Master of Communications Management

The CEO as Chief Purpose Evangelist

Josée Thibault is Director of Philanthropy for MaRS Discovery District and a candidate in the McMaster-Syracuse Master of Communications Management program.


As the most authoritative spokesperson for the organization, they give instant credibility and relevance to corporate citizenship commitments. As chief strategist, they can direct financial and human resources to catalyze and sustain action. And as a most powerful employee motivator, they set the blueprint for workplace culture and values.





Employees giving hands and helping colleagues to walk upstairs. Team giving support, growing together. Vector illustration for teamwork, mentorship, cooperation concept


It’s no wonder the CEO is increasingly viewed as the most important voice in the purpose economy.


Just this month, as trust in institutions continues to sink, Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer issued a clear mandate for employers, and a special call out to CEOs: “employers must leverage the powerful force of employees to restore societal trust from the inside out — from the workplace to the marketplace.” No small task, especially when you have that other little responsibility on your plate: driving shareholder value.


Nonetheless, the vast majority of CEOs accept the role bestowed upon them. Most believe that business should have a positive impact of society beyond pursuing profit and that income inequality, climate change, and gender parity are issues for business to work to solve.


In December 2021, I spoke with 5 CEOs from different industries to explore this topic and to synthesize their insights with research and overall trends.


Here are some key insights from the study:

  • It’s personal
    • Purpose is something core to how leaders define themselves, even independent of the progress of their respective companies toward a formal purpose mandate. Early formative experiences shape leaders’ values, and those values shape a company’s purpose, whether there is a formal statement on the website or not.
  • It’s more than personal though
    • Great CEOs have strategic foresight. The leaders I spoke with saw leading with purpose as a means to prepare for a near future state, including looming climate regulation, evolving consumer expectations, and fierce competition for talent.
  • There is one, non-negotiable characteristic
    • Authenticity. There is no surer way to a public relations disaster than saying one thing and doing another behind closed doors (and those behind those doors won’t take too kindly either). Some leaders felt it their duty to be bold and vocal on relevant issues, and others preferred a quieter approach. The style of leadership doesn’t really matter. It’s about doing things for the right reasons and being true to who you are.
  • And there is one action that matters most
    • We live in an increasingly divided society and there are fewer and fewer issues that don’t bring at least some contentious debate. Publicly clarifying values on delicate topics is risky, and the best insurance policy is dialogue. Listening to stakeholders, all of them, allows leaders to be values-clear but responsive, offers on-ramps for those not yet convinced, and ensures a respectful, collaborative environment.
  • One last thing- be bold, be humble, and above all, be accountable
    • The CEOs I spoke with understood the assignment: seize the moment and set bold targets. Now is not the time to be tentative. But if you say something is important- pay equity, diverse hiring, community impact, decarbonization…well you know what they say about what gets measured. The point is not to ace the test though, it’s to continue to make honest effort toward it. By being transparent with stakeholders throughout the journey, leaders build trust and increase their chances at success.

The conversations I had with each CEO for this study were rich and insightful. They’ve inspired me to continue research on this new type of leader, one that is unafraid to weave their personal values with the businesses they lead, and to bring people along on the journey to creating a better society. There’s no better time than now for this new breed of leader to take their place.