With all the horrors of COVID-19 – medical, social, financial – one might expect a paring back to what Graham Bradley called in April “the true purpose of business”: serving customers, providing employment, paying taxes and delivering returns. “Serving broadly defined social purposes and wider stakeholder interests is ancillary to these core purposes,” the former Business Council of Australia president wrote in The Australian Financial Review.
After a two-decade trend of business leaders taking stronger positions on social and environmental issues, a conversation only intensifying after the United Nations set sustainable development goals in 2015, perhaps the severity of the crisis would silence activist CEOs. But Vanessa Gavan, Maximus International’s founder and managing director, has watched something else play out. “I’m not seeing organisations focusing on pure profit plays,” she says. “I’m heartened by what I’m seeing.”
Her leadership development consultancy is talking with CEOs who include a country’s citizens when discussing stakeholders. “These are times when people will decide what kind of relationship they want to have with businesses in the long term,” says Gavan. “People will be deciding whether you’re a key part in their lives based on how you show up.”
For Gavan, purpose is about “what’s wrong in the world that you want to influence or what’s right that you really want to protect… linked to a platform where you’re equipped to make a change”. If COVID-19 has a silver lining it’s this: companies have witnessed their own capacity for change.
“CEOs say they were trying for three or four years to make changes they made happen in four weeks,” says Gavan, whose clients include ANZ, Telstra and Johnson & Johnson. “That’s going to open the door to more transformational agendas as CEOs say, ‘Actually, we can influence more than we’ve given ourselves credit for.’”
Stepping up started early. She points to the open letter in March from Australian tech-company founders, led by Canva’s Melanie Perkins, urging leaders to commit to a “bold” business and behavioural agenda to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Leaders can sometimes “trip over” purpose, says Gavan. Companies are “enamoured with our business models because we created them and are geared to keep them safe” but those models have been disrupted. She says leaders must know what they’re reinventing towards. “If you haven’t done the work to know what your business is there to achieve – and I do believe it’s for the market and for society on a bigger, braver agenda – then you’re going to miss the opportunity this presents.”
She believes legacy is an interesting way to think about it, citing The Power of Moments authors Chip and Dan Heath, who write that as social animals we recall “moments of elevation”, informative “peak” and “pit” moments. “The reality is, whether you like it or not, if you’re an executive you will be known for something,” says Gavan. “Better what you stand for be by design.”
She urges leaders to reimagine the relationships they want to have and legacy they wish to create, rather than swinging between opportunities. “If you haven’t found your compass, you need to find it quickly. It comes down to what you’re uniquely special at and fundamental questions: what do you deeply care about and want to influence in the world?
Vanessa Gavan is the founder and managing director of Maximus International