How Purpose Lights the Way During COVID-19

Written by

Dolly Meese Global Head of DEI, Managing Director | Brad White BCG Alumnus |

May 05, 2020 · 7-minute read


And for corporations, these three words may also mean the life of their business. In the midst of this fight, we seek stability. While everything around us is changing, we grasp for what will not change. An anchor to fix our position. A North Star to light the way. Research published in the Harvard Business Review reveals that organizations who are most successful in managing change are those that focus on what changes and what will remain consistent. In other words, we need an anchor and a North Star to focus on what is not changing in order to manage change successfully.

Organizational Purpose has always mattered, and it matters now more than ever. Purpose articulates what is distinct and authentic about an organization and the need it fulfills in the world. It articulates fundamental elements of an organization and why it exists – its unchanging reason for being. For so many people working farther apart and feeling more alone than ever, Purpose can be the North Star and create the consistency that is so vital.

A crisis is a magnifying moment. Organizational leaders are making key decisions in this time that will affect their stakeholders for years to come. Many leaders are using their purpose to anchor and guide their decisions, taking meaningful, bold actions to help employees and customers in this crisis. And when they do, it inspires their employees to go above and beyond. When employees have purpose and meaning in their jobs, what they can accomplish is nothing short of miraculous.

For the Makers

Stanley Black and Decker, whose Purpose is For Those who Make the World, has just announced a 10 million dollar philanthropic effort as part of their COVID-19 response. Their first stated priority is the health and safety of their employees. Having benefited from early measures taken in their factories in China, Stanley Black and Decker quickly implemented higher standards, often exceeding local legal requirements. As CEO Jim Loree said in his official letter, “We continue to be inspired by the passion and societal commitment of our employees around the globe. Even when faced with their own personal challenges related to COVID-19, as well as new operational challenges, they continue to find impactful ways to live our purpose and be a force for good.”

Their commitment to their employees goes beyond mere words, Stanley Black and Decker’s Leadership Team and Board of Directors has donated 20% of their pay directly to the employee relief fund. They are also committing to COVID-19 relief funds globally, using their supply chain to provide critical PPE distribution, and created a global company-wide task force to use their innovation capabilities to mitigate the illness. Because many of the products they make directly support front-line responders and essential workers, including the rechargeable batteries in respirators along with ventilators and many other pieces of hospital equipment, SBD is living their purpose each day by providing for the people who are keeping our world moving.

Dare to Lead

The North Face, whose Purpose is Dare to Lead the World Forward Through Exploration, believes that exploration leads to meaningful connections. This seems difficult to act on when our focus is on social distancing and our explorations are limited to our homes. But Arne Arens, President of The North Face, realized there was no better time to put their Purpose into action. In a purposeful statement, Arens said, “This global crisis has reminded us that empathy is a key driver of exploration, and when faced with adversity we’ll continue to do our part to champion that spirit of exploration. We believe that distancing shouldn’t mean disconnection.”

Since Arens’ initial statement, The North Face closed its stores until May, donated 60,000 gloves to healthcare professionals and first responders in Colorado, where its headquarters are based, and opened up their video archive for viewers to explore outside curiosity while staying inside. They have also committed $1M through their Explore Fund to support outdoor communities. While the situation has changed, their dedication to their Purpose and principles have remained consistent.

Move the World

Mercedes-Benz, whose Purpose is First Move the World, didn’t wait before committing machinery, know-how, and skilled personnel. They donated 110,000 respirators for hospitals and medical practices. They also repurposed their 3D printers to manufacture face shields and by late April had already delivered 2,000 to first responders. Mercedes-Benz also set up a temporary hospital with 1,500 beds in India, while their Formula One team raced to develop breathing aids. They are even donating their social media reach by sharing advice from WHO. “Individuals have to keep their distance from each other, but at the same time societies are coming together,” says Ola Källenius, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG.

All of these interventions are driven by Mercedes-Benz’ Purpose, in addition to the company’s previous social impact Bold Commitments made at the Purpose launch. While many companies might be tempted to let one crisis supersede another, Ola Källenius has just published a piece in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung entitled COVID-19 and CO2: Learning from one Challenge for Another. In it, he describes how Mercedes-Benz is continuing its commitment to climate change, working to flatten the global temperature curve as it works to flatten the COVID-19 curve, and how both challenges will take the kind of unprecedented societal commitment we’ve seen as companies, governments, and non-profits come together to tackle these emergencies. It’s reassuring to see how their purposeful commitment to sustainability is staying the same, while so many things are changing.

Making it Commonplace

Unilever, whose purpose is to Make Sustainable Living Commonplace, is another company that is putting its Purpose into action. As the largest soap company in the world, they have committed to provide 100M Euros of free soap, sanitizer, bleach, and food to consumers and communities. They have also committed to offering 500M Euros of cash flow relief to support the livelihoods across their extended value chain, including small and medium-sized suppliers and retailers as well as employees and contractors who are not directly on Unilever’s payroll but are on their sites. They realize that making sustainable living commonplace can’t happen with economic and resource disparity. That’s why, they’re working to protect lives and livelihoods during the pandemic by distributing sanitizing resources where they’re scarce.

In fact, they’ve committed to reaching a billion people with their latest COVID-19 handwashing public service campaign. According to Unilever CEO Alan Jope, “We hope that the work we will be able to drive jointly with UK aid will help save lives that could otherwise be impacted by coronavirus. As the world’s biggest soap company, we have a responsibility to help make soap and hygiene products more readily available and to use our expertise to teach people to wash their hands effectively, whichever brand they choose to use.” While the challenge has changed, their commitment to their Purpose and company’s strengths has not.

These are just a few examples of companies that are using their purpose to provide an anchor and a North Star in this crisis to guide their decisions and actions. Purpose matters even more in times of crisis. By harnessing its power to take bold and meaningful action, Purpose is fueling organizations’ work to flatten the curve, provide hope and healing to their communities, and encourage a shared economic and social rebound from this crisis we face together.

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