The pandemic has accelerated corporate focus on purpose, with business leaders also evolving fast to align with a changed world, according to speakers at this week’s PRovoke North America Summit.

WE Communications EVP of corporate reputation and brand purpose Hannah Peters outlined soon-to-be-published research from WE and YouGov, which surveyed 300 c-suite and senior leaders in the US, UK and Singapore and found that 71% of leaders said articulating their personal core values and elevating their voice was more important for them now than it was a year ago.

Peters reiterated the oft-made point that being purpose-driven was not just about doing the right thing: “It’s not about morality, but materiality. There’s a clear business case for purpose: this is not about being altruistic. Companies are taking a stand and acting with purpose because they have a responsibility to employees and shareholders to be viable and to do things that maintain their license to operate: 90% said purpose leadership was now as important as market performance; they are feeling the market pressure.”

The research, which builds on previous studies by WE on purpose, also revealed “compelling takeaways about how leaders are showing up in a changed world,” said Peters. This included “a willingness to be more introspective and understand their personal priorities and inclinations” as well as “bringing more stakeholders to the table, listening and engaging in two-way dialogue, even if that means embracing vulnerability.”

She added that “what we’ve shared collectively through the pandemic – in all facing a challenge together – has given CEOs and leaders an opportunity to think about the power they have through their organizations to make a difference and show up in meaningful ways. Values have been elevated compared to a year ago, as there’s been that realization of leaders’ personal fears, and maybe the gap between their intentions and their actions.”

Peters said she had been surprised by the “humanity of the responses” and suggested that the findings had been counterintuitive, when set against traditional notions of the “hard-nosed CEO”. She said: “It gave me a lot of optimism and hope. I think we might see a different sort of CEO coming out of this.”

On the wide-ranging terminology around purpose – from global impact and citizenship to ESG and stakeholder capitalism – Peters said: “It’s all about having a broader understanding of the impact you have as an organization and being cognizant of the power that organizations have to be a force for good, and there are a lot of activities and commitments that ladder up to that.”

WE’s research also found that more than two-thirds of execs said stakeholder engagement was one of the most important elements of leadership engagement in 2021, particularly with regard to bringing different groups to the table.

Peters said: “We heard loud and clear that women and people of color – both disproportionally affected by the pandemic – were acknowledged as being critical stakeholders now. It comes back to that increased openness, and the willingness to have different, deeper conversations that get to the root of a problem and how to solve it. In years to come we will require leaders to have difficult conversations and take risks, but the payoff is worth it.”

And she added: “CEOs are changing policy as a result of those conversations in ways that are really compelling. Expectations are only getting higher – stakeholders are getting more specific in terms of what they are looking for and are more willing to criticize. We’ll only see more demand for transparency, and we’ll see more and more companies showing up as purpose driven – although that’s challenging from a communications point of view as we have to be able to break through, get traction and have that voice heard.”

The report’s findings were borne out by fellow panelist Molly McKenna Jandrain, McDonald’s senior director of external communications, who outlined how the fast food brand’s purpose had been brought to the fore by the pandemic and recent events.

“Our purpose is to feed and foster communities, and a lot of communities have needed us,” she said. “Essential workers need an easy hot meal on the way home from a long shift, and we gave away 12 million free meals to first-responders and people in healthcare working long shifts to say thank you. We made over 50 process and protocol changes so we could keep staff and customers safe, for instance for truckers delivering critical supplies, who couldn’t go through the drive-throughs when restaurants were closed.”

McKenna Jandrain said that while many people think of McDonald’s as a corporate giant, 95% of its restaurants in the US are owned and operated by local women and men: "In 1955, our founder said we have an obligation to give back to communities, and our local franchisees are giving back through food donations, serving first responders, providing free breakfasts when schools are closed. After the Capitol riots, one of our local franchisees served 10,000 free meals to the National Guard that week, as they were on shift 24/7.”

McDonald’s recently announced new diversity, equity and inclusion commitments “to really hold ourselves accountable to making change,” said McKenna Jandrain, with all executive bonuses linked to diversity goals, and a goal to increase representation of historically underrepresented groups in leadership roles to 35% by 2025.

And she said even with a clearly-defined purpose, “change doesn’t happen overnight”: “A communications strategy isn’t meaningful unless you’re taking purposeful action. You can’t be perfect straight away, but you do need to show progress along your journey, push for change, talk about it and acknowledge there’s always more to do.”