HR Management & Compliance, Mastering Leadership

CHROs’ Time Has Come

How activating brand purpose can make the difference

After the past (COVID) year, employees coming out of the pandemic are feeling drained. They are looking to leaders for reassurance, inspiration, and courage to guide them through a time of great uncertainty. Traditional employee engagement and “status quo” internal communications are good, but much more is needed than e-mails wishing good health and safety.

activating brand purpose

At the same time, CEOs are looking for chief human resources officers (CHROs) and people directors to lean in and help guide them and their employees through the storm and into the aftermath. This is a time to demonstrate expertise in walking the tightrope of compliance protocols and, more importantly, helping to crystallize leader vision and courage around the value you add because your people need it.

Where Do You Begin?

The perfect starting point is understanding and then activating your company’s purpose. While there are numerous books about finding your brand purpose, none deals with the biggest challenge facing purpose: how you can activate it inside the organization for the people who matter. This is especially true when employees and the C-suite are looking for resiliency, empathy, and innovation.

My colleague Chip Walker and I have written a new book entitled Activate Brand Purpose. It gets to the heart of what limitations lie in the traditional HR approach and lays out a pragmatic road map for how people directors can help lead the systemic change we need to build stronger company identity and purpose to cultivate engaged and productive employees in a way that works for everyone inside the organization.

The post-COVID workplace looks very different from 18 months ago. There’s fear, anxiety, financial stress … the list goes on. And change doesn’t seem to be abating any time soon. As Alexander Westerdahl, Vice President of Human Resources at Spotify, told The New York Times, “We’re on top of the next change, which is the Distributed Age, where people can be more valuable in how they work, which doesn’t really matter where you spend your time.”

On top of that is the battle for talent. Simply put, it appears there is not enough supply to meet demand—and there may not be any time soon, according to Agari. The most recent jobs data put the national unemployment rate at 3.6%, the lowest it’s been in half a century.

You Can’t Change Company Culture with a Mandate, But You Can with a Movement

As a leader, you must build an impetus for people to work at your company beyond the promise of common rhetoric. You’re also building a dynamic and engaged workforce whose lives are shaped by events greater than their control—or yours. By using a concept we coined “Movement Thinking,” organizational leaders can activate a brand purpose within employees/associates that brings human connection and cohesion. Movement is the difference between “top-down leadership” (e.g., do this because I tell you to do it) and “cross-company leadership” (e.g., let’s do this because we all want to do it and because it’s something that really matters to you and us) because it invites employees to participate in the process. Another benefit of using movements to activate your brand purpose is that it minimizes what we call The Purpose Gap, which is essentially the distance over time and down through the organization between a purpose being announced and its continued understanding and use at the “bottom” of the organization 18—or more—months later.

The test of a purpose is, obviously, not whether it is met rapturously when it is unveiled by the leadership team but whether it is still being used by frontline staff 3 years (and a pandemic) later. The gap between those two events and levels of people is the essence of The Purpose Gap. In selling our own Movement Thinking offer, we map our products and services against this idea. And the opposite of “one” (leader) is “everyone” and every level. And that’s why your internal movements are the opposite of top-down mandates, which don’t work very well in this new peer-to-peer world, and why the understanding movements create throughout the organization enables them to overcome The Purpose Gap over time (because it is a more commonly owned motivation) and through the organization.

The challenges brought on by the pandemic, economic downturn, and racial injustice have elevated the role of the CHRO and other HR leaders to help CEOs manage employees during the crisis and into the future like never before.

Christy Pambianchi, EVP/CHRO of Verizon, tells us, “The purpose of Human Resources is to deliver the talent that creates the network to move the world forward, and we’re going to do that by attracting people who are excited about our purpose.” This has transformed Verizon’s incentive and employee programs. These moves, she says, help people understand how serious the company is about its purpose. This is the “CHRO moment.” They can change the hearts, minds, and habits with a movement inside the organization.

Key Tenets of Movement Thinking to Put into Practice

  • A movement inside can change company culture and employee behavior better than a CEO mandate by inspiring trust, creativity, and motivation among employees.
  • A movement inside puts the human first—a 180-degree turn from the company talking to employees. This framework starts with what’s relevant to your people and then ties it back to the company’s purpose to drive habit change quickly.
  • A movement inside allows you to challenge existing biases and orthodoxies so employees understand, engage with, and are hired to align with the company’s purpose.
  •  A movement inside can engage employees by addressing specific pain points such as mental, physical, and financial well-being.
  • A movement inside delivers engagement through consumer-grade communications that meet people where they are.

Scott Goodson is author of Activate Brand Purpose and is the founder of movement firm StrawberryFrog.