For many years now, DHL has invested in defining and communicating our ‘purpose’ as a company. It was some 10 years ago that we coined our own mantra: Connecting people, improving lives. It’s simple and upbeat, but most of all it underscores our collective belief that logistics and global trade improve the prosperity of nations and improve the lives of blue-collar workers in those countries.
It is said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. Our plan and our purpose met a formidable challenge with the arrival of the pandemic. On paper, we faced a serious threat to our business and our ability to serve our customers. Global supply chains were interrupted, air traffic came to a standstill in many countries; border controls sprung up around the world; lockdowns confined people to their homes. No one knew what was around each corner.
I have often adhered to the principle that a quick decision is often a bad decision, and one should not be pressured by fictional deadlines. This situation was different, and from talking and thinking as a team it quickly became clear that it was necessary to change work routines and processes almost overnight. Communication became critical and we had to tailor and translate messages to our employees in 220 countries and territories. We had to ensure protection against the virus and deal with the prospect of downsizing. We resolved to introduce a radically changed environment.
We somehow squeezed four years of technological advancement into four months. Departments like HR and IT had previously often been known as ‘support’ functions. We had to move 9,000 laptops into homes as employees made the transition to their new workplace. Under these circumstances, my suspicion that there is no such thing as support functions was confirmed: we’re all on the frontline and we never missed a moment when we weren’t fully connected to our customers, or in fact more connected than ever before.
At one moment we were delivering PPE to China from around the world and then, within a matter of weeks, the direction shifted and it was to move PPE from China to the world. We helped to safeguard the existence of brands that had to suddenly close their physical stores and shift their business online. How tough would life have been if people had stopped receiving packages? There would have been no DIY, no gardening, no books, no sports gear, not to mention vaccines, medical supplies or spare parts for vehicles.
It became apparent within weeks that our business remained very strong and that our customers needed us more than ever. We found that we were able to fulfil those needs, because our employees were willing to adapt in a crisis. Connecting people, improving lives – never before had this been more relevant than during the pandemic: never before has it been more recognised internally and externally. This simple, memorable idea cut through and became a much more commonly known and widely used part of our own lexicon.
Our strategy was able to evolve with the changing circumstances, as we came up with a way to think about the company and a way to talk about the company that our teams could apply to make their own decisions. During the darkest days, our investment in communicating and clarifying our purpose over many years paid off. Thankfully, we were not an executive board of ten advocating what to do, rather we had 110,000 advocates for what we needed to do. Our purpose gave us the momentum we needed to adapt. The concept of “influence a thousand” came to mind.
The pandemic proved our resilience. We operate across 220 countries and territories. With operations on a global scale, there will always be natural or political disruptions of some kind going on somewhere every week. We have to deal with that. As a company, we have to be optimistic about a swift recovery from the pandemic – in the same way as we got through the Icelandic ash cloud of 2010 and the great Recession of 2008. This would pass in the same way.
Like so many other frontline and essential services, we helped secure livelihoods, delivered health and joy, enabled growth and kept supply chains running. It wasn’t difficult for our employees to see the impact they were having. For our people, this was a source of tremendous pride and meaning. This was reflected in our annual Employee Opinion Survey, conducted among all employees. It shows that employee engagement jumped from 77% in 2019 to 82% in 2020.
The benefits of maintaining global connections have become even more tangible than ever before. Vaccine development itself is a great example of globalisation at its best. It wouldn’t have been possible without the global division of labour and global exchanges of knowledge.
We know that trade can soothe tensions between nations and create bonds of fellowship. If companies like ours succeed in engaging and empowering our employees, that will provide a template for governments and society as a whole
Now that vaccine production is ramping up, the distribution of vaccines depends crucially on global logistics. We have to date distributed more than 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to 120 countries. This is an excellent example of our purpose (and globalisation) in action.
The distribution of vaccines is not just essential to our customers and the world. It’s also motivating for our employees: they feel part of something, their families show pride in them, and they are thrilled when they see our planes arrive and the distribution process start.
But our purpose is not just a feature of work life. We want our employees to be active citizens in helping the towns, villages and communities where they live. Our ‘Go’ programmes support the efforts of our employees to make a contribution to wider society.
Whether that means making it easier to trade across borders, (GoTrade), giving young people the opportunity to learn new skills (GoTeach), preparing for the logistical challenges of natural disasters (GoHelp) or ensuring business success is compatible with environmental protection (GoGreen), we have initiatives to get employees involved in causes that drive them. We’ve also launched DHL’s Got Heart – a way that colleagues can draw attention to the charities they support or set up ways to back good causes through their own initiative.
International collaboration can counter the forces of nationalism and protectionism that threaten the flow of trade. Alibaba’s Jack Ma puts it succinctly, ‘If trade stops, war starts’. Corporate work cultures can offer a model for societies, showing how commerce can transcend religious and cultural differences and be inclusive of many nationalities and languages.
We know that trade can soothe tensions between nations and create bonds of fellowship. If companies like ours succeed in engaging and empowering our employees, that will provide a template for governments and society as a whole.
It’s sometimes hard to find the words to say what we mean when we talk about purpose. But I found that you don’t always need to. Remember the song Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel?
During the pandemic, we used this song and the lyrics to complement some of our communications. It was memorable. It caught the mood. And it conveyed a message. It said everything we needed to say about how we needed to maximise our collective effort to overcome setbacks during those difficult days. We’re proud that we did what we could to calm the troubled waters.
Final thoughts: the purpose of any company and organisation should be aligned with what it is they do, where they operate, what industry they are in, what assets they have and where their employees live. What matters is how you “connect” locally and, at the end of the day, your own example is the best example and your employees will be proud, and justifiably so, given that it is them carrying the torch.