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Organizational Change
Why ‘Authentic’ Has Been My Word of the Year Since 1983

For organizations ready to embrace the word of the year, here are 3 suggestions for how your organization can embed and bring to life a truly authentic, activated purpose.

Merriam-Webster's 2023 Word of the Year is “authentic” — reflecting a global shift toward sincerity, genuineness and credibility. It’s a word I’ve put at the forefront of my ethos and work since 1983, and for good reason. Since then, I’ve helped hundreds of organizations identify and embed a purpose — or reason for being beyond profits. Our “stake in the ground” has always been that purpose must be authentic to produce enterprise-wide returns, and — more importantly — resonate with stakeholders, especially employees. That’s why I was thrilled to learn it was 2023’s Word of the Year.

One of the first companies I partnered with to develop an authentic purpose was Rockport. Back in the ‘80s, I helped Rockport discover a purpose of empowering people to be healthier through walking. This served the company very well for decades; and it led the walking movement through research and trusted health content — ultimately leading to 5x growth over four years. Rockport is an early example of how purpose must be far more than just an inspiring statement. Purpose statements such as Best Buy’s “Enrich lives through technology” or Kerry Group’s “Inspiring Food, Nourishing Life” must be embedded in culture, operations, innovation and societal engagement and have measured impact.

So why is “authentic” having its moment today? I was intrigued by this statement from Merriam-Webster: "Although clearly a desirable quality, 'authentic' is hard to define and subject to debate." The word “authentic” has several meanings, ranging from "not false or imitation" to "true to one's own personality, spirit, or character." When it comes to business purpose, there’s no debate as to the word’s meaning — nor any question regarding the power of authenticity. Discovering the true ethos of a company and embracing it inspires alignment and stakeholder engagement for significant outcomes.

While purpose is under attack from the morass of woke capitalism and questionable ESG investing, what an organization stands for today is more important than ever. This was a leading topic at CECP’s recent Board of Boards meeting in early November. This closed-door, CEO-only session — which focused on leadership in a volatile and ever-changing world — included CEOs Mark Clouse (Campbell Soup Company), Sara Armbruster (Steelcase Inc), and Joanne Crevoiserat (Tapestry).

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For leaders such as these, and other organizations ready to embrace the word of the year, I gathered a few suggestions. Read on to learn how your organization can embed and bring to life a truly authentic, activated purpose.

1. Structure purpose as a navigation system for culture

I always say: “Purpose is meant to be lived — not laminated on a wall plaque.” Purpose Under Pressure, my 30th piece of research since 1993, demonstrated that employees want authentic, vibrant and actionable purpose embedded throughout their work:

  • 91 percent felt their purpose-driven company gave them comfort during challenging times

  • 84 percent of respondents said they would only work at a purpose-driven company

  • 66 percent of employees cite their employers’ positive impact as more important than before the pandemic — identical to the increase in importance of salary and compensation

  • 35 percent of employees say a company’s positive impact is among the top two most important attributes when deciding to stay or leave a job

Authenticity begins with employees. A purpose-driven organization fosters a culture where employees feel seen, valued and heard — where leadership actively engages with the workforce, acknowledges challenges, and champions diversity and inclusion. Authenticity, in this context, translates to a workplace where passion and purpose converge, creating a dynamic environment that nurtures employee wellbeing.

2. Invest in relationship-building across external stakeholder groups

Companies that authentically live their purpose don't just sell products; they build relationships that generate mutual value. Externally, authenticity manifests itself in how a company engages with all its stakeholders — including customers and consumers, suppliers and communities.

  • Customers & consumers: Companies that authentically live their purpose understand their customers' needs, preferences and concerns — resulting in products and experiences that resonate on a deeper level. They are transparent about products, services and business practices and deliver on their promises — consistently.

  • Suppliers: Purpose-driven organizations actively seek partnerships with suppliers that align with their values — fostering long-term relationships built on trust and shared objectives.

  • Communities: For a company to be authentic in its engagement with communities, it must go beyond philanthropy and social-impact initiatives. Authenticity involves actively listening to community needs, collaborating on solutions, and leveraging the insights and expertise of those in the communities they serve.

3. Commit to real action, both internal and external

Using purpose as their navigation system, authentic companies set goals and measure their progress against them. Ongoing, transparent reporting is key regarding achieved and missed targets. Humility and honesty are critical to report on purpose activations — both when they work and don’t.

Join the Authenticity Revolution

In the evolving landscape of business, authenticity is more critical than ever before. Companies that embrace authenticity as the driving force behind their purpose will not only weather the storms of change, but thrive despite them.