The Unbossed Leadership Podcast
Purpose - The Bedrock of Every Unbossing Journey with Denise Roberson
Hello everyone to the Unbossed Leadership Podcast. Denise, you are known as the Purpose Queen
Oh, thank you, Thomas. I'm blushing
and as purpose is our bedrock, our first element in every of our unbossing journey. We were so keen and are so happy to have you on the podcast. Denise, would you please take a couple of minutes to introduce yourself?
Certainly. My name is Denise Roberson, as Thomas has pointed out purpose is in my existence. It's something that I've been passionate about for a very long time. I'm currently serving as the Chief Purpose Officer for TBWA Chiat Day Los Angeles. I'm also a marketing professor at Pepperdine University. Where you guessed it, purpose is at the epicentre of most of the marketing that I am teaching today. It's a presidents and key executives MBA, so I've got leaders from around the world that gravitate towards this particular program, and it's really exciting to be able to introduce them. To this notion of purpose and how to use it for strategic value to elevate various stakeholders and to really embrace kind of 2023 and meet it where it's at.
Thank you so much, Denise. And indeed, it sounds fascinating. I know also from my own experience that it is challenging and in order to bring our listeners on the right track. Denise. Imagine you would have a clean sheet situation, so you come somewhere, there is a company, it certainly has a purpose, but uh, the company isn't aware of what it is. There was also in the past, never Uh, any efforts to find it and define it? How would you start in such a clean sheet situation?
I actually love coming upon these companies because it gives us the opportunity to really co-create, and I think there's power in that.
When one person sits in a room and tries to, you know, work through these details. I don't think you ever get the same experience as really co-creating.
Now, mind you, if you're a solopreneur and you're trying to envision some of this stuff, that's fantastic. But if you have the ability to have other key people from your organisation participate, wonderful, because that's where you're gonna get to the really good stuff.
So when I look at the notion of purpose, it's all about connectivity and it's all about sort of prioritising what's at the top and what should hang to it. And in my mind, purpose is the most high order you can get. That's the why. It's really why an organisation exists. And it could be the founder's story, it could be the Genesis story.
It could be where you are today. I've met some older organisations that feel like they've gone through evolutions, but it's really kind of getting that, why does this company exist? It's not necessarily just a product or a service. It's that intangible that goes beyond that. And then I start looking at what are the things that have to connect to that to make it something spectacular.
So again, those orders, what hangs to that? In my mind, it's the vision. So what are we aiming to achieve? Get that vision straight. Underneath that, the mission, how do we plan on achieving this? Then it's looking at values and if we've got the values, they should try and be material to the organisation.
It's what we stand for. And then finally, it's positioning, how do we differentiate from our competitors? So if you sort of look at that as the order of magnitude with purpose at the very, very top, and work your way through each of these questions, it starts to orient you a little better.
Very interesting Denise. Now. Did it already happen to you that you are in such a session with say, 15 or 20 key people of the company and everyone, or almost everyone told you, oh yes, I know the purpose of our company and it's this and that, and they all come up with something different. Did that some, did that happen?
Oh, it happens all the time. That is something that happens daily. I see that a lot in two scenarios. I see that with older organisations and I see that with startup organisations and it's not, again, it's never a bad thing to take the opportunity to co-create together. It's not about having this unanimous vote.
It's about reaching consensus and being able to keep iterating on something until, most of the people in the room feel like, yeah, that sounds right. We're starting to get closer to what this is supposed to feel like. So don't be deterred if everyone has a different idea. See it as an opportunity, because I feel like that's the moment you can get all these same people on the same page.
They'll have a vested interest if they're co-creating. And it allows them to see everything through the same lens, which is incredibly important when we're talking about purpose.
I particularly like how you say everybody needs to understand, um, what the purpose is. I'm just curious with very large organisations, right? If, uh, I, I, I was thinking, well, purpose statements have to be defined only by top management, and if not, how do you ensure that it's something that is discussed throughout the organisation, like throughout all the levels and like what's the easiest way, um, companies can go about this to ensure that they get consensus.
It goes back to that co-creation model. Do you need the CEO in order to prioritise a purpose and allow an organisation to realise this has just become one of our pillars.
Yes, you do, but that's just where it starts. So typically we'll have senior members of the organisation start to co-create and start to work through these iterations of purpose, but once they've settled on a few of them or a direction, then it's time to workshop. , it's time to bring in various elements of the organisation, literally from people on the shop room floor, all the way to our sales and service people throughout literally top to bottom, side to side, and be able to have their voice included.
Once again, that sense of ownership is really important that we're reflecting the entire organisation and not just one swathe at the upper levels, and I think that's where we see this new notion of what people are calling the purpose gap, because sometimes it doesn't get all the way throughout the organisation.
It sort of stops at middle management. And I think that's an absolute loss situation. You've gotta get it to all your employees. They've got to be able to internalise it and understand how they themselves can function within the purpose and how their job contributes to it.
So Denise, just to understand that correctly, say it's a huge worldwide organization and, uh, I am a team leader somewhere in Atlanta in a customer service department, and my people ask me and we ask together how to concretely daily contribute to that purpose.
Is that a typical situation?
I wouldn't say it's typical right out of the gate, but as the purpose begins to evolve and more people hear about it, see it, experience it, then yes, absolutely. People start wondering, well, how do I actually contribute to this purpose, or how do I affect this purpose? And I think that that's a really important point, and that's a juncture where you have got to be able to, again, whether it be workshop formats, whether it be small groups, whether it be large groups, whatever it is, you've got to get people introduced, exchanging and understanding what the purpose means to them.
In a singular environment by yourself, it's very difficult. But if you put people in groups, if you're able to have facilitators or moderators, it helps significantly because they can start giving you a couple seeds and you can start understanding, oh, I can see it in this way, and I see it all the time how it starts to unfold. and all of a sudden people realise, I do contribute to this greater whole, I am a part of this.
But it does take facilitation. It does take some of these group environments, and it does not happen quickly. If you are in a very large multinational organisation or large national organisation, you have to work at it. It has to be thought through with KPIs attached, with key milestones, you have to really look at this as one of the grand strategies within the organisation.
So now Denise, what I really find fascinating is the following. Initially you come from the advertising world. Do I, do I Do I say that correctly? And I, I
I, I, I, I could even argue that still today you are somehow, uh, involved in this, uh, advertising world, one of the biggest terms in the world, and nevertheless, you are very much busy with the company and the people in the company itself.
So you are not sitting together with the executive team on a nice offsite in Laguna Beach. Um, after such a inspiring weekend, come up with a purpose statement and, and that's it. So what, what you are saying is this has to live inside the company. Within the people inside the company, right?
Okay. And it should not, because this is the case here in Europe.
I can tell you that, that when I ask many people in huge companies, do you have a purpose statement? Oh, wait a minute. I think so. Oh, yes. Yes. And it, it, I think it's one year ago they made these posters, uh uh, and it was, it was together with this advertising agency. But you know what, I, I think I'm the only one in my department who even knows it.
Uh, so these situations, uh, I see them as as, as as typical and they have to be avoided. Do you agree?
I agree. Um, one of the things that's very popular in the US is people will oftentimes put their purpose on the entry wall. So when you walk in, you see this grand purpose, but if you walk through the entryway and start talking to the people, , they don't know what the purpose is, and if they do, they have no idea how their work, their job pertains to the purpose.
So it's really, really, I cannot stress it enough. It's so important to socialise this purpose, to actually allow people to touch it and feel it and meet them where they are so they can start to understand how they actually are 100% a part of this purpose, and it doesn't just become some slogan or something that's scrolled like you said on the wall in somebody's, you know, hiring manual.
That it's actually a living, breathing strategy that goes across the arc of the entire organisation.
Thank you. It's just wonderfully expressed and I don't think we could, uh, we could say that or anybody could say that any way better. Deborah, before we move on to one of my favourite topics, do you still have a question for Denise on this clean sheet situation?
No, not yet. It's just, I'm very happy with how she's able to, move from an advertising background, and then you're able to help people actually install it on a day to day, because from the marketing side, it's usually only prepared to convince consumers that our product is good for you because it's making some kind of an impact in the world.
Right? But then you, you have been able to merge by ensuring that they actually, it means something to the employees as well and then the customers would actually then believe that's what they're saying is true. And I really like that, that perspective.
It's an interesting marriage. So TBWA, the vertical I work with in Omnicom, they are the disruption company and they take that very seriously.
And what I've been able to do is actually marry these purpose skills with the creatives so instead of them being separate and held apart, once we do this, the strategy of the purpose work, we try very hard to marry that with the creative and the creatives are very excited about that because they now get to tell these deeply authentic stories.
They get wonderful storytelling that they can then anchor their craft to. So it's sort of two parts to a whole.
Yeah, it is amazing. And indeed, I couldn't agree more. This storytelling talent is heavily needed.
When on authentic basis, and I can understand also very well that these storytelling geniuses are feeling much better when they feel they are on an authentic basis and not out of thin air.
I, I ab absolutely, and it's a bit of magic that's made and our clients really enjoy and appreciate it. The creative folks really enjoy and appreciate it.
So it's, it's a wonderful thing to see these all come together in a deeply authentic way. And all of a sudden you've got this visual embodiment of what the purpose looks like. And that's an exciting day.
Yeah. And, and, and I, I, I really feel it.
Now. Denise, one of my favourite topics is the connection or maybe lack of the connection of purpose on one side and ESGs. So environmental, social, and governance, uh, topics on the other side.
And why do I come to that? Because many, many companies I talk to are, when talking about purpose, are immediately on the, on that ESG, um, topic. And I always, I, I, I imagine an ice cream seller, in Rome, I'm sure this ice cream seller, she or he has a purpose, but maybe this purpose has nothing to do with the environment, maybe also nothing with governance and, uh, even less with, uh, any societal issues, uh, in Italy, Rome, Europe, or the world.
So I guess my question is, If I am not busy, if my purpose is not connected to the environment or other ESG things, did I fail? Am I allowed to simply say my purpose is to make some Roman families happy? Is that an acceptable purpose?
It's an interesting question, and I see this a lot with startup organisations, solopreneurs, people that are in a founder's position because it's so deeply close to them.
First of all, no, you have not failed. If you are considering this notion of purpose, you are already on a better track. So that's the sort of foundational answer to the first part. The second part is if you have a purpose, I would venture to say I could either connect it to people or to the environment in some way, shape, or form.
So we're back to that connectivity. How does it all work together? And it's absolutely fine to have a purpose that you're starting with and to be able to live into that purpose and to start defining some of those things we talked about first with how does the vision and the mission and the values and the positioning connect.
But then I think ESG is on a similar track where purpose is this top order item. It's the strategic operating system that goes across the arc of the organisation. And if that's an ice cream seller, fantastic. I hope they have Stragiatella cuz I'm gonna be first in line and it will make me very, very happy. But that's a place to start and then start thinking through these other things.
ESG is a way to actuate the purpose. It's sort of the tactical version of output from the purpose. So once we have this purpose, it's a great place to start, but then I would start to think, what am I doing with that happiness? What am I trying to connect it to? What do I hope to be able to accomplish with what I have?
What are the products, services, ip, whatever it is, and if it is, in this particular case, it's happiness, how am I going to use that happiness? Where am I going to use that happiness? And I would just start breaking out some scenarios so we can take one more. But just because you don't have a full ESG plan does not mean you have failed.
Thank you so much, Denise. What you did now for me is you made me much less cynical than I used to be about this ESG connection because I, I, I used to make jokes about it. Yeah. Uh, and, and, and, and. Maybe if I could put it in my words, what you're saying is this purpose is not a bad place to start and then think further
in, in that case, think not only about a couple of people being happy for a few short moments. But how, how does it go further? And at a certain point of time, you will arrive at society, at an an environment at these ESG topics. Is that what you are saying, Denise?
Yes. It takes a little thinking and it takes some strategy to work your way through, but the best purpose. is one that's connected to the material values of the organisation.
So if I believe that ice cream produces happiness, that's a wonderful way to look at it. How might I use that happiness? Is it something where with my skills and my tools, products and services, I can help underprivileged kids learn a new craft? Is it something where I can bring veterans or people that are hospitalised or homeless, some of that happiness to share?
I would be thinking about what's the next step that I can use that's deeply connected to my business where I see people get into trouble, and it's often times, founders that have a deep passion. Don't remove that passion but if that passion isn't connected to your company in a material way, you might wanna use that as your personal passion and then be thinking about the purpose of the organisation as something that's material to the organisation.
So with the ice cream, it would be a very difficult jump to say we wanna donate shoes. All of a sudden we're disconnected from the ice cream store, that might be a personal passion of the founder, but it doesn't connect to the material value of the organisation. So keeping that connectivity and making sure that that's where it's coming from is a surefire way to give that purpose more power,
because it increases and reinforces the authenticity. Right?
Thank you so much, Denise. Now Deborah, I know you are very keen on the third part of our podcast and to ask your question to Denise, please go ahead Deborah.
Hey, absolutely, and actually even thinking about the ESG goals, I feel like they they help founders and owners find out what's, what are the things that would really matter to the world?
What are the real problems that are important for us to be solving and moving from just having a purpose that would make a few people happy back in the case of the ice cream, vendor, now the ESGs serve as a guide for you to target areas that would really matter to the people that you really want to serve.
So the last question I think that we had talked about is that, is to find out, in terms of the companies that you, you've worked with, right? Which ones would you say have really done it, have been able to implement purpose in a way that you say is actually working and looks more authentic than those that have it only pasted on the walls, but then really has no impact in the way they run their operations?
I have two examples, and one is a very, very big, well-known example, and one is still a very large organisation but may not be as well known, but it's a company. That I've been working with diligently for the last three years and really doing exactly that and bringing their purpose to life. They crafted and co-created the actual purpose statement.
They took it throughout the organisation to get feedback and to get engagement. and now three years later, they're innovating products and services. They're creating wonderful things. And, um, it's principal financial group and their purpose is to foster a world where financial security is accessible to all.
And what we found out in our original research was that financial services companies, are the worst at making people feel insecure about their financial situation, . So they actually bring the worst out in that, make people extremely insecure and they wanted to use their superpowers in order to do the opposite.
They wanted to humanize financial services. They have, um, a beautiful situation in that they have a foundation that's able to do things like education and help with the underserved. So they've really broken the things out effectively, still driving against their purpose between their foundation on one side and their actual core business.
So their actual core business is helping to serve more small, minority and women owned businesses. They're also helping to educate and get them into better situations, so, they have done something wonderful in that they've internalised it first, they made sure that their employees were well versed with it, that they could touch it and feel it.
They feel a strong sense of pride because it really does stem from, and where we started was with their values. They were a very values driven organisation that hadn't laddered up to this thing called purpose yet. So it's really fascinating to see. This purpose really come to life as a manifestation of their material values of the organisation.
Then they were able to really leverage it and start to touch their customers. So once again, another group and their stakeholder connectivity that's able to start experiencing them, and that is where advertising came into play. They were able to do some beautiful communication work to really show what their purpose was and to really start connecting them to their purpose.
And they've just done, it's not released yet, but I'm gonna be very excited to see the end product. .
their very first, entirely purpose driven spot and it's all about the soul of Principal Financial group. I think it's gonna be spectacular. I see people on the creative side. I see people on the corporate side getting excited about this in a way I've not experienced.
They're so invested in it. It's so deeply authentic to the organisation, and it's a really beautiful way for it to be brought to the world. .
And then third, I think investors are a really interesting part of this. So we now are seeing, you know, green bonds and things that are happening directly again, here's where the ESG comes into play.
The ESG is a manifestation of their purpose, it's not the highest order. It's paying off the purpose. It's the tactile way of actually producing things that go out into the world that feed off of this notion of their purpose. So it's been really exciting. Did not happen overnight. . It took a lot of hard work from a lot of different, um, facets of the organisation.
It did not come from one singular group. One owns it and one oversees it, but many, many, many parts of this huge international organisation have touched it and helped shape it and have participated in it. And now, three years later, you can really see the progress that's been made. So it's a beautiful thing to see.
Thank you. Just, just shortly. Yeah. Three years. Very, very interesting timeframe. It's, uh, just one to, to give a heads up on that. Uh, please, Deborah. Go ahead. Okay.
That sounds really impressive. I'm just curious about the fact that, sometimes with purpose statements, it may seem as if, for some people, it may seem as if we are making for-profit organisations almost act as if they are not for profit by wanting to do so much good to society. And I'm wondering, is there a way to actually balance it? I mean, in as much as you'd want to align all your operational decisions to foster, to ensure that you, um, make the kind of impact you want to make, where do you draw the line to ensure that you're still making profit, to take care of the people and then to ensure that the business is still running.
I'm smiling because this is a daily conversation with most senior executives and the board of directors. They are very concerned. You cannot have a purpose if the company is not profitable. You cannot separate the two of those things, so it has to be in service of the organisation. Not all of a sudden the organisation has become a nonprofit.
So in the example I just gave you is a really, really good one because they are a very large organisation. They are a multinational organisation and they do have a foundation that is able to do the work of a nonprofit. , they're able to educate, they are able to sponsor, they're able to do the things that you would see more on the nonprofit side, but on the core business side, they're innovating and doing some really incredible ways, things to where if they hold the purpose up and ask the question, is this in service of our purpose? A lot of the new things that are coming on board are resounding yes. So it's not just giving things away. It's not just showing up in that way. It's also how do we innovate? How do we look at our core products and services? How do we look at our people to be in better service of this purpose? And when those things all come together, that's when we start to see the business case begin to evolve. We start to see incredible PLO employees we're able to attract employee turnover goes way down. Um, a sense of belonging begins to increase. We start to see some financial metrics that begin to increase.
We've got customer sentiment that's much stronger, so the lifetime value of the customer increases. So there's a lot of business value we can tap into that's really far away from this nonprofit notion. It's for-profit for good, and it's one of the business models that I think today in 2023, especially on the heels of all the crises of the last three years, most of our key stakeholders expect organisations to stand up and represent in some way, shape, or form, but never to abandon their core business.
Their core business should be used in service of the purpose, not externally to it.
Yeah. Thank you so much, Denise and I. And, and I think this example with the foundation, uh, which really authentically connects with the purpose of, of this organisation, makes it, makes it again, uh, very, very clear. And now I think we are so excited to hear the second example. Which I understood you, is a very, very well known.
Yes. And the reason I like to use them as an example is because I get asked daily about that financial metric, and it's one that's far more elusive and I think it's misleading. So first of all, I just wanna say profit is extremely important, but it's not something that's gonna show up.
Your purpose is not gonna produce profit right out of the gates in the first couple of months, not even in the first year, but the other things we talked about in the business cas, you know , being able to find incredible employees, reducing employee turnover, having longer lifetime value with our customers. All those things are very, very possible and that ladders up to profit.
But Unilever, Unilever has done something very special in that their purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. And I think they've done a fantastic example because they've actually bifurcated their products. So they have them in different product groupings so they can measure their purpose-driven brands versus their non-purpose driven brands.
And what they've found is that their purpose-driven brands are significantly outperforming their non-purpose driven brands. So it's one of the most clear cases of can this produce bottom line value? Yes, it can. Can it produce top line value? Yes, it can. And it's because of the structure, because they've so clearly put their products into this purpose-driven group versus this non-purpose driven group.
You can see the performance difference, and I think it's a really great case of getting to compare apples to apples. And it's very rare that an organisation can look through the lines in that way that are so clear. Now, mind you, everything has grey. Everything can get a little bit murky, but because they've got two different product categories, they can really see side by side the comparison.
They can see what's outperforming, and I think it's always a great example because it's, the question that I get asked all the time is, you know, what about profit? And they're a very clear example of where you can see this purpose-driven category outperforming the non-purpose driven category.
Yeah. Thank you so much, Denise.
I do remember many years ago, uh, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, um, so to say gave, gave the, the, the, I would even say the instruction to, be in a way it used to be controversial, uh, at that point of time,
and it, it turned out to be a huge success. I fully agree with you. Now, Denise. Imagine I am the CEO of uh, a company, let's say, an international company, 10, 15,000 people. I listen to your podcast. I am inspired by everything you say, and I would like to go down that route. Now, what in your opinion, is the biggest mistake I could do along that route?
Despite all my good intentions, despite the fact I'm very much inspired by you? What do I have to avoid at any cost?
I would avoid at any cost, feeling like I have to address everything. Everything has to be on the docket. I see this quite often. People start on the path very conservatively and then they get really excited and they realise the power and the potential that purpose brings them and then they start to have this feeling like they have to address every ill in the world.
Every climate crisis issue, every human crisis, and the truth is that is how they're gonna get in the biggest trouble. Not only could it fail, it could actually be detrimental to the organisation if their purpose doesn't pertain to that particular issue. So I would say do your best to stay focused.
You've done your hard work. You are starting to craft all those material values to the organisation that ladder up to your purpose. It's okay if you get to a point where you feel like you can expand them, but try really hard to not fall into that trap where you feel like you are required to address every problem.
Nobody on Earth can do that. You will fail at it. And then it makes people question the legitimacy of purpose to begin with. And the truth is you just spread yourself too thin and started to try to tackle problems that your organisation is not built to address. So be very, very clear. It's very hard for CEOs sometimes because there's a lot of pressure with a lot of crises that are going on.
They feel like they have to address something, but the truth is, if it isn't material to your organisation and your purpose, no, you do not.
Thank you so much. You talk about focus, which is one of our biggest, uh, most important unbossing value,
focus, authenticity, all of these words, they have significant meaning, and when they're used properly, they're guardrails to keep you safe and to make your purpose even more valuable and even more potent and even more organic and authentic within your organisation.
Denise, I can't express enough how much guidance, inspiration you are bringing to us and to our podcast listeners, and it would be for us as the ambassadors dream one day to be able to work together with you. And, and to build further on that also with a type of organisation which gives people freedom and autonomy to move like a fleet of speed boats as compared to oil tankers and, uh, I would just like to say a huge, huge thank you in my case, uh, from Europe to wonderful Laguna Beach because also that's what you're doing.
You make us dream of California the whole time. ,
You are welcome. Anytime Thomas and Deborah, I love what you are doing as well. I think unbossing should become a movement and it would be fantastic to collaborate at some point.
Thank you. Deborah, I leave you the last words.
I think this has been a really insightful session.
I mean, uh, for me, I've, I've read about purpose, heard people talk about it, but to have someone who has actually done it and helped, um, companies actually have it move down with very large companies where it seems like it's impossible to align operations with purpose, but then you're able to get people to do it and talk about it.
It's, it's so inspiring for me and I've learned so much today and I really hope everyone who listened, um, will be so inspired to start taking the steps to, to ensure that their employees feel more, um, happier and fulfilled going to work because their work, um, would be making a meaningful impact in, in the world.
And thank you so much for converting Thomas as well to, to believe in ESGs. That was so good. Thank you.
Cheers to that . Yeah, thank you. All right, everyone. Thank you so much.
All right, thank you. Bye,
Denise. Wishing you a great day. Bye.