Who cares: purpose & supply

Article by
Keith Shering

How valuable (and vulnerable) is your purpose?

Purpose matters in people’s buying decisions. This can be particularly so for the smaller, local or specialist businesses. Businesses with whom people identify. But how much do you really control how purpose translates into customer experience? How do you protect your purpose in the modern, savvy economy?

 The Situation

Purpose is getting more and more column inches¹. We’re seeing the spending power of buyers moving more towards valuing authenticity. People are buying "purpose" as well as "product" now.

Increasingly, people want their values reflected in those of their product or service providers². These values could be environmental, “buy local”, inclusion, diversity, quality-driven, price-focus or any number of things that people and businesses stand for.

As a business, delivering purpose on your own is hard. Our product or service often builds upon a chain of suppliers and providers. They become part of our story.

 The Challenges

Here’s a challenge I’ve often seen: the understanding of the purpose of a business is not consistent. The business leaders, the mission statement, the managers, the staff, and suppliers often see purpose differently. Many times we think of different reasons for “why we do these things this way”. We make decisions from different drivers. Customers are at the end of a long chain of decisions. Delivery of our purpose is fragmented. Customers question what we really stand for.

Every decision we make is an opportunity to grow or shatter our purpose in the eyes of customers. We can work for years to show how authentic we are to our core purpose and principles. All that goodwill and loyalty can disappear with a single wrong or even questionable decision. Social media can be a feedback loop that magnifies outrage faster than advocacy...

 What Can We Do About It? (And Who Are “We” Anyway?)

Sharing clear purpose across our business interactions supports strong relationships. In turn this solves customer problems faster and better. It helps us stay "authentic" in our business decisions and actions.

When I wrote The Flow of Purpose³, I was mostly looking at an internal flow of “why”. I dug into how our leaders, teams, and people can consciously share clear purpose across a business. This lets us pick off opportunity or problem areas one by one. With each, we think through how to redesign them. We improve how we deliver our core purpose.

But I’ve read a few things recently that made me think: why shouldn’t purpose flow through our supply chains? Can we take conscious action to do this?

Can we have business partners driven by the same things, with common goals, to support one another's aims? Together, we work through opportunities and issues quickly, driven by mutually beneficial outcomes.

All good... But how do we make this happen?

After all, we can’t just change our suppliers’ businesses with one quick request…

What if you could gather together the suppliers who play the biggest part in your story? For a morning or an afternoon? Could you understand and influence them enough to make changes? Can you make sure your purpose is safer with them than before?


Here are some thoughts, based on the early stages of The Flow of Purpose:

  1. Start by being clear on your own “what and why” of your purpose.
  2. Figure out who your key suppliers and partners are. Which ones could have an impact on your purpose? Can you convince them to work with you on joint purpose?
  3. Together, define what the word “purpose” means to each of you. Is each business in the chain “on the same page” on what purpose actually means?
  4. State and share your purposes. Why do we all do what we do?
  5. Look for the similarities and differences in our purposes.
  6. Rank and prioritise the similarities and differences. What have we to build upon, what blocks us?
  7. Dig into what causes the differences & blockers. Do we think they can be addressed? If so, how - who needs to do what to get alignment?
  8. Draw up a purpose-driven plan of action, with owners and dates. Relate actions to our overall joint purpose.
  9. Take time to stay aligned; maybe meet every 6-12 months to review purposes.

Why follow this process?

 Start With Clarity

We need to start with a clear view of our own purpose. Why? We will be challenged on this, overtly or inadvertently. Our people and our suppliers will ask us questions on our purpose. They want to understand what we really mean. We need to be able to answer these questions. At the least, we need to have informed discussions around them.

Think about the people who supply our pens and paper-clips. Will they have as much impact on an authentic customer experience as the people to whom we outsource logistics? Probably not directly (though they may well affect our employee experience - a whole other angle for us to think about!). Say we have a strong environmental purpose, yet our products are delivered by old, smoky, dirty diesel vans. Will customers question our authenticity?

We might choose to prioritise some suppliers over others when deciding who to involve in discussions. Will they care enough to join you? Do they see your point of view? Or is all they care about how much you spend with them?

Purpose is one of those words that everyone thinks they know the meaning of. However, we often see it with subtle differences, or inferences. It’s good to make sure we start conversations from the same point.

Doing so allows each key partner in the supply chain to explain why they do what they do. We need to understand this for each. We also need to be confident they follow their “why” when they make business decisions.

 Look For Matches and Misalignment

The chances of a business and even one of its suppliers having a completely aligned purpose are probably pretty slim. We’re going to find differences. Hopefully, we’ll also find a decent amount of consistent thinking. It’s kind of obvious that we’ll pick suppliers who make our lives easier. Change happens though. Things like the passage of time gradually change drivers and purpose. Changes in people holding key roles can bring fundamental changes. Inherited supply relationships (for example due to a merger) can also be misaligned.

Matches are good - they reinforce the buy-supply relationship. Misalignments may or may not be bad. A supplier purpose which competes head-on with yours is an obvious problem. But what about a supplier purpose that is OK with yours, but head-on with another supplier? That could take a bit of exploration and resolution. What could the impact be? Best case scenario? Worst case scenario?

 Fix What Needs Fixing

If you find misalignments to fix (or matches to capitalise on), what do you do? First, try to identify the root causes. When you’ve got to grips with those, you’ll probably be in a better position to understand if a fix is even possible. Perhaps the best outcome is to change one or both purposes to say the same thing. Real life? That’s unlikely to happen (though not impossible). Next best thing? Getting the people working together to understand each other’s “whys”. Perhaps understanding and including in contracts and procedures a recognition of how one purpose works with another, or why there is a difference. Our decisions have an impact on the other… Be aware when deciding. Communicate clearly when a decision will have an impact. Build trust in one another to deliver each other’s purpose.

When you have a feel for what needs to be done, draw up a simple plan together. And connect it with purpose - show why it matters to support one another. Give responsibilities to named people in the group, so we’re genuinely supporting each other. Train people together. Years ago (aargh, decades ago!) I used to work in a pretty radical bicycle shop⁴, when mountain biking was in its infancy; idealistic and experimental. One of the things we used to enjoy most was when suppliers would come in to give product training. They would help us understand not just their new products, but also what it was that drove the innovations. They shared their ideas, passions, and pride in new stuff. Their purpose in creating. It was intoxicating and drove exemplary customer experience.

Lastly, schedule a follow on. Don’t overdo it - six-monthly or annually is probably fine unless there’s a lot of change coming. People change. Markets change. Businesses change. Do we still share a purpose across our supply chain, through to our customers? Take action if not.

 In Conclusion

Sharing purpose with our suppliers protects and enriches our customer relationships. We’re less likely to find ourselves carrying the can for incongruent actions outside of our control. We’re more able to keep delivering to the promise the customer saw when they first bought from us⁵.

At the root of shared purpose is a culture of understanding and communication. We want our suppliers to understand what our purpose means to our customers. First we must understand our purpose. Then we must communicate clearly with suppliers how they can support or hinder our purpose, if we want their help. We can also learn from their viewpoint and experience. By extension, what we do helps deliver their purpose, if we are aligned.

This means moving beyond functional, contractual relationships with suppliers. It means sharing and trusting more.

It means knowing we all care about the same things, passionately, on behalf of our ultimate customers.

Keith Shering is a perennially curious analyst and imaginative problem solver. He's on a mission to help maximise potential - in people and organisations - through shared purpose, imagination and design.

You can find Keith at

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash


¹ Buyers - want authenticity and purpose. See: and



⁴ Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative:

⁵ How To Be Loyal To Customers on Forbes:

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