10 July 2020

Dan Labbad, Chief Executive of The Crown Estate, reflects on the value of purpose in business

Taken from a speech given on 23rd June – British Academy Summit on ‘The Future of the Corporation’.

It’s fair to say that when I joined The Crown Estate at the end of 2019, dealing with the impact of a global pandemic wasn’t how I imagined spending my first six months.

The crisis has left no part of society unaffected and underlined the idea that no person, or organisation is an island. It has also been a reminder of the importance of purpose for helping businesses to navigate an increasingly complex world, in which ‘stability’ is a fragile concept.

At the British Academy’s Summit last month on ‘Purposeful Business in Times of Crisis’, there was a general consensus that business has a responsibility to play a leading role in helping to solve the challenges society faces. The crisis we’re facing today is just the latest reminder that we can no longer afford to keep our heads down on broader issues, focus in isolation where maximum short-term profits can be made, and still expect to succeed.

The challenges of climate change, inequality and discrimination, to name only a few, are just as pressing as our response to Covid. The process of developing, articulating and implementing an authentic purpose is a valuable lens through which businesses can look holistically at these strategic issues, help tackle them, and in doing so, build resilience, legitimacy and trust.

For organisations that want to play their part in society, make a difference on the issues that matter, and leave a proud legacy, a clearly defined purpose can be your North Star. It should be something you strive for, relatable but currently out of reach, measured through how your business goes about creating value over time.

At the Summit, businesses, politicians and academics, discussed how purpose can help corporations, their stakeholders and ultimately society, work towards a more stable and better future. We’ve been pleased to support the British Academy’s work, and in particular its focus on how to bring purpose into the boardroom and ensure that its implementation is part of a board’s primary duties, so that it becomes a first order hard-wired priority.

With an inspiring group of fellow panellists, I enjoyed debating the question of stakeholders’ role in purposeful business. For me, their role is crucial because they help answer these three fundamental questions. What do you as a business have to offer given your unique attributes and capabilities?  How does that align with what the world and in essence - your stakeholders - need?  And how can you create value by operating in the areas where these overlap?

Involving stakeholders upfront helps ensure their and your goals are aligned. Fail to find alignment, both internally with the Board and employees, or externally, with your investors, customers or communities, and you will be unable to achieve the very thing your purpose empowers you to do. Contradiction and conflict will get in the way.

Being purpose-led helps businesses and stakeholders come together to collectively build a mutual understanding and deal with a more complex world. That includes recognising that there will be difficult decisions and compromises to navigate and at times, that will bring criticism. You won’t and can’t please everyone, all of the time.

Committing to a purpose doesn’t mean being perfect. Organisations that embark on a purposeful path should not be judged by their stakeholders on whether they achieve their purpose at every turn, but whether they are directionally on course, while authentic and transparent in their commitment and pursuit.

At The Crown Estate we’re on this journey ourselves, exploring how we evolve our purpose and strategy to make a positive impact across the many communities and places where we operate. As a business with a history dating back to 1760, a strong team, and a truly unique portfolio that touches on nearly every part of modern life, I see huge potential for us to make a difference.

That means creating a positive legacy for the nation not just for today, but for generations to come. After all, while those who come after us may not be able to hold us to account today, they are perhaps our most important stakeholder and a crucial reminder of why we need to operate with purpose in the first place.

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