Sustainability: Purpose

Today’s new business era calls for organisations to question their leadership and use purpose to ensure sustainability for the future.

We all find ourselves drawn towards people with direction. Why? They carry an energy and focus that is compelling. It’s the same with organisations: a strong sense of purpose delivers inspiring and purposeful action. People need to know what’s expected and feel empowered to deliver. We all want to work for an organisation with a defined sense of purpose that reflects who we are, with leaders we admire whose values match our own.

This may sound somewhat utopian but purpose is critical to long-term sustainability. For today’s business leader, purpose motivates and engages people—it gets staff into work, sees them stay late, retains customers, fires innovation and creates opportunities.

The opinion that the bigger the pay packet, then the more attractive the organisation, is no longer an infallible truth. With financial institutions still offering enormous salaries, you might expect the brightest talent to continue to gravitate towards the bankers’ lifestyle. However, reports earlier this year that Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs is facing a recruitment problem indicates that the world’s top graduates are making different decisions. The costs of working in an environment centred solely around profit now outweigh the material benefits. And this shift appears to be reflected in wider society—with people increasingly seeking something more meaningful.

As we now face increasing economic, environmental and climatic uncertainty and a growing gap between the super-wealthy and the rest of society, we’re beginning to question if making money alone is really enough. Can we continue to stomach the vulgarity that arises from bloated growth, or is there something more meaningful?

As individuals, we each have our own sense of purpose, living life according to an internal set of values, principles and ideals that give meaning to who we are. For some this can be more defined than for others; but it is present nonetheless.

Like every individual, organisations need a clear sense of purpose. It could be said that we’ve lost this clarity in recent years, becoming too focused on making profit and delivering financial returns. So what is the purpose of business if not to make money? 

While making money is a critical goal for any enterprise, delivering benefits to many, it is becoming increasingly apparent that money is not an end in itself; rather it is a means to an end. This is where ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ come to the fore.

Society is experiencing change, with a growing backlash against organisations that appear to be profiteering at the expense of individuals, communities or societies at large. Today’s leaders need to ask, “How do we make a positive contribution to our employees and our society both today and in years to come?”

Defining purpose

Most people will stumble when asked what their purpose is in life; yet defining an individual sense of purpose is very simple. Purpose is at the core of who we are as individuals, a component that makes each of us unique. Purpose influences the choices we make—ambitions, direction, strategy and approach. Purpose holds us accountable for honouring commitments (or not) and behaviour, while influencing identity and reputation.

Organisations that have a clear sense of purpose enjoy similar benefits. Words like vision, strategy, brand, values and engagement are all part of conversations around organisational purpose.

Being purposeful

Companies frequently define their vision, mission and values; but it is purpose that underpins them all and provides the catalyst for action.

·        Vision is focused upon what you see for the future

·        Mission is delivered through activity and action

·        Values are what reside inside people and organisations

·        Purpose is what engages your heart, your passion, your being

Purpose pulls all these elements together, driving and enabling action by individuals and organisations alike. Clarity of purpose motivates people and influences choice; it helps people decide how they want to achieve their goals and how they can contribute—enabling real engagement and driving individual performance.

Every leader has experience of the difficulties faced in today’s markets. Global competition, aggressive pricing, the battle for innovation and dominance and the emergence of new economies all form the backdrop for business. Purpose provides a compelling differentiator in an overcrowded market—one that is not replicable.

With purpose, you can make promises and you can hold yourself to account. Honouring purpose is what we strive for; but it is not always achieved. So, when we get it wrong, if we’re castigated for failing to deliver upon promises, we admit our culpability. Clarity of purpose equips us to deal with issues in an open and honourable manner, empowers action and allows us to learn from experience. And it’s empowering to realise that a sense of purpose can trigger customer loyalty. It’s been to the detriment of too many companies when a leader has chosen to ignore the power of social accountability.

Profit with purpose

Can we deliver both purpose and profit? Money is vital to the smooth running of the organisational and societal engine but it is simply not a meaningful end in itself. Customers, employees and society at large are demanding more. Research shows that businesses who want a sustainable future must offer a more meaningful basis for engagement.

Profit with purpose may appear to be a socially-driven business model; but in reality it is a model for sustainability and innovation. Businesses rarely start with the sole purpose of making money—they usually have a more compelling purpose. Somewhere along the line, it will have been lost in short-term financial imperatives and operational targets. For those companies whose clearly defined purpose created success, such as the UK’s John Lewis Partnership, it is as important to recognise that purpose is inspired by questioning, and therefore should be subjected to review. Dig deep enough and the company’s original story, ambitions and what it stands for will become clear, but these will need to be reframed to resonate with the current economic and technological environment.

To be proud of the contribution we’ve made, to feel that we live a life that reflects our values and integrity, we need purpose. Outstanding leaders want to make a difference: if they create an enterprise that focuses upon purpose, they will be making a long-lasting and sustainable contribution to individuals, employees, customers, communities and to society as a whole. It is creating leadership with purpose that will lead to profit and prosperity.

Co-founder of the consultancy Syat, Jacki McCartney is an organisational development practitioner who has used her extensive international management consultancy experience to build a business working across Europe, the US and increasingly, in the UAE and India.