The importance of purpose in a VUCA world


It was one of the key terms at this year’s CIPR National Conference at the British Library on 29th November. ‘VUCA’ – the acronym which, sadly, describes the world we live in today: one of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

In times of flux, there are a couple of things we need as human beings, but also professionals, and that’s purpose. Purpose provides stability, motivation and consistency in our work, it helps steer the ship through choppy seas where we can’t quite see what’s on the horizon.

This is not just a ‘nice to have’; it’s essential in the millennial world. Young people are now increasingly looking for societal values in a business, over the actual services and products themselves – as was highlighted in a Sunday Times article (2nd December 2018). It pointed to a survey of 10,000 millennials, which found a real lack of trust, with the minority believing businesses acted ethically.

It’s an obvious sign of the times and needs to be a priority for businesses. A true proof in the (frozen) pudding was the seemingly unstoppable Richard Walker, Managing Director, Iceland Food Warehouse, who spoke at the CIPR conference.

As the top dog of one of the UK’s leading supermarkets, he’s also making a real name for himself in the environmentally-friendly business sphere. Describing himself as a keen surfer, mountaineer, and general outdoorsy-sort, he acknowledges the fundamental relationship we have with the natural world, and the pivotal role we play in protecting it.

Only recently the national treasure, Sir David Attenborough, took to the stage at United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland, to further this exact point.

Using Richard’s influential role, and the fact that Iceland has the freedom of remaining a privately owned, family business, he is making his mark by pledging to remove plastic from stores by 2023 and has already banned palm oil from Iceland products. The latter fact may not have gone unnoticed since he was the force behind the ‘banned’ (though, widely viewed thanks to social media) Greenpeace/Iceland advert featuring the lovable baby orangutan ‘Rang-tan’.

However, purpose and authentic values should not be a sticking plaster for the rest of a company’s behaviour – you can’t just throw money at a charity and make everything better. It needs to bleed into everything that a company and its people do, holding every leader and employee accountable for their behaviour and choices – a view shared by fellow speakers at the CIPR Conference John O’Brien, MBE, from Omnicom’s ‘ONE HUNDRED’ ethical purpose agency, and Molly Aldridge, Global CEO M&C Saatchi PR.

A company’s purpose must be simple – there must be a clear roadmap to achieving that goal in the work you do, it must empower everyone, and should be sustainable into the long-term.

While this sounds like basic good business sense, having true purpose and values takes a lot of courage, as was illustrated by Josh Hardie, CBI Deputy Director-General, at the Conference. While some may not agree with your values and beliefs, speaking up for what you believe in by listening to customers, gauging the lay of land, and ‘fixing the fundamentals’ can help gain trust. Business should not be afraid to take a certain stance against or for something, for fear that they may lose customers - in fact, the courage of a business’ conviction is exactly what could draw people to you.

It’s clear that there’s a shift going on in the VUCA world. Amidst all the uncertainty and volatility, people are wanting and forcing change. In fact, VUCA could be the very reason we’re becoming better citizens. In the words of Rudyard Kipling ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you’, this is precisely the message leaders need adhere to – stick to your beliefs, people will follow.

Notably, the Rang-tan advert which was deemed too political hit 13 million online views a week after it was banned. People will follow.


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