truly elevate individuals and organizations.
Andrea: What do you tell startups about the importance of beginning with a purpose-driven brand?
Dov: I tell them that it has never been more essential—and consequential—to know who you are, what your business stands for, and have both of these elements animate and inform every decision you make.
That’s because our world is not just rapidly changing, it has been dramatically reshaped. We’ve gone from being connected to interconnected to globally interdependent. Technology is bringing strangers into intimate proximity at an accelerated pace, affording us richer experiences, but also demanding new levels of empathy and understanding. These same technologies are granting us MRI vision into the innermost workings of traditionally opaque organizations and even into the mindsets and attitudes of their leaders. We’re now living in a no-distance world where our moral imagination has exploded.
Given these factors, it’s all the more important for purpose-inspired brands to back up their marketing claims with culture, leadership, behaviors and systems to support them. Now more than ever, a company’s purpose has the power to engage and inspire employees, generate customer loyalty, and help businesses chart a course for sustainable, meaningful growth. To make use of this exceptional power, though, businesses—especially startups—and their leaders need to reflect on what their company’s purpose is, what it means to their employees, and how they can inspire others to believe in that purpose at a large scale to the point that it pervades throughout their culture.
Andrea: So how do you scale values?
Dov: There are only two types of values: Situational Values and Sustainable Values. Relationships propelled by situational values are all about exploiting short-term opportunities- what we can and cannot do in any given situation. Sustainable values, by contrast, are all about what we should and should not do in all situations. Sustainable values connect us deeply as humans: integrity, honesty, truth, shared responsibility and hope.
Values are a fundamental reflection of our humanity. Therefore, scaling values is about creating more human organizations. Everything in business has been systematised except for the last frontier, the human operating system. We are starting to see organizations become systematic about the forces that shape, bear upon and guide, elevate and inspire behavior.
Andrea: And to have a call to action, to align your actions with your purpose, presumably?
Dov: Yes. I’m struck by the fact that the marketing departments of multinational corporations are declaring their humanity explicitly. We’ve never been in a time where companies have proclaimed to the world, “Let’s have a relationship in a new dimension that transcends our product and services, our economic engine, our humanity.” But marketing departments are invariably right about where the world is going and, in some cases, their message is confined to the marketing department and, in other cases, the company really goes on a journey to manifest humanity.
Aligning your actions with your purpose is especially important because it’s all too easy—and unfortunately all too common—for companies to state a purpose that is never backed by action. Everywhere you turn—in marketing campaigns, in CEO speeches and TV appearances, and in articles in just about every business publication you can imagine—we are hearing about the central importance of corporate purpose. Some are even claiming that we now live and work in a “purpose economy.” People are talking about purpose so much and so often that the term runs the risk of being written off as a buzzword. But that would be a terrible shame. Worse than that, the effects of discounting the importance of purpose could pose disastrous consequences for businesses.
Andrea: What does that mean in terms of a company’s culture?
Dov: Everybody knows changing the culture is important, but we tend to approach it in an ad hoc fashion. At its core, a purpose-inspired and values-based culture means asking people not to do the next thing right, but to do the next right thing. This is certainly no easy task. It requires a deep commitment from business leaders, the kind that lasts far beyond a weekend retreat or strategic offsite meeting. At the same time, the consequences of ignoring purpose altogether could be catastrophic. It puts companies on the path to scandals, accusations of fraud and negligence, and a loss of trust from employees and consumers.
Companies can no longer claim to have cultures rooted in humanity and purpose and not live up to the promise. For an example of a company living up to its promise, look at Southwest Airlines. A few years ago, I flew to Phoenix to visit a client and I noticed that when it was time to board the plane, the pilot appeared at the gate to help the ground personnel take tickets.
Later, as I was exiting the aircraft after we landed, the co-pilot appeared on the ramp carrying a stroller for a mother and her child deplaning ahead of me. How extraordinary, I thought. It certainly isn’t in the job description of the pilot to help board the plane. And I can’t imagine the Southwest Pilots Association union rep negotiating a clause requiring the co-pilot to carry strollers. There is no rule that says, “To stay employed here you must help board the plane and hand out baby strollers.” It seemed as though there was something bigger than a job description or a rule guiding those Southwest employees.
Andrea: How would you counsel business leaders who feel ill-prepared to make that shift? Many leaders are wired just to look for the white space opportunity and to look for that leapfrog moment.
Dov: To begin, leaders need to pause—and bring people into the pause with them. In a fast-paced, hyper-connected world, the pause is how we reconnect with our core values, reflect on our situation, rethink assumptions and reimagine what could be. It’s in the pause that we hear the call, as Emerson once said. With a machine, hitting the pause button stops the action. But if you’re a human being, that’s when you start.
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