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Deborah Wahl says that purpose – in context – is an accelerator for teams and organizations


Shutterstock / Global Digital Leaders / Alamy

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics replaced by single, overarching rule “One – a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; two – a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; three – a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” Part of a science fiction story published 75 years ago, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have guided robotics and artificial intelligence developers and engineers for the better part of a century. Now, they are to be replaced with a single principle: humans should flourish. The update comes at the recommendation of researchers from the British Academy and the Royal Society, and suggests that data should always be handled with the “flourishing” of the individual and society at its heart. A report from the team also suggests the formation of a ‘stewardship body’, responsible for monitoring and managing ethics in data and machines.

Why purpose gives you zoom Sometimes you bump into someone from your past and find they have a great story to tell. That was the case at my recent business-school reunion, when I encountered my long-time friend Deborah Wahl, who’s just completed an impressive stint as head of US marketing at McDonald’s. Wahl’s shift at the fastfood giant came on the back of a glittering career in marketing: she made chief marketing officer of Chrysler and VP marketing for Lexus, among other key roles across the automotive sector. Wahl’s magic is her ability to shape a purpose that works across conflicting spheres, in the context of strategy and wider business goals. She faced a huge task at Mazda when she had to align Japanese, European and American perspectives – no easy task given that each market has vastly different dynamics and consumers. “We settled on Mazda’s purpose offering ‘The soul of the sports car’,” she told me. Her successor then picked up the mantle with a legendary marketing campaign. “It formed the basis of the famously effective ‘Zoom Zoom’ ad – it was an inspiring message that everyone could understand.” Wahl reveals that Zoom Zoom helped Mazda shape its strategy. “It helped us articulate what should be ‘in’ and what should be ‘out’,” she said. It also inspired the famous advertising campaign that differentiated the brand for over a decade. Wahl stressed that purpose works as an accelerator of teams and organizations when placed in a wider business context. At McDonald’s, the company shaped its purpose around ‘honest food’, helping it answer the public’s concerns transparently when it faced pressure over ingredient sourcing and healthy eating. “It was motivating – but in a complex business it’s not enough to be motivating,” she said. “You still have to continuously improve customer service and restaurant operations. You still have

to get your digital strategy right. So we pivoted away from that and readopted the corporate purpose which works much better – ‘making delicious, feel-good moments easy for everyone’.” Fascinated by her experience, I asked Wahl what lessons she took from it. “Purpose should help you get back to your core, not away from it,” she told me. “Ford always had this tension, too. We were under constant pressure to move to small, efficient vehicles, but we had to remember that, at Ford, the trucks and SUVs are key business drivers. Strategy and purpose must recognize the core. “So when you craft your purpose, you have to start by looking at who you are as a company, who your core customers are, what you really deliver well and

Wahl’s magic is her ability to shape a purpose across conflicting spheres what they value. You should never get too detached from that. Where a lot of companies get stuck, is they stay there and don’t take it to the next level. For example, the McDonald’s principles of service, value and convenience are core to the brand. Defined in those terms, it’s not necessarily motivating at a human level, but it’s definitely helpful. So it’s a good starting point, but purpose must go further to inspire. My advice to anyone embarking on a purpose project is to start with the fundamental business drivers. Purpose cannot and should not exist in isolation.” Wahl’s testimony provides a key lesson in what, as she puts it, “is coming down the road for leaders”. Wahl, being the Great Mind she is, zoomed there first. — Michael Chavez is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education Q4 2017 Dialogue

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Dialogue Q4 2017