Melbourne Business School Events and Information Sessions Talking Business During Crisis: How organisations can survive now and thrive later - 'The role of purpose'

Talking Business During Crisis: How organisations can survive now and thrive later - 'The role of purpose'

Thursday, 11 June 2020
12.30 PM - 1.30 PM

COVID-19 has changed the global business landscape

No organisation has been untouched by the impact of the coronavirus.

While some organisations continue to fight for survival, others are looking beyond the near term to a future that is more uncertain than ever before. Melbourne Business School’s “Talking Business During Crisis” webinar series presents evidence-based perspectives on how to navigate crises and explores real examples of how organisations around the world are responding.

Taking place over two sessions, the discussion now examines how the roles of purpose and leadership will significantly influence an organisation’s ability to survive in the short-term and then thrive later. Australian organisations have been given a lifeline for a retro- fitting of a social purpose, which could energise customers, employees and communities if designed and implemented effectively.


Our Experts

Aviva Berzon



Aviva consults to a wide range of organisations on leadership and transformational change, helping build leadership capability in individuals and group. With a Masters in Organisation Dynamics, Aviva is particularly interested in affecting change through working at the group and system level.

Amanda Sinclair


Amanda Sinclair joined Melbourne Business School in 1988 and was appointed Foundation Professor of Management of Diversity and Change in 1995 and a Professorial Fellow in 2012. After completing her PhD in Political Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Amanda has worked as an academic and consultant, coaching individuals and senior management teams in the government and corporate sectors.

Geoff Martin


Geoff Martin joined Melbourne Business School in 2012 and is now a Professor of Strategy. Geoff’s research explores short termism and risk taking by executives and has been published in the Harvard Business Review, Strategic Management Journal, Academy of Management Journal and more.

Glenn Hoetker at MBS


Glenn Hoetker is the inaugural MBS Foundation Chair in Sustainability and Business, with expertise in strategy and innovation management. He joined MBS in 2018 from the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, where he also held an affiliate appointment in the School of Law. He is a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University, and a Faculty Fellow of the Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan.

From this event

Summary of webinar

Watch the recording of the 60-minute webinar to hear how the panelists responded to the following themes:

What is purpose, how is it relevant during a crisis and how do you bring it to life?

How durable is a statement of purpose and what examples are there of
re-purposing during 2020?

How do we reconcile purpose and vision with short and long-term objectives?

We weren't able to respond to all of the audience questions during our time, however the panelists have shared their views on some of these below.

Your questions answered

How can you use purpose to generate connection and trust with the community about an organisation's brand and how can you ensure that this is authentic (as opposed to being seen as a marketing or PR exercise?

It is critical to live up to your purpose because many people have become cynical and very sensitive to companies that fall short. There is a balancing act here. Top leadership has to be involved because effective purpose has to pervade the firm and be supported by firm-wide policies and procedures. However, if purpose comes only from top management, it won’t shape behaviour across the firm.

Creating opportunities for listening helps manage this balance. A particular danger is listening mostly to mid-level managers and up, which often seems like the most practical way to get insights from across the breadth of the firm. However, it risks not hearing from those who work most directly with customers, suppliers and other parts of the community. It can also introduce an unintended generational bias if it doesn’t capture employees who have recently entered the workforce. In a time of rapidly changing values and expectations, that can be a problem.

In relation to building connection and trust with external stakeholders, it helps to have frequent and open communication, rather than either (a) assuming what different stakeholders want from the company and/or (b) treating it as a one-and-done exercise. I’ve helped facilitate discussions between for-purpose and for-profit organisations where we quickly found areas of common interest that each group had simply assumed would not be interest to the other.

Another balancing act with purpose is between ambition and reality. A good purpose should be aspirational—-it motivates by pointing to what the firm wants to become. But it also needs to be realistic or it will be viewed as a hollow PR exercise. 

Professor Glenn Hoetker

Discussions on purpose tend to swing towards CSR.  But this can make business leaders think the concept is not relevant to them as it makes them think purpose has to be about a higher social good.  Does the panel have a point of view on this?

I agree that there is this tendency, but as we touched on, purpose can and should address all of an organisation’s motivating principals—many of which are mundane, traditional business concerns. Done well, purpose forces the firm to think through how it balances the needs of multiple stakeholder groups. I think most managers recognise that understanding how you will balance the needs of employees with the needs of shareholders, for example, is deeply relevant to any business.

When it comes to the idea of a “higher social good”, I’ve encountered a spectrum of attitudes across business leaders. For example, there is a growing awareness that many employees, especially those just entering the work force, value their employer having some social purpose. So, even from a very instrumental need to recruit and retain talented employees, a firm isn’t well served by taking too narrow a view of its purpose. The example I gave of Paul O’Neill making safety a keystone habit at Alcoa is relevant here.

I also encounter leaders who want their organisation to make a broader positive impact, but need a way to do so in way that doesn’t work against the success of their company and career in other dimensions. That requires creativity and sometimes new skill sets. Helping leaders explore that business case is actually a big part of my work around sustainability.

All of which is to say that, first, purpose is very relevant to “traditional” business concerns and, second, financial and pro-social aspects of a purpose don’t need to stand in opposition to each other.

Professor Glenn Hoetker

Where there is a short-term focus on survival of organisations, how do you manage the trade off between survival and values that are important to people, such as sustainability and diversity, without eroding culture?

For a very practical example, you might look at the example of Barry-Wehmiller and how it responded to the GFC without laying off any of its 12,000 employees. There is a nice story about it here

Professor Glenn Hoetker

What is the latest wise action that you have seen lately, when an organisation has needed to communicate difficult decision, while trying to communicate/strengthen their purpose?

The best example I've seen is not corporate but Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. She is clear, compassionate (recognising and acknowledging the people impacts) and very effective at generating active compliance and pride in New Zealand's response to the COVID-19 crisis. In my view, I have seen lots of honesty and care.

Professorial Fellow Amanda Sinclair

How important is face to face connection between people in organisations as organisations exit a crisis? With the trend towards utilising Zoom for more meetings longer term, what will organisations be missing out on in terms of cultural change and employee engagement if they fail to strike a balance between virtual and in person communication?

Striking a balance is key. We have a higher tolerance for Zoom now but as we exit the crisis, I would recommend regular (perhaps quarterly) face to face meetings for all employees, where possible. These meeting should be announced with plenty of notice to acknowledge that, since working from home, employees may have restructured their working days to suit their preferences and needs.  Organisations also need to look at ways to improve ways of connecting remotely, rather relying solely on Zoom, for example. 

Professorial Fellow Amanda Sinclair

What is the best practice or what works best for driving meaningful purpose for an organisation and how often can you revise a purpose statement in business?

Purpose/mission tends to be the most enduring part of the strategy on a page.  That said, when a new CEO comes in and wants a significant cultural change, you often get a new purpose/mission.  Unless the purpose truly captures the DNA of an organisation and a group of stakeholder are very loyal to it, the purpose won't outlast a CEO. 

Professor Geoff Martin

I lead in a highly unionised workplace. The challenge we face is organised labour desire to return to the 'pre-COVID' way of unions see uncertainty, they refuse to change...they are digging in and demanding a no change environment. What is your advice on how we can take them on a journey that explains the benefits of change?

That is a tough one!  I have clients in this space and I hear you.  I am not an experienced negotiator in that space, so I begin by saying you need some expertise in that area.  In a recent workshop with a new GM responsible for managing waterfront employees and the associated EBAs, when he arrived, they were saying "welcome to the business, let us tell you how we do things around here".  When we went through the exercise of clarifying purpose and values, he then was countering, "that's not what this company is about; this place is about passion for community and customer which means we have to do .....".  Not sure if that helps.

Professor Geoff Martin