When Purpose Gets Political: Lessons From The AZ/EU Row

Regardless of your perspective on the AstraZeneca/European Commission vaccine row, it is hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Pascal Soriot.

Under his leadership, AstraZeneca built an innovative partnership with the University of Oxford, developed a novel vaccine at breakneck speed, scaled up production at pace, and offered a lifeline to the world at cost price. A proud Frenchman, with a track record at Sanofi Aventis and Roche, he bears no animosity to the people of Europe. And yet he has been personally thrust into the middle of an ugly political row which he surely would have rather avoided.

AstraZeneca’s purpose is “We push the boundaries of science to deliver life-changing medicines”. This statement appears politically neutral and is certainly aligned with the work of developing a novel Covid-19 vaccine. Yet, if living even this commitment can lead to controversy, are the benefits of a clear purpose overstated?

To answer this question, we need to revisit the rationale for a corporate purpose. As Graham Kenny rightly states in his influential HBR article, a great purpose statement articulates your organization’s impact on the lives of those whom it seeks to serve. In doing so, it motivates your workforce by connecting with both their hearts and their minds. AstraZeneca concurs and argues that their purpose “gives us reason to come to work every day. It reminds us why we exist as a company”.

Leadership and motivation are not served by bland, undifferentiated and ultimately meaningless statements. Setting out any stall in a globalised economy during the information – and misinformation – age necessarily opens up all business leaders to criticism. Expecting a purpose statement to act as an inoculation to such censure is overly optimistic. The fact that it does not, however, does not imply that the art of motivation is obsolete and that values no longer have any value.

We hope that vaccination continues at pace and that international disagreements are transient and resolved equitably: as a firm we have no wish to “pick sides” in a highly emotive debate. However, we also hope that this unfortunate episode does not discourage business leaders from setting out an ambitious purpose and ensuring that their organizations live this every day.

Link: https://hbr.org/2014/09/your-companys-purpose-is-not-its-vision-mission-or-values