The CEO as Chief Purpose Officer

John Izzo & Jeff Vanderwielen, Authors, The Purpose Revolution

The CEO as Chief Purpose Officer

In a survey of global CEO’s, Harvard found that over 83% of them said they believed activating purpose within their organization would impact their company’s performance and success, yet only one-third of those same leaders felt they were doing a good job of doing so. In our new book, The Purpose Revolution - How Leaders Create Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good, we show compelling evidence that these CEO’s are correct on both fronts while showing how to truly activate purpose in your company.

Organizations where employees perceive a strong sense of purpose routinely outperform those without it and according to an international study by LinkedIn, a full 37% of the global workforce are purpose focused in terms of their own motivation. It also turns out that employees who are purpose-focused routinely outperform their colleagues on almost every metric we care about as leaders. But the CEO’s were not only correct that purpose matters, they were also correct that most of them are failing at leading it with over 70% of employees saying that the company they work for mostly cares about profits and its own self interest as opposed to the wellbeing of its customers or society. We call this the purpose gap.

We think the CEO is the Chief Purpose Officer in every company and they set the tone for whether the organization is truly focused on making a difference. Here are three ways to drive purpose as the person at the top:

Balance All Communication-Mission and Profit

Having coached hundreds of CEO’s we know that most of them have a purpose beyond profit but when we audit CEO communication we find that about 80% of it is about profit, numbers and task rather than the real difference we are making as a company. One coaching client simply changed that balance to where she spent almost half her formal communication talking about the way her company and team were making clients’ lives and society better. Not only did her personal brand skyrocket but employee engagement in the company went up twenty percent.

Change the Questions You Ask

One of the prime ways our people decide what matter to us is by the questions we ask and the things we comment on. At 3M one of the prime purposes of the company is to use science to help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges which is why Inge Thulin, the CEO, told us that the first question he asks whenever he visits a site anywhere in the world is “what are you doing here about sustainability?” If the first question you ask isn’t about purpose, then your people know its not top of list.

Often the messages we send are subtle yet powerful. A client of ours told us about a C suite meeting recently where the VP of Customer Service was telling a heart warming story about what they had done to make a difference for a client with a problem. Halfway through the story the CEO interrupted saying “hey this is great but can we hurry it along we need to get to the finance report.” He did not mean to send a message but send one he did. As one of his direct reports said to me “we talk about purpose, but our purpose is making money and that interaction spoke volumes!” When it comes to purpose we are always on stage as the CEO.

Find Your Own Purpose and Share It

As the Chief Purpose Officer, our people are eager to hear our own purpose. When we are clear on our purpose-the real difference WE personally want to make, then that purpose can become contagious. In The Purpose Revolution we show you how to identify your own purpose and communicate it. Here are two examples. Dolf van den Brink became the CEO of Heineken Mexico a few years back.  He shared his own story about when he ran a company in the Congo in Africa and realized that a well-run company could impact a whole country. He shared his personal purpose with his team which was “To be the gardener, with boundless curious energy, to grow a better world.”  Through his mentorship the senior team identified a new company purpose which was To Win Big for a Better Mexico. Suddenly the company claimed a purpose not only to create and sell some of the world’s greatest beers but also have an impact on Mexican society. Since then they have tackled domestic violence against women in a major way as well as sustainability with fervor thus engaging team members in the process.

Or take Steve Piersanti who was a senior person at a large publishing house when he started the publishing company Berrett-Koehler. Steve drew on his own experience of feeling that authors and publishers had a dysfunctional and often adversarial relationship. He wanted to create a publishing firm that took a different path creating a company dedicated to “a world that works for all.” Having published five books with them I can tell you that Steve’s personal purpose is palpable and visible (and ultimately contagious). Since then the company has won numerous awards and thrived in an increasingly competitive business. But it all began with the leader’s purpose to create a different place dedicated to collaboration.

Three Key Questions:

At the end of the day, purpose cannot be driven except from the top. So, ask yourself three questions on a regular basis:

  1. If they audited my communication how much is about purpose v profits?
  2. What is the first question I ask and what are the subtle messages I send about our purpose?

Am I clear on my personal purpose and do I talk about it regularly?

About the Authors

John Izzo is co-author of The Purpose Revolution and president of Izzo Associates. He has spoken to over one million people and advised over 500 companies, including IBM, Qantas, the Mayo Clinic, Verizon, RBC, TELUS, Walmart, DuPont, Humana, Microsoft, and IBM. He is the author or coauthor of six books, including Awakening Corporate Soul.


Jeff Vanderwielen is co-author of The Purpose Revolution and vice president of consulting at Izzo Associates and a former senior change consultant at Ernst & Young with 20-plus years of experience helping organizations manage large-scale change and articulate a compelling purpose - their core good - as the organizing center for their vision, strategy, and culture.