Walking the purpose tightrope

— Rebecca Wilson 

A version of this article originally appeared on - 

During a crisis like COVID-19, when business sustainability and survival are at risk, how does an organisation balance its core values with the tough business decisions likely required to survive? 

Here's a quick story: The Cotton On Group, Australia's largest global retailer, has always put purpose and people first—its team, customers and supply partners. Experience in dealing with supply chain impacts in Asia at the earliest genesis of the COVID outbreak in China set it on a decision course anchored by its ethical framework; a framework that has guided its phenomenal success and globalisation was now the compass to business resilience.  

Cotton On Group committed early to maintaining its workforce, deploying retail roles to support e-commerce fulfillment, which grew by 400% in the first few months, and maintaining regular communication with more than 7 million customers through its loyalty program, Perks. The company upped its ante in its communication to customers and its global team and was forthright in its commitments, approaching a challenging time with honesty, integrity and heart. Cotton On's approach paid off. When stores were able to reopen, the company had an experienced, motivated, ready-to-mobilise retail team and new season stock ready to go.  

Cotton On's experience illuminates a clear path through the dilemma brands are facing as the pandemic prevails: how to reconcile their purpose and commitment to social responsibility with the hard decisions that financial sustainability requires. 

The tightrope 

In the early days of the pandemic, corporate decision-making was largely fueled by adrenaline. There was no crystal ball for leaders to future gaze or precedence to guide the way. Survival was a daily dynamic process that was as much about instinct as it was about rational business thinking. 

With this intuitive leadership style came a great divide in how leaders navigated those first months, their leadership behaviours through the prolonged crisis, and inevitably how they set up their organisations to emerge and recover. 

The tension point between financial sustainability and social impact was a real one. Leaders found themselves on the precipice of the business survival cliff, wrestling with the decisions that would bridge the company to solid ground and debating whether core values could be the guideline.  

This is the purpose tightrope. 

The good news is that a company who walks it well and looks to its purpose as a critical filter for making decisions will emerge from the pandemic stronger than before. A people-first approach to decision-making underpins any purpose-led organisation's culture. These companies want to do the right thing by their employees and their customers at every turn. 

Purposeful leadership 

In "normal" times leadership is relatively more predictable. Not so during COVID-19. A strong purpose framework can be a lighthouse to help leaders steer during rough seas. 

Mahindra Group 

Anand Mahindra, the Chairman of the Mahindra Group in India, announced a series of initiatives to help the country in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. They included leveraging the Group's production facilities and expertise to manufacture ventilators, donating his salary, and using Mahindra Holidays resorts across India as temporary care facilities. Mahindra set up a fund—including 100% of his own salary—to help support small business owners and the self-employed to get through the tough times. He recently suggested that "if each of us takes care of the daily rations and essentials of at least three less privileged families, it will have an exponential effect, but unlike COVID, it'll be a good virus."  


Over 300 million students in India and many millions more in Asia Pacific were cut off from attending school when the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak led to the lockdown of cities across the region. To bridge the physical distance between students and their teachers, Lenovo leaned into its master narrative of providing "Smarter Technology for all" to create a "Smarter Place to Learn". In India, it partnered with a local NGO to use technology to connect teacher volunteers with students on a platform that intelligently matches their preferred styles of learning. In just 2 months, more than 13 million people were engaged in this activation, sparking further education campaigns in Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. 

Leadership qualities necessary to find a balance 

The intersection of social and financial impact is evident in these examples and they've have been considered not as separate paths but as entangled context to business decisions.  

So, what can leaders facing challenging financial scenarios and workforce impacts, their own unique tightrope, consider guiding them through?  

  • Be calm but decisive. 
  • Amp up interpersonal skills and focus on sensitivity and compassion. Think through all aspects of the crisis's impact on your employees, your clients, and your partners. 
  • Embrace uncertainty and adapt to change dynamically. 
  • Look to your company values and purpose as guiding principles in decision-making. 
  • Communicate regularly to ease employee anxiety, which is a common and absolutely justified response to a crisis like COVID-19. 
  • These leaders demonstrate that not only can the tightrope be walked; it must be walked. Brands that want to survive and thrive need to strike a balance between financial sustainability and compassionate people-first purpose. 


Rebecca Wilson is executive vice president for Singapore and Australia at WE Communications.