Purpose-led business, purposeful people
Becoming a purpose-led business is a source of positive business transformation for social and environmental impact.
This is a huge subject, one with seemingly infinite opinions and reference. There are, however, two approaches that seem to consistently emerge; one, where Purpose* is strategy – released to ‘incentivise, control, and align’ the business operations, and, two, where Purpose is culture and is the business of the business, where all of the decisions, actions and feedback flow through the Purpose.
In my experience there is a third, the business that believes it has no higher Purpose. I’ll come back to that later.
*I use Purpose with a ‘P’ to denote Organisational Purpose and purpose with a ‘p’ for individual or personal purpose.
Are any of these 3 approaches wrong?
#1 – Purpose as strategy 👎
To number 1️⃣ I would say, organisational Purpose is not for ‘release’ or ‘dissemination across the organisation’ and is not a strategy for management and competitive advantage. Sadly, this is the way many larger organisations and education institutions experience and teach organisational Purpose. Taking this route is not impossible, and larger organisations would argue this is the only way to enact Purpose at scale, but it is complex and challenging to believe in.
Purpose is not a slogan written over the surface of an organisation, where the calm surface obscures turbulent depths, or Purpose washing by another name.
#2 – Purpose is the business of business 👍
Number 2️⃣, when experienced directly gives Purpose real meaning to our business and our work. There are, of course, the everyday business challenges, that is the reality that tests our commitment to our Purpose through our principles, organisational and operating model, and behaviours.
Purpose is not static, but rather a living and evolving guiding principle and within which we can create a better and thriving future. It has many names, North Star ⭐ – Flag ⛳ – Anchor ⚓ – it is why we work together within our business to amplify our mission to deliver our Purpose.
#3 – No Purpose, just business 🤔
Do the 3️⃣’s really have no purpose, other than their daily operations, customer service and sales targets?
All businesses are a human creation and all humans are a ‘collection of purposes’. If we have forgotten why the organisation exists and who it serves it can be rediscovered, and re-energised.
It’s also worth considering that in the 2020 Edelman study, ‘ethical drivers [are] 3X more important to company trust than competence’. We all need to be good at what we do, that’s a given. We must also be ethical, responsible, and sustainable in why we do it, not as a slogan, but by purposeful design and culture.
Think of the future
I get the sense that many of the younger generation feel lost, in a way that I, and from what I can remember, much of my generation rarely did. There are many reasons for this I know, but one critical factor creating this sense of despair is our way of doing business and extractive business models and mindsets. This quote sums up the need of a friend had previously worked for a B Corp, a business that was striving to be a ‘force for good’ for its people and planet.
“I want to find a job and business with Purpose, I can’t go back to a business that is old school” – A friend and prior colleague, 2020
Another issue, they absolutely do not want to work in and for businesses that are top down, command & control autocracies –
no matter how benevolent or well meaning they seem. Especially when they know they will likely be adding to the degradation of the planet and their personal, social, and family well-being.
They want. No, they need, their businesses and work to have a higher Purpose, where our businesses move to a ‘system value’ that embeds social and environmental benefits for society and the planet.
A business system that recognises our mutual interdependence.
Big P, little P
How do we allow our organisational Purpose and personal purpose to enhance and support each other?
“We are a set of purposes, so without any sense of purpose, we would be barely be said to exist at all ”
We are all uniquely individual. This is true of our values and motivations that make us engaged with our place in the world and our community. This raises some good questions;
- How do we allow our individual purpose to remain alive through our work?
- How does my purpose amplify my organisations purpose?
- Do I have to let go of my values and beliefs in service of the organisational Purpose?
For the first question we have to assume that we know what gets us in the flow. This is tough to unearth. Our self-awareness of what motivates and energises us is a slippery eel. Our personal purpose also changes with time and context. If we start by reflecting and recognising that we do have a personal purpose, we can then be aware what our strengths are and how these can help our business Purpose. By the same token, our organisations need to embrace our individual purpose as the creative strength that it is – our little ‘p’, adding and growing in and around the Big ‘P’, organisational Purpose. One mutually supporting the other. McKinsey call it ‘igniting our personal purpose’. We call it, talking, listening, hearing, and celebrating individual voices and needs to amplify our organisational Purpose. One is not mutually exclusive of the other.
Trust is local: employees expect to be heard […] 73% [want an] opportunity to shape the future of society [and] 73% [of] employees [want to be] included in planning – Edelman trust barometer 2020 report pdf
There has been a flurry of research around the question of organisational Purpose too. When you cut through the haze and noise there is some clear learning and action we can take. In the recent discussion paper by Re-generate.org they highlight 4 areas that hold back purpose led businesses back (in the UK). The 4 i’s, as they call it;
- Identification – How do I know you are a purpose led business?
- Incorporation – The system is not organised to make it easy for companies to set-up to put Purpose at the core of their governance and decision making.
- Investment – Again, the system makes it hard for Purpose-led companies to find investment.
- Impact Measurement – Can we really prove to customers and stakeholders what our impact on society and the environment really is?
Answering these challenges is not insurmountable. It all starts with our people and the their experience of Purpose in the organisation. If we don’t feel and consistently experience the organisational Purpose through every level of its decisions, actions, interactions, impacts, and operations, it gets hollowed out.
If we don’t believe it, how will the outside community either?
Shifting our mental and business governance models and changing our inherited and outdated measures of success within our businesses is fundamental for a thriving future for our people and planet.
Written by Matt Tipping
Founder of The Good Stream
Come back soon for more articles on changing the nature of business for good.