The undeniable link between a company’s purpose and its people

Holly Branson speaking at the Founders Unite award ceremony
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 5 October 2023

I have always believed that the first building block of a purposeful business is the wellness of your people. Great businesses strive every day to ensure their people flourish. I’m more certain of this than ever after joining a Virgin Pulse webinar on the subject! The session was hosted by Virgin Pulse’s SVP, International, Jill King, and I was thrilled to have Virgin’s Director of Impact, Charlotte Goodman, by my side.

The core takeaway from the session was that all businesses should create a purpose-driven culture that helps your people reach their potential and find their own purpose. If you embrace this ethos and really embed it in your decisions everyday, everybody wins. We discussed the purpose journey we’ve been on at Virgin, which all started with Dad’s belief that your business should be a force for good in the world, and people should feel celebrated and proud to work with you.

First and foremost, this is the right thing to do for your people and your stakeholders, but it’s also necessary to future-proof your business. Remember though, if you want to create genuine positive impact, it can’t just be lip service. As Charlotte put it: “Purpose is a strategy not just a statement.” In the webinar, we discussed how you need to spend time, money, and resources that ensure your culture and your policies put people first. Bring your people into these discussions too. Dive deep into your culture (what’s great, what not so great?) and then take real action. This isn’t through lofty statements and surface-level initiatives. In fact, don’t use corporate jargon at all. Your people need to understand and resonate with your purpose – so it needs to be simple and to the point. At Virgin, our purpose is ‘Changing Business for Good’, and this is something all our stakeholders can get behind – whether they work in banking for Virgin Money or aviation for Virgin Australia.

We also discussed three key ways that we live up to our purpose:

  1. Signing up to support the Better Business Act (to ensure all businesses have equal obligations to people and planet, not just profit).

  2. Changing out Articles of Association (aka our company rules). Instead of waiting for the Act to come through, we went ahead and changed our own Articles to ensure we are obligated to live up to our purpose and to balance all stakeholders in the decisions that we make.

  3. Implementing our Purpose Decision-Making Filter to ensure every decision our people make is helping us change business for good – no matter how big or small the decision may be. It is essentially a series of questions and criteria that prompt people to think about the impact of their decisions on everything from sustainability, to wellbeing, to supply chains and procurement. As Charlotte rightly said:

I don’t believe in small decisions because they’re usually big for someone.

I’ve spoken quite a bit about the first two points, so I’ll elaborate more on the purpose filter. We came up with the idea of the purpose filter to help support our people after we changed our Articles, ensuring that they had all the tools they needed to ensure we are consider all stakeholders (not just shareholders) in every decision we make. The Purpose Filter is a simple document but one that asks challenging questions and sparks amazing conversations to help people change business for good within their own roles and their own ways. To develop it, we collaborated with people all around the business and then rolled it out to our teams to test and refine it.

As we discussed in the webinar, it has also helped people to have more courageous conversations, because we have this framework to back them when something isn’t sitting right with them. It’s also helped us to slow down and be more thoughtful when making decisions – instead of rushing or going on autopilot. As Charlotte said: "It allows us to pause, to hold our nerve, and do more research before saying yes or no to something." The filter has also driven innovation – because if a solution doesn’t make it through the filter, we’re forced to think of new and more creative solutions. 

Holly Branson speaking at a townhall event for Virgin Management and Virgin Red

We also discussed the ripple effect of the purpose filter, because if we decline an investment, collaboration, or partnership because the company or product doesn’t make it through the filter, we explain why! This encourages the business or individual to re-assess the issue and think of more purpose-driven alternatives and something that excites me – it encourages purpose innovation! For example, we provide free lunch at our Virgin Management and Virgin Red office, and we work with local businesses and sustainable start-ups for catering. We were engaging with a start-up we wanted to work with, but their packaging didn’t meet the sustainability criteria so we (politely!) let them know. The team took it away, and are now working on a more sustainable solution. Brilliant.

Thank you to everyone who joined the webinar, and a big thanks to Virgin Pulse for the invite. I’ll follow up with another blog that has specific tips on how to build a company culture with purpose – stay tuned!