PURPOSE STATEMENTS: COCK UP OR CONSPIRACY?

2 weeks ago

Our Senior Associate Director James Ralph explores purpose statements in response to Simon English’s column discussing the failure of poultry processor Two Sisters to meet food safety standards.

“Simon English raises an important point about purpose in his Friday column in the Evening Standard on the apparent failures at poultry processor Two Sisters. He flags that while “purpose” has become a buzzword bandied around by consultants such as myself, it seems that many of the organisations we counsel fail to apply that purpose in their dealings with suppliers and outsourcers. Personally I find that a little unfair on organisations such as Marks & Spencer which with their Plan A have always included their supply chain in their commitments. That said, having reviewed their latest plan after more than a decade of Plan A, I notice more good intentions than hard policies. So what’s going wrong?

One of the challenges business leaders face in framing their purpose is in achieving a balance between the values and goals that work for their specific organisation as well as for their suppliers. Too specific and it becomes tough for third parties to sign up to, too general and the purpose become too woolly to apply in practice. The trick lies in acknowledging those values that differentiate your organisation, and those that underline your license to operate. Here at Good Relations that’s the difference between signing up to our commitment to being bold, and signing up to the PRCA code of conduct.

The alleged failings at Two Sisters are an industry issue, they are not an indictment of M&S’ plan A, or Sainsbury’s Living Well strategy. These apparent breaches of industry standards were taken to boost profits at Two Sisters, and did so because of a lack of oversight. It is not the purpose that is broken, it is the follow through by food safety authorities, retailers and society.   

Blaming purpose statements for bad practice makes no sense, but pointing out the gulf between intent and action does. Living up to values is far more important than liking the sound of them. Simon nails this with his statement that “large firms spout total guff about themselves”. Those of us that work to help clients identify their purpose must challenge that the words mean nothing if they are not backed up with clear campaigns that show business progress. For those accused of putting such “guff” together, it raises the uncomfortable question of whether we should only recommend values that we truly believe our clients are going to live up to.

One to ponder.”