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How Prudential Developed its Purpose



In a round table held by Aspen Institute in June 2023, Robert Falzon, vice chair of Prudential Financial and a member of Prudential's Board of Directors, shared how they developed their purpose during their management transition 6 years ago. In this article, I share the learnings from their process as well as an unusual twist in their process.


The three phases of becoming purpose-driven

Falzon explains there are three key steps for companies to embark on the purpose journey:

  1. A discovery process

  2. Articulation process

  3. Communication and activation process


He further adds that all three steps are critical to obtaining "buy-in" from the organization. This is a key point. For internalizing purpose in organizations, the process begins when purpose development starts and not after it is fully articulated.


Culture and Purpose Discovery

A critical part of the discovery process for Prudential was talking to the people to get a sense for the culture. One initiative was taking a whole day to do an online event to discuss Prudential's culture. Falzon explains that culture is separate, but closely linked to purpose. He also notes that culture can be a double-edged sword. Depending on the culture, it might facilitate purpose, or it might get in the way. In other words, for companies setting out to discover the purpose, it is important to be mindful of the organization culture and its relationship to the purpose.


Top-down and bottoms-up approach to articulation

The process of how Prudential put their purpose in words is interesting. As Falzon puts it, it was a "simultaneous top-down approach.


The articulation process started with the executive team developing the words to the purpose statement. The next step is especially unusual. They asked the middle management (next two levels below the executive team of the organization) to develop their version of the purpose statement. In addition, the executive team did not share their statement and their thinking. In other words, the middle-management team developed a purpose statement from scratch.


As a result, there were two versions of the purpose statement: one from the executive team and the other from middle management, which represented the rest of the company. Though they were expressed differently, there was an intersection conceptually. It turns out that there was complete alignment regarding the core of the purpose. In the end, the executive team chose the purpose statement that came from the managers and employees. The statement was: making lives better through dealing with the financial challenges in a changing world. Falzon explains their reasoning, "We found that the way the middle management articulated it was better and resonated better with the organization."


There are two layers to a purpose statement.

We can observe from the above example there there are two parts in a purpose statement:


  • "what to say" - this is the essence of the purpose

  • "how to say" - this is the actual words and expressions use to articulate the purpose


For Prudential, although the "how to say" for the executive team's version and middle-management's version were different, the "what to say" is the same. Being aware of the distinction between "what to say" and "how to say" is extremely important especially in the final stages of articulation. Companies can start tinkering with words and be obsessed with making it sound good. When this happens, they tend to forget what they really wanted to say in the first place.


Takeaway

  • Activating purpose begins when purpose development starts.

  • During the purpose development process, take the time and effort to understand the culture and its relationship to purpose.

  • The typical decision to purpose development approach is top-down or bottoms-up. However, there is a third option to consider, which is both top-down and bottoms-up.

  • When articulating purpose, be mindful that purpose has two parts: "what to say" and "how to say." Do not lose sight of "what to say."














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