Senior Leaders on Communicating Purpose, Inside and Outside the Organization

By Christa Avampato, Meghan Hall |  March 29, 2023

Once an organization has successfully defined a purpose, it becomes vital to communicate it — both internally and externally. 

A solid communications strategy ensures that, once purpose has been defined, it becomes a core part of day-to-day work and decision-making. 

As part of our Innovation on Purpose series, sponsored by BCG BrightHouse, we interviewed a dozen senior leaders at companies working to instill a sense of purpose into their organizations’ DNA. Leaders from General Motors, Square, the law firm Goodwin Procter, and more shared advice on communicating about purpose. 

Muna Hamza, Senior Director of Purpose and Innovation Accelerator at General Motors, said that the company is part of the way through implementing its purpose, which it has defined as: “We pioneer the innovations that move and connect people to what matters.”

Throughout that process, those working directly on purpose have had strategic discussions with leaders inside the company — helping them to understand the concept of purpose, asking for input on the company’s purpose, and looking for help communicating about the purpose at the small team level.

Muna Hamza, Senior Director of Purpose and Innovation Accelerator at General Motors

Muna Hamza, Senior Director of Purpose and Innovation Accelerator at General Motors: “I would say stage one [of implementing our purpose] was really building understanding and awareness of the purpose, and building some conviction and belief. I can’t emphasize how important it is to do that well, and that that takes time. You can’t just blast it out there. It’s not a communications or marketing campaign. If it’s meant to be a platform for change, which it is, then you do that small groups of people at a time; that’s the only way to actually affect change. … Concurrently with that is, how do you make it real for people? That is partly through simply telling stories around what it means to be purpose-driven, what purpose looks like at General Motors, making sure that people can see themselves in it, that everybody feels like they have a role in it.

And then there’s the more administrative, mechanical side, which is, is it showing up in the places where people will know that it’s real? Is it showing up in communications from leaders? Is it showing up in our performance management system? Is it showing up in our sustainability strategy — all the places where, if you’re really living your purpose, there should be this sort of connective thread. It’s easier said than done to make sure that there is that consistency, especially in a big company.”

Hamza said that kind of buy-in had to come from the top-down; General Motors engaged a number of its senior executives, communicating with them about the purpose it has been working to implement. The company hoped that those leaders’ interest in and learnings about purpose would translate into other conversations, and get other leaders embedding purpose into their initiatives and teams.

“One thing that we did that has been really critical for working in our culture is we spent a lot of time up front with our leaders — not just the C-suite, but [also] the next level of leaders — and that leadership buy-in has been so critical. … It wasn’t just handing it to the leaders and saying, ‘Here is our purpose. Now go bring it to life in your team.’ We had to create the space and the time for small group dialogues. So the leaders first felt connected to it, felt a sense of being able to see themselves in it, and then could connect to how it could help them in the ways that they needed to inspire and motivate their team — or to measure success or performance or anything else. 

That looks different from leader to leader, but it’s really really important to make sure that they had the time to connect with [the purpose] first. And those are the types of things that I think… can be glossed over because they take time. It’s hard sometimes to make the time for [things that feel important, but not urgent], but that was a big part of our strategy early on.”

Alex Ho, who was previously Chief Marketing Officer at pest-control company Terminix and had roles at American Greetings and Procter & Gamble, said alignment matters when seeking to communicate about purpose. That alignment can’t just be between leadership and employees, though — Ho said a company needs to consider a variety of stakeholders. 

Alex Ho: “Alignment of purpose is important — between the company, their customers, providers, vendors, etc. That alignment comes from listening, really listening, to what the stakeholders of a business care about. What matters to them? What do they value? How does your company align with those values? 

Alex Ho

With B2C businesses, doing deep dives through ethnographic techniques and interviews help a company actively listen. You need professionals that can really go beneath the surface of what’s being said to really understand the psychological motivation. What are the key drivers? With B2B, the key is to train the salesforce that has the relationship with the customer. Either way, the key to alignment is to have deep discussions based on trust. You have to ask the questions and you have to go deep to get to root values.

You’re not going to see and realize the commercial benefit of purpose or purpose-driven innovation until that purpose is truly internally adopted by an entire organization. This takes a serious investment of time, resources, and communications to allow an organization to bring everybody into the fold, to make purpose a part of the culture. The company’s leaders need to embrace the purpose, and that purpose needs to be evident in their strategy, actions, and communications. They have to walk the talk of purpose in order to drive wide-scale adoption, within an organization and with external stakeholders.”

Thanks to BCG BrightHouse for their sponsorship of this series. Read more pieces on innovating purposefully here.

Goodwin Procter, a Boston-based global law firm with over 1,800 lawyers, uses a list of ten core principles as its purpose. The principles range from being “comfortable with the uncomfortable,” to being “culturally vibrant,” to making sure “everyone’s a leader.” 

Rachel Dooley, the firm’s Chief Innovation Officer, said she and two of her colleagues have begun collaborating on ideation sessions to better understand employees’ feelings about how well the firm lives out its purpose. 

Rachel Dooley, Chief Innovation Officer, Goodwin Procter

Rachel Dooley, Chief Innovation Officer, Goodwin Procter: “We started doing a series of ideation sessions. It started as [a] collaboration between Innovation, Diversity, and Inclusion, and what we call the Goodwin Experience for our employees. The three of us, all women at Goodwin, collaborate on this ideation series — asking our folks to engage with us in the experiment of design thinking. We put giant boards up around the room. Each one has a core principle on it, and we ask participants to rank how well we live each principle. We ask them to place Post-Its that call out where in the firm they see the core principles in action, and where they see room for opportunity to better live them. We’ve done two sessions. We had over 200 folks participate, and collectively surfaced 250 unique ideas. We have a wealth of knowledge at every level of the firm, and we aim to engage all possible colleagues in what is the future of the practice. The response to date has been incredibly strong, and we’ve surfaced dozens of incredible ideas through multiple lenses of the firm.”

Like Goodwin Procter, Square, the San Francisco-based payments and point-of-sale company, takes steps to communicate with its employees — and to intentionally measure how they feel about the organization’s commitment to purpose and its work as a whole. 

Tia Cummings-Hopkins, SVP of Global Brand Marketing at Square, explained why the organization feels strongly about running those surveys. She also shared insights on bringing new employees into a purpose-led organization. 

Tia Cummings-Hopkins, SVP of Global Brand Marketing, Square

Tia Cummings-Hopkins, SVP of Global Brand Marketing, Square: “We run an employee pulse survey twice a year, where we ask how people are feeling about the organization, the direction we’re headed in, do they feel proud to work here, all those types of questions. That also serves as a gauge for how we’re doing, because we can look at how we’re trending over the course of the year, and over the course of several years, because we’re doing it twice a year. It’s important to us that our employees believe in what we’re doing here. I think every company wants employees who are motivated and happy to work there. But it’s something different when people are super passionate about the purpose, because it just brings a different level of energy, a different level of focus to the work.”

But at Square — and at many other organizations — purpose has also begun affecting prospective employees’ desire to work for one company over another. Cummings-Hopkins said that, over time, many of the employees she’s interviewed or hired have come to Square primarily because of its purpose of economic empowerment. And once those employees are in the door, she said, the company makes every effort to help them be part of the effort to keep purpose at the center of Square’s decisions and operations. 

“From your first week, as you’re going through your Square onboarding, you learn about the history of Square; you learn about how and why we were founded; you learn about economic empowerment. [If you] talk to anyone at the company, and ask them, ‘Hey, what’s Square’s purpose? You’re going to get the answer: ‘Economic empowerment,’ which is pretty impressive. There’s not many other companies I can think of… where every employee is very clear on why we exist, why we’re here, and how we do work that builds up to that purpose every day.”