The subject of purpose in business has become almost commonplace in discussions these days. I certainly have seen a lot of conversations online and, more recently, rooms on Clubhouse centered on the notion of developing purpose. The intentions are inevitably pleasant and good-spirited. However, it feels like much of the debate is within an echo-chamber of like-minded individuals. We need to expand the discussion to include the naysayers and confront the real challenges of combining purpose in a commercial enterprise.

There are two levels of problems that accompany any discussion of purpose when it comes to implementing it in business:

  1. How to have purpose and be profitable?
  2. How to insert purpose into a larger organization that has not traditionally been purpose-driven?

The first point is particularly relevant for the idealistic startup or entrepreneur. It’s delightful to want to have a higher purpose, but if the company doesn’t survive, then it serves no purpose at all. Naturally, the profitability question comes into the fore for large organizations that are keen to elevate their mission and become more purposeful.

Making purpose real in big business

The second problem above is how to make purpose real inside big business. It’s the domain of legacy companies and it largely concerns — and is distinctly more complex — for the bigger and publicly traded companies. Governance is a critical component in enabling purpose as part of a company’s core mission. If there’s one thing I campaign for it’s to avoid the tyranny of purpose. Especially in a large organization, you should not seek to be dogmatic about inserting purpose.

The scale of purpose

It’s worth considering what we mean when we say purpose and what it can entail. I consider that there’s a scale of purpose, going from a lighter to a more profound form. As my coauthor Caleb Storkey and I wrote in my second book, Futureproof, it all begins with meaningfulness.

At its highest level, purpose is about doing something positive for the wider community. Companies with a real purpose will answer with conviction the following question: how will the world be worse off without us? But it doesn’t have to be a grandiose and global remit. It can just as usefully be local. Depends on your scale and your ambition. I break purpose down into three levels, notwithstanding the fact that some might still adhere to purpose in business being purely to achieve shareholder returns.

  1. Purpose as meaningfulness
  2. Purpose with intention
  3. Integrated purpose
figure 1 – the scale of purpose

As you move in vertical slivers from left to right in figure 1, you see the growing place of purpose (in yellow) within the organization. Purposefully, the far right is not fully yellow, because not everything can or even should be purposeful. Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do, like paying the bills. And here’s the real key:

Aim for what you believe in, personally. Don’t aim for more than you can chew off. Especially, don’t aim for it if you don’t mean it.

It’s far better to seek a degree of meaningfulness and be successful than to talk up a game of higher purpose that stays largely a pompous position statement in an annual report.

Let’s explore further the three levels of purpose in business.

1/ Purpose as meaningfulness

When you feel that your job or role is empty of meaning, there is no faster route to dejection, burnout or departure. On the contrary, when you believe that what you are doing is meaningful, you are inevitably motivated. Meaning makes sense of what you’re doing. It becomes a rewarding mechanism for efforts made. Meaningfulness comes in many forms but in all cases, it’s a personal interpretation. There are those that are much lighter touch and easier to achieve. You can find meaningfulness purely in having some fun. It can be achieved through due recognition and rewards. It is fulfilling to work on a challenging project and get through to the other side with success. You can do so by being part of a team and feeling a sense of belonging. It’s even meaningful just to be on the winning team. Purpose as meaningfulness taps into feeling useful, achievement and being recognized for your participation. As you move up the scale within level 1, the question of ethics comes increasingly into play.

2/ Purpose with intention

Whereas in level 1, much of the benefit is inward focused, purpose with intention signifies that you are striving to serve a larger group or a higher cause. At the more cynical level, this might be contributing a percentage of profits to a charity or investing in some Corporate Social Responsibility. The bigger quest, however, is to believe that your company’s services and products are serving a bigger community and contributing to make some part of the world a somewhat better place. The resonance and integrity of this purpose grows with its dimension. What’s missing in level 2 is the extent to which purpose is baked into the organization.

3/ Integrated purpose

Level 3 is when purpose is rooted in the fabric of the organization. I also call this inside-out purpose (figure 2). The company has a mission that everyone inside and outside the company is familiar with and essentially everyone feels that they are part of it, to varying degrees, of course.

figure 2 – inside-out purpose

As you come to the far right in figure 1, the purpose is spread out through more of the organization and the daily activities. With integrated purpose, importantly, the company’s purpose speaks to all the members of the team. That’s to say that it serves the members of the team as well. This is how to ensure that your employees are your biggest fans.

Some companies do it well (though no one is ever perfect). For example, when you work at Harley Davidson, you are also get to fulfil your own dreams. Or at Patagonia, you are actively engaged in protecting the environment. A counter example is the stated purpose of Amazon: to make the Earth’s most customer centric company. This statement does nothing for the employee. The mission may indeed by lofty and help others (level 2), but it’s not integrated in the lives of the employees. When your personal North is overlapping with the North of your employer, then you have a much greater chance and willingness to tap into your discretionary energy. And this is a distinct competitive advantage that will help marry profits with purpose.

When your personal North is overlapping with the North of your employer, then you have a much greater chance and willingness to tap into your discretionary energy. And this is a distinct competitive advantage that will help marry profits with purpose.

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