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Purpose: Putting Meaning To Work

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There is a vast gulf growing between younger generations, who want genuine purpose in their work, and older generations (their bosses), who are more likely to define purpose as profitability. This sense of higher purpose is being crystallized as a new cultural value, and can present a profound and durable competitive advantage.

This generational gulf was the central finding of a recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey of over 1,500 workers and over 500 business leaders, across 39 industries in the United States. "In a time of heightened stakeholder expectations... purpose can boost innovation and brand value." Companies are slowly waking up to the necessity of embedding a deeper sense of purpose in their leadership and management. It's essential to engaging good employees, and retaining them for the long run.

What is 'Purpose' in Business?

At the personal level, we understand a sense of purpose to mean that which gives our life meaning and direction--our raison d'être. In the all-too-human search for significance, assessing what we value, discerning our deepest passions, understanding our strengths, and imagining our legacy lead us to a sense of our purpose.

Of course, many people spend much of their lives seeking an elusive sense of purpose. In organizations, it's even harder!

Purpose must connect and inspire diverse people across the whole organization: staff, management and leadership, and stakeholders outside the organization, such as customers, investors, even suppliers. So it's complicated. So let's start by putting it into context....

The real goal of a purposeful business is to make a profit so that the business can do something meaningful.

Business took a gigantic misstep when it began to confuse profit-taking with purpose-making. Even Milton Friedman, famous for arguing that the role of business is solely to earn profits, spoke in an era before quarterly earnings and stock market indexes became the de facto yardsticks of economic health.

As the effects of the climate crisis grow, as communities and society push back on the prioritization of 'shareholder value' above all other priorities, and as this 'sense of higher purpose' increasingly becomes a cultural value, stakeholder value is replacing shareholder value at the centre of companies' attention. Profits remain essential for shareholders; they need to see a return on their investments. But they are insufficient for stakeholders. They need to see a responsible business, that provides a valuable experience for its employees, that delivers a sustainable product to the marketplace, that behaves responsibly, and, perhaps, that contributes to solving societal challenges.

"A company ought to be a community that you belong to, like a village. Nobody owns a village. You are a member and you have rights."

-- Charles Handy

With increasing frequency, companies and their leaders are setting out to achieve goals grander than the organization, ultimately positioning profit-making as secondary to purpose-making. This is the essence of the social venture movement and its 'triple bottom line' thinking, and the launchpad for B Corps--including Junxion.

The relentless obsession with 'shareholder value' is a nasty caricature of entrepreneurship and business. Purpose is bigger than profits. It's about impact, contribution to community, legacy. So let's make it simple....

Purposeful Organizations Are Created... Well... On Purpose.

In that PwC survey, more than 80% of employees ranked meaning in their daily work as the most important thing to them. And fully half said they'd like to hear more about their companies' societal impacts.

So leaders have two challenges: Their teams are craving a sense of purpose, and even when such a purpose exists, leaders aren't effectively communicating the difference it is making to their teams.

Start with character. Leaders must first demonstrate their own personal commitment to shared purpose, by being courageous enough to look beyond short-term results and make bold, brave decisions. In a profit-obsessed culture, this can put leaders in a vulnerable, even precarious position. That's what makes it courageous. But let's be clear: The real goal of a purposeful business is to make a profit so that the business can do something meaningful. This takes leadership, and leadership starts with self-awareness and self-development.

Stay in conversation. People need to know what they're working towards, and to feel empowered to make their own unique contribution. So leaders must talk to their people--often. Clarity fosters trust. Inspiration drives engagement. And trusting, engaged people will feel comfortable and confident to bring more of themselves to work, putting their hearts into their roles. Engaged teams deliver better customer service and higher productivity. But conversation is a two-way street: Leaders and managers must be listeners, always learning about what's expected and needed, and what's wanted or changing.

Purpose is the glue that connects planning and branding.

Scale across the enterprise. In an era when openness and transparency are increasingly organizational norms, brands must engage stakeholders authentically, conveying value and inspiring audiences. Just as leadership begins within the individual leader, TrustBrands™ are built from the inside out: The first and primary audience of any engagement campaign must be the organization's own team.

Purpose is the glue that connects planning and branding. Consider this: On its own, strategy is an academic exercise: interesting, but inert. Similarly, on its own, branding is storytelling: fun, but often frivolous. Align them toward a clear purpose, and you've set the foundation for a meaningful organization.

Most of us have to work to pay the bills. Work is much more rewarding when it's imbued with a purpose beyond profit.