Purpose perishes with perfection

Companies must avoid the authenticity trap, says Michael Chavez

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Sometimes Great Minds become distracted. The fast-food chain Chipotle, beloved of Mexican food fans, has a new chief executive after its visionary founder Steve Ells departed. Ex-Taco Bell chief Brian Niccol stepped in – with the unenviable task of restoring Chipotle’s reputation. Why? Chipotle incurred a 40% depletion in shareholder value in 2017 following a series of food safety scares and admissions by senior management that essential procedural standards had been neglected.

It was all going so well. The chain’s ad campaign ‘Cultivating a Better World’ was one of the most memorable in recent US history. Featuring folk music legend Willie Nelson singing the haunting chords of Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’, it conveyed the dismal consequences – economic, environmental and social – of industrialized, processed food. The message was clear: Chipotle will buck the trend. Fast food need not be bad food. There is another way.

Yet the campaign and its messages buckled under the weight of their own contradictions when the food safety scandals hit. Chipotle’s stated purpose and its reality were at odds. Had Ells – a true innovator – allowed his Great Mind to wander? The disconnect was palpable. For all its attempts to command the moral high ground, Chipotle found itself picking itself up from the bottom. 

The advertising campaign represented an aspirational view of what Chipotle could become and how it could contribute to the world, not reality. The dream that Chipotle could change the fast-food industry itself was exactly that – an imaginative journey, not a realistic medium-term goal.

The Chipotle saga speaks to a core question: should your company’s stated purpose be aspirational? The answer is, only up to a point. Sure, your purpose should reach higher than your existing status, but it cannot be too lofty. It has to be realizable within a reasonable timeframe, practically observable, and within the bounds of your business framework. Traps lie ahead if it is stretched to the point of being disconnected from your fundamental business drivers. Defining purpose is as much about knowing your constraints as quantifying your aspirations.

Chipotle’s travails reminded me of the sage advice of another Great Mind, Deborah Wahl. Readers of this column will remember how Wahl, when head of US marketing for McDonald’s, reshaped its purpose. It was formerly ‘honest food’: an aspirational purpose similar to that of Chipotle, which attempted to channel public concerns about the provenance of its ingredients and healthy eating. “We pivoted away from it and readopted the corporate purpose which works much better: ‘making delicious, feel-good moments easy for everyone’,” Wahl said. “Purpose should help you get back to your core, not away from it.”

This sort of realism will help companies avoid what I term the ‘authenticity trap’ – having a purpose that is sufficiently removed from the day-to-day reality as to be counterproductive.

My colleague Dr Sudhanshu Palsule and I have been researching organizational purpose. Until recently, the research was revealing the moral and aspirational imperative behind purpose – something about ‘making the world a better place’ – without uncovering much in the way of warnings. This is concerning. The last thing business needs is for purpose to become another fad or entry into the dictionary of meaningless business jargon. Great Minds are, by their nature, also realists. They take care to avoid the perfect becoming the enemy of the good.

— Michael Chavez is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education

— A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com

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