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Noble causes - making people care about strategy

What is a Vision if it doesn't inspire? As your organization continues into the 2020s, there has never been a better time to assess the purpose of its work, to adapt to its new surroundings, to find a noble cause. 

Written by: James Milsom, Head of Marketing


If there is one theme that has dominated the content produced in the 2020s it is mass change. Mass change brought on by a health pandemic such as COVID-19, mass change brought about by social movements such as Black Lives Matter, and a mass change in countless other areas.

But this change doesn't have a playbook with which CEOs and CSOs can respond.

It's a very real situation that we have found ourselves in. No industry is exempt. 

And in that time we have begun to see the beginnings of perhaps a playbook without plays - the rise of what former Best Buy CEO, Hubert Joly, calls a 'noble cause'.

What is this concept of a 'noble cause' in the context of business, and is it something that can really be practiced?

Today, we are exploring the idea of noble causes and the ways CEOs and CSOs can bring these to life, letting them flow from Vision all the way through to individual performance reviews.

With these harnessed correctly, your organization can turn the corner towards a more meaningful, human-based purpose, all the while maintaining financial strength.


What has changed in the business world?

The changes that we have seen in the last 24-36 months have been unprecedented in many ways.

These range from health and social to environmental concerns, and while they may have already been on the Executive team's agenda, it has become increasingly imperative to address.

Change in Health

There is nowhere else to begin but with COVID-19.

The rise of COVID-19 in late 2019 was one that was perhaps overlooked.

Moving into 2020 leaders, both in the public and private spaces were left with a feeling of unease and no clear path to address the pandemic. 

Our preparedness for pandemics and other health emergencies, on a global scale, was tested. 

Rising case numbers, health inequalities within and between countries, and industries indiscriminately being shut down left humanity on tenterhooks.


Change in Society

The advent of COVID-19 sparked an increase in concern around cleanliness and health.

But at the same time, social movements such as Black Lives Matter began to gain pace in the light of numerous injustices and protests. 

And, speaking in 2020, diversity consultant Pepper Miller challenged organizations to make a lasting response to social shifts:

“Companies need to draw long-term plans for social inclusion and racial equality that go beyond them saying that they ‘stand with black people."

'Black Lives Matter: Do Companies Really Support The Cause?' BBC, 2020


And the continued rise of awareness for LGBTQ+ rights, child trafficking, and poverty, for example, shows that the globe as a whole is truly changing. 

Organizations are being challenged to have a voice on social issues, something seldom seen.


Change in Environment

All the while COVID-19 and social movements were rising in importance, so too was the issue of sustainability and climate change.

For decades, the world has spoken to the need to address the damage being inflicted upon the Earth, but little agreement was reached. That was until 2015's Paris Agreement, where a legally binding agreement on climate change was reached.

Unfortunately, the global emissions continued to grow, as shown by the below chart from Morgan Stanley.

iNX homepage hero (19)

As COVID-19 began to show its impact, so did the world change its mentality around climate change.

The lockdowns experienced across the world curbed travel, helping to drop global carbon dioxide emissions by 6.4%.

But, this wasn't enough. And, once more, added another pressure for organizations to address.


What challenges did this present for businesses?

These challenges emerged for businesses as a result:

  1. Supply chain disruption from lockdowns and international travel slowed time to market and meeting market demand.

  2. Retail, hospitality, entertainment, and travel organizations ground to a halt, with supermarket and store workers thrust into playing a key role in helping economies continue to run.

    Their designation as 'key workers', alongside healthcare professionals, gives cause to reconsider pay, working conditions, and a change in attitude about why we work.

  3. The way we work was changed - the rules on location, duration, processes, and more were thrown out overnight to adapt to COVID-19.

  4. Businesses were asked to no longer remain silent on social issues, with many looking to the likes of Nike and their Colin Kaepernick advertising campaign as an example where leaders took a 180° turn and acted on social concerns.

  5. Carbon dioxide drivers, such as automotive manufacturers, were encouraged, through legislation, to adapt and become an agent of change in the fight for sustainability.


Purpose-driven challenges

The challenges are all purpose-driven. They go beyond revenue, EBITDA, margins, and savings.

Executives are reassessing the role their organization can play in overcoming these challenges.

They are being challenged with transforming into a purpose-driven leader.

But it is about more than paying lip service.

The rise of purpose-driven leaders has come about from these seismic shifts. Indeed, as Forrester states:

“Purpose-driven leaders can create an environment where PEAK humans — employees who are poised, enlightened, adaptable, and knowledge-seeking — can rapidly adapt to any of the four shocks as they continue to combine and affect organizations.

Leaders at all levels of the organization, including line managers, need to work from a common set of values that support high performance.”

The Executive’s Guide To The Future Of Work, Forrester, 2021


And it is rallying your organization around a noble cause that will support CEOs and CSOs to address these challenges head-on, helping them to build strategies that can be well-executed because they have a meaningful purpose.

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What is a 'noble cause' for a business?

Normally, when we set about the purpose or Vision of our organizations we begin with financial impact. 

It is a perfectly natural starting point, given the endpoint of an organization is to be profitable. That is, after all, classic capitalism.

However, such a singular mindset on finance can lead you to forget other, perhaps more important considerations - your customers, your people, and the impact you play on society.

But in 2019 leading CEOs across America, as part of the Business Roundtable, sought to shift this mentality. Going beyond financial focus, committing to:

"- Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.

- Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.

- Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.

- Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.

- Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.

Business Roundtable Redefines the Purpose of a Corporation to Promote ‘An Economy That Serves All Americans’, Business Roundtable, 2019 


As a signatory of the Business Roundtable and their Corporate Purpose, Hubert Joly began to speak to the importance of putting people at the heart of the organization and aligning a purpose with your financial goals.

A noble cause is to make a meaningful impact on health, society, or the environment by shifting organizational, and indeed shareholder, focus away from purely financial purposes.

That is not to say that revenue, profit, and controlling expenditure should not be a byproduct of the noble cause, but the root of all that the organization is should go back to making a positive impact on society.

And, to minimize the risk of a noble cause being seen as a statement of intent, not outcome, here are some practical ways to embed it into the organization.


5 ways to embed a noble cause into your strategy, operations, and performance management.

1. Ask people what they think

The famed Mildred Friedman's 'shareholder theory' has long permeated the corporate world, with the CEO acting as an employee of the shareholder, therefore all that they do must generate profit for that person.

This mentality, The Atlantic argues, gave rise to a single-minded approach to running our businesses:

"Friedman’s theory was wildly popular because it seemed to absolve corporations of difficult moral choices and to protect them from public criticism as long as they made profits."

In the wake of these shifts, organizations cannot be silent, and indeed many are turning that corner.

The issue is really how you can create your noble cause when the top-down approach continues to produce similar results.

Enter your people, who have a wildly different view of priorities, pains, challenges, and their motivators. 

Add to this the geo-socio-economic differences too, you have a melting pot from which to go out and speak to your staff. 

How to find a noble cause with your staff

Take to your staff and ask:

  • What gets you up in the morning?
  • Who inspires you?
  • What do you care about?
  • How do you want to impact your friends, family, and community?

From these basic questions, you can begin to form an understanding of what it is that makes up the fabric of your organization.

In Joly's experience, he took 40-60 leaders across multiple levels to take this task and develop an approach.

The effort revolved around visiting several stores, splitting into small groups, and asking members to share their life stories, therefore unveiling the human side of their colleagues, and then explain who inspires them to be better.

The result is to transform the leadership mindset to ask how the organization can help society.


2. Assess your existing culture and business policies against the noble cause

With these questions asked, CEOs and CSOs are in a better position to assess their culture and business policies against what matters to their staff.

Perhaps what follows is a shared interest in the environment. A segment of your team may wish that you manufactured fully electric vehicles.

Another part may believe that supporting underprivileged areas of the country, or indeed the world, can be supported through charitable work or creating products where the profits are dispersed into these areas.

An example noble cause

In the case of Joly, there was a desire to help teenagers interested in a tech career, which he realized could be supported through wider efforts.

In that instance, Joly's push for Best Buy to introduce a tech-recycling scheme helped the business to fund activities to teenagers interested in a tech career, all the while creating footfall into the store, and therefore more sales.

Here, the noble cause is to sell technology that provides an enriched life for not only the user but also enriches the life of the teens.

This shows that profit does figure into the picture (selling technology), but a more noble cause is being served (enriching lives).


How can business culture help?

The task is to then ask how the business culture supports this noble cause.

Are staff encouraged to volunteer in the local community?

Is there a means by which staff can propose ideas to further the noble cause?

Are investments placed into this portfolio to drive the organization towards achieving the noble cause?

Is that noble cause attainable, or are resources prioritized elsewhere in the business?


3. Building a Vision and Mission around the noble cause

Having established a noble cause, you can then turn to create a meaningful Vision and Mission.

However, this is not a simple task. This requires a level of change management.

The top-down approach would see this created behind closed doors, with a select group.

By involving your staff in creating a noble cause, it is for the CEO and CSO to find collaborative ways to create the Vision and Mission.

One example would be to use a catchball approach. This would enable your organization to interpret the company Vision and Mission in light of the noble cause. But, crucially, the shaping of these two vital components of your business involves your staff.

By negotiating and forming a collaborative Vision and Mission, tied to your noble cause, you further drive engagement in what it is your business is trying to achieve. 


4. Building strategies, portfolios, programs, and goals with noble causes

Whether using a Balanced Scorecard, OKR, Hoshin Kanri, or a custom approach to strategy execution, we know that key strategic themes can be pulled out. 

Strategy setting

Those key strategic themes will shape the long-term, breakthrough objectives, as well as the annual plans which are needed to deliver on the objectives. It flows that you will be setting all of these core elements with the noble cause in mind.

After all, if your corporate, divisional or departmental strategy exists separate from your noble cause, a disconnect will grow, and therefore, so too will the amount your people care about the strategy.

Portfolios and programs

In turn, creating portfolios to deliver the strategy, and the program mix within should have the noble cause in mind. To that end, when creating or refining your prioritization framework, factoring in a weighting attributed to the noble cause is important.

If a program runs counter to your environmental noble cause, because it has a climate impact through a long, multi-national supply chain, but is returning investment faster than another program focusing on replacing a key material in your latest vehicle line, the noble cause should pull you towards the latter being more important.

Now, of course, that is overly simplified, but it shows the fine-balancing act of your portfolio and its programs, and only serves to underline the importance of having a robust prioritization framework.


Goal management and performance management

Lastly, the goals created for teams and individuals must link back to the noble cause.

Every performance review must drive home the importance of the noble cause and how the work being performed is serving that cause. 

But it should also serve as a time for your team and its members to reflect on what the noble cause means to them. 

This period of reflection will provide reinforcement of your noble cause, the Vision, the Mission, and the strategy itself. 

And, crucially, it will provide leaders with the information they need to feed any adaptations, as they continue on their journey to be an agile business.


5. Host strategy and management reviews with the noble cause in mind

The final ingredient in the process is to consider the role that the noble cause plays in your ongoing reviews - weekly meetings, monthly plan reviews, quarterly strategy delivery reviews, and more.

Each of these gates will have the noble cause running through them, but all too often the reviews focus on financial indicators first, then delivery, and so on. 

Completing the embedding process will require altering the way you conduct these reviews. 

Turn towards execution software like i-nexus, designed to promote collaboration and focus on your noble cause, strategy, and beyond, and use this as the backdrop for your review sessions, going through these items in this order:

  • How the strategy / portfolio / program / process is supporting the noble cause
  • How your team is feeling and performing 
  • Blockers of delivery
  • How customers are impacted by this
  • The financial indicators of performance (revenue, cost savings, margin etc.)
  • Shifts in our external environment which impacts our noble cause and strategy


What happens with your noble cause?

Setting a noble cause is one step in your journey to empowering your business to become ready for the uncertainty we will undoubtedly continue to face this decade.

When the 2020s hit, many CEOs and CSOs were left wondering how they would adapt. Some believed that these shifts were minor detours on the road to delivering profits, others were more cautious, but what is certain is that no one person had the answer as to how to react.

As Joly says himself, leadership must evolve:

"We need leaders who lead with all of their body parts: their brain, their heart, their soul, and their gut. Especially in a crisis like we have today with COVID-19, using your instincts and your intuition is also important. So use all of your body parts.

Perfection is very dangerous because you work on a team, and on your team you have other human beings. And guess what? They’re not perfect. They’re making mistakes. Being able to say, “My name is Hubert, and I need help,” is a good exercise that creates a much better outcome."
Leading with purpose and humanity: A conversation with Hubert Joly, McKinsey, 2020

There is a need to change from the top-down approach. Leaders are beginning to embrace their weaknesses, instead of using their positions to inspire ideas and change, shaped by the seismic changes we've experienced so far this decade.

By setting your noble cause, you provide your organization with a new purpose, a new reason for being, a new cause that they can believe in.

And as you know, from here it's all about setting the right strategies, underpinned by an execution framework, to deliver the results and impact that matter. 


Learn more about Strategy Execution Management

Take the next steps in your transformation journey by exploring our strategy execution resource hub or any of the below:


About the author

James Milsom is Head of Marketing at i-nexus. James has wide-ranging experience in markets such as telecommunications, energy, education, and software.

As Head of Marketing, his drive is to raise awareness and understanding of the challenges facing enterprises in delivering strategic objectives and transformation amidst changing markets and the obstacles traditional tools and methods present leaders.

If you’d like to talk more about Strategy Execution, reach out to James on james.milsom@i-nexus.com or connect with him on LinkedIn for the latest insights.