Purpose in the driving seat

April 8, 2019
Purpose in the driving seat

People don’t go to work just to earn a paycheck, at least not for the long term.  I appreciate that sounds a bit like privilege, but with demand for specialist talent continuing to rise, firms are taking note of the many reasons people turn up to work which are non-financial; most commonly talked about among these is the notion of purpose.  This phenomenon and its causal link to company performance is widely accepted in well-researched articles such as From Purpose to Impact by HBR and white papers produced by the likes of PWC on purpose driven leadership.  From the latter we have the chart below, which clearly shows how important people think purpose is, but also how employees view it as more important than business leaders.  Concerning?  Perhaps. Lets explore...


 Simplifying Complexity

The problem, I'd propose, is that these non-financial motivations are seen as too complicated and not mission-critical.  So with all this academic rigour around purpose as a key driver of performance, I want to take a more simplified (humanistic?) perspective and share from my experience why, more than money, I think people care about purpose. It boils down to three core reasons:

  1. people want to have an impact
  2. people want to contribute to society
  3. people want to have a legacy

Clearly there are many ways we can look at purpose, but I'd propose that simple framework above pretty much covers it. Thinking about purpose like this allows us to connect with people at a very human level, and in doing so it is a powerful thinking model managers and directors can use when looking at company mission and vision.  At its root it helps as a sanity check to what we are doing, as my boss at Jagex used to say it helps "keep us real" and as Simon Sinek says in his fantastic TED talk it helps connect us to our Why.

Looking at this from an employee point of view here's a potential narrative they might have in their mind... I want to have a positive impact on customers so I go to work to help do this, I want to contribute to society and I believe this business is doing so, and finally, I want my life to have been worth something on a larger scale.  These are powerful questions sometimes in the subconscious, but I think they are a big part of what connects us and makes us all human.  This is why I think it is helpful, for companies to consider whether they have good answers.

Furthermore, if you have a team of people who don't seem engaged, perhaps you are not getting the traction you wish or everything is just a bit of a slog, then I would argue you might well have got the wrong purpose (or maybe the wrong team).

Having a clear compelling purpose means to stand for something - a clear vision and mission - to be different in a meaningful way.  Company resources are finite and our world has no shortage of problems to try and fix!  If you and your company are not working on fixing one or more of those problems then perhaps it is time to look again and see if you can do more.

Is it possible to do well, and to do good?  A call to action!

In the year 2019 it is my belief that capitalism is creaking a bit.  The financial crisis of 2008 showed us that, left unchecked, things can get pretty awful, yet at times it feels like we are not learning; we are still seeing bad behaviours, people-last mindsets, economic rent-seeking and slapdash approaches to things like gender wage gaps, diversity in work, personal data and IT security.

Frequently we hear about high profits, poor products and little change.  Heck, there are entire business models where people are grouped together to centralise information and control.  In all these cases the challenge is often that there is an axiomatic conflict in interests geared towards those who stand to benefit, and often companies struggle to get this very delicate balance right.

The rise of the B-Corp

Providing a very interesting and exciting alternative to some of these issues, B-Corps may well help remove the perceived deadlock between doing good and doing well.  What is a B-Corp... well as a starter for 10, it's worth checking out the B-Corp website but very briefly..."Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. B Corps are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy."

One of our favourite brands here at Workio, is the clothing brand Patagonia.  Take a look at their mission...

"We at Patagonia want to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."

Pretty compelling stuff eh!

Other amazing B-Corps include Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, AllBirds shoes, Method cleaning products, Etsy and Hootsuite.  But guess what, it is not just all peace, love and flower-power... according to one article B-Corps are currently growing 28 faster than the national average, giving more evidence to the case that purpose is a powerful driver of human engagement.

So B-Corps hold a lot of promise.  Regardless of your company legal entity status, it seems the takeaways are clear.  For greater success, it is key for organisations to be driven with passion and clarity that allows leaders to lead and teams to succeed; to stand tall and firm when the world around us tends to look at short term profits regardless of the long term costs.  Most humans at their core want to improve the world for themselves, their friends, family and future generations to come.  While it is easy to be blinded by all the challenges around us, it takes courage and consistent grit to look deeper and find the opportunity for things to be better.

Great value capture awaits...

Companies that create and realise a purpose-led vision into a sensible business model and ways-of-working will attract those people who care more and want to do more!  Sure, these people may well command a large salary but boy will they deliver energy and help create brands and businesses with deep and positive culture, social and economic impact.

Every business has the ability to refine why they exist and to upgrade their mission and purpose such that it resonates with their employees, their people and their customers, at a very human level.  If you are missing this, you are potentially missing a huge opportunity...

Carpe diem et cras non esse promiserat

(Seize the day as tomorrow is never promised)

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