• Mar 14 2023

Connecting L&D to Brand Purpose to Drive Business Results

In today’s turbulent business environment, Talent and L&D teams are under more pressure than ever to make a strong business case for investing in employee development. In periods of economic uncertainty, skilled leaders are crucial to driving business success; however, learning and development is often deprioritized in favor of immediate revenue-generating initiatives. 

Talent and L&D teams know when organizations fail to invest in leaders’ development, it poses short and long-term risks to employee performance, retention, and impact on business goals. 

At the recent CLO Exchange, marketing expert and Vice Dean of Wharton Executive Education Patti Williams sat down with ExecOnline Chief Product Officer and co-founder Julia Alexander to discuss how talent teams can connect L&D to brand purpose to drive business outcomes and boost the ROI of learning and development. 

The following is excerpted from their conversation and edited for length. 

Julia Alexander: Many organizations are still navigating disruption in the wake of the pandemic and now facing economic headwinds. As Vice Dean of Wharton Executive Education, what trends are you seeing in how businesses are leveraging L&D to meet these challenges?

Patti Williams: Overwhelmingly we’re hearing about critical skills gaps, particularly among the pipeline for senior leaders. The pandemic disrupted some of the development opportunities that organizations traditionally relied on. A big part of the way one learns to be a manager is by watching other people manage. The virtual or hybrid environments in which many leaders have worked in the last few years have created less opportunities for us to observe other leaders in action. 

We’re also hearing that many organizations are facing budget constraints, and L&D teams are under pressure to demonstrate the ROI of their programs. Perhaps as a result of this pressure, we’re seeing a renewed emphasis on competency mapping, with talent teams taking a more highly analytical approach to how their organization should develop the next 100 top leaders in the business. Who are they? How do we choose them? What do they need? How will we allocate budget over time to develop them? What are the metrics we’ll use to show that they are developing the targeted skills? These are all questions talent teams are asking themselves as they make the business case for L&D in this challenging environment. 

There is also a rise in what I call “micro-credentialling” as an answer to the need for L&D teams to demonstrate that leaders are developing targeted skills. What are the credentials organizations can offer, in the form of a certificate that might be placed in an email signature or attached to a LinkedIn profile that provide tangible evidence of the learning leaders have acquired? 

Lastly, we’re seeing many organizations pivot to “omni-channel” L&D programming, which mixes face-to-face programs with synchronous and asynchronous online learning. In general, we find that emerging leaders prefer longer, self-paced learning journeys that may include a day or two of in-person learning in addition to online or asynchronous courses. 

JA: Your recent research focuses on how the concept of “Brand Purpose” influences consumer behavior. What is brand purpose, and what lessons from your research can L&D teams use to influence their consumers, namely leaders and employees?

PW: In recent years, organizations have faced tremendous pressure from investors around brand purpose. Larry Fink, CEO of Black Rock, the world’s largest institutional investor, has called on every organization to articulate its brand purpose. This, of course, got the attention of many leaders in the C-Suite. 

So what is brand purpose? 

When most practitioners talk about brand purpose, they’re talking about the “Why” of an organization. All organizations know what they do, and they know how they do it, but few know why they do it. The why becomes a unifying, motivating purpose which can be a defining factor behind business success. 

It’s not just investors who care about brand purpose. Increasingly, consumers are choosing brands whose purpose is aligned to their own values. Particularly in the wake of Covid, there’s a deep desire for purpose in life more generally, and consumers expect organizations to be purposeful as well. 

When you help make the connection between employees’ professional purpose and role at the company, the purpose and value of L&D, and the broader purpose of the organization, it motivates employees to take advantage of your programs.

Patti Williams, Vice Dean of Wharton Executive Education

The same is true for employees. When we examine the drivers of recent high rates of turnover and “quiet quitting,” many are related to employees trying to live more authentically to their purpose. We spend so many hours a day at work, and it’s natural that we want that part of our lives to also feel like it has meaning and significance, and that we are engaged in something that is bringing positive impact into the world–not just generating shareholder profits. 

The same way that organizations can develop a brand purpose, L&D and Talent teams can examine and articulate their own purpose within an organization to more effectively engage their consumers–leaders and employees. You know what you do, and how you do it, by why does your team exist? What value does it deliver to employees and the organization at large, and how does its purpose connect to the broader brand purpose? 

When you help make the connection between employees’ professional purpose and role at the company, the purpose and value of L&D, and the broader purpose of the organization, it motivates employees to take advantage of your programs. 

JA: One of the ways we know L&D contributes value to employees is by helping them find their own purpose within the organization. What is the connection between purpose and performance, and how can L&D teams leverage this connection to make a business case for their programs?

PW: There is a lot of evidence that people who are purposeful live longer lives, have reduced levels of Alzheimer’s, are less lonely, more likely to engage in altruistic behaviors, and more likely to do things in service of others. Many of these attributes among employees are ones that translate back into value for the organization. 

When people feel that their individual purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose, when they feel like they are living up to their values at work, they stick around longer, they’re more productive, collegial, and team oriented. They’re more likely to give back and invest in mentoring someone else’s performance. 

These are also outcomes that L&D teams can start to measure. Ask employees, “What is your purpose?”; “Do you feel purposeful at work?”; “How often do you feel purposeful at work?”; “In what ways does L&D help you feel more purposeful at work?”

JA: There is what can sometimes feel like a fuzzy line between companies or leaders using the concept of “purpose” in a way that makes employees feel motivated, and using it in a way that makes employees feel exploited. How can organizations, L&D teams, and leaders avoid the latter?

PW: Start by asking who at the organization “owns” the brand purpose? Is defining, communicating, and selling the brand purpose a responsibility that sits exclusively with the marketing or consumer-facing teams, or is it something that every department is responsible for? 

In my experience, purpose statements that are generated exclusively by marketing teams can often be limited in impact. Even if they come from a good place, the scope tends to be narrow and shallow, and lives in a small niche of the organization. In these cases, purpose serves as inspiration, but not motivation for customers and employees. 

For purpose to be an effective and authentic motivator, it has to be reflected in every aspect of the organization–not just in what we say, but in what we do. 


About Patti Williams

Patti Williams is the Vice Dean of Wharton Executive Education and Ira A. Lipman Associate Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School. Williams’s current research projects focus on how emotions influence consumer decisions and processes of persuasion, consumer responses to emotional and attitudinal ambivalence, emotion regulation, and the emotions associated with social identities.

Patti co-teaches two leadership development experiences offered from ExecOnline: Leading Customer-Centric Growth and Selling Through Customer Centricity.

About Julia Alexander

Julia Alexander is co-founder and Chief Product Officer of ExecOnline, where she oversees all aspects of global product management, programming and content, university partnerships, and learner operations support.

Julia is deeply passionate about the intersection of technology, inclusive learning and the development of human potential. She serves on the Board of Industry Leaders for the Consumer Technology Association, the world’s leading technology trade organization. She brings this passion to her work at ExecOnline, and to her board commitments. Julia holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA From Stanford University.

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