No matter which way you turn, the focus on ‘purpose’ is everywhere. Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg joining Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in a Giving Pledge, the six biggest global communications firms putting differences aside in a U.N. Common Ground Initiative pledging to eliminate poverty worldwide, to the rise of socially conscious companies embedding sustainability in all processes, purpose has broken the sound barrier among the business and popular media, forward-thinking magazines and business school curricula.
However, to mistakenly think purpose is something pursued only by socially conscious individuals and organizations or ‘in addition to our day job’ is to miss the point entirely. Purpose is that simple, yet powerful, human impulse to improve the lives of others or make a difference in the world. Purpose catalyzes behaviors from simple acts of service to a focus on professional excellence. It drives large efforts from spearheading a movement to bringing a game-changing product or technology to market. It animates us as people and fuels organizational innovation, value creation, and growth. Whether or not they understand the forces driving it, the smartest organizations are putting purpose at the top of their agendas—and those that ignore it, do so at their peril.
Most of us find our foundation for purpose, meaning and place in the world in our families, places of worship and institutions of higher learning. But these early roots of purpose are naturally challenged as we enter the workforce, where we spend the vast majority of our waking hours as adults. As technology rapidly brings us into the broader world – and the world into our living rooms – for many it brings with it a sense of loss of control and a corresponding disruption in our sense of identity and place. People yearn for some semblance of order to be restored and a greater connection to how they fit in this new world. The growing unease from this constant disruption is fueling a strong need for purpose, meaning and connectedness at all levels—individually, socially and in the workplace.
In fact, a recent Korn Ferry global survey of 1,000 executives finds that when it comes to what matters most, purpose trumps money. Only 3 percent of respondents said their personal principal driver at work was pay/financial rewards, while 73 percent cited that their primary driver was work that has purpose and meaning.
At its core, capitalism has never been a mechanism solely for the production of profit. Aside from hedge funds, risk arbitrage, FX traders and other derivatives solely established to make money on the margins, no company that sells a product or a service of any sort was founded strictly to turn a profit. People start companies with an idea, a discovery, a notion or some other impetus to bring some thing or service to the market place. And those people figured they could also make money doing it. Purpose is integral to corporate DNA and is ‘woven into the fabric of capitalism.’ (Huffington, Davos, January 2016).
However that’s not to say purpose can’t drive profit. In that same executive survey, more than two-thirds of respondents (70 percent) agreed to a great extent that there is a long-term financial benefit to companies that make strong commitments to purpose-driven leadership.
The key to long-term success is to stay focused on purpose and what really matters. Companies that begin with good stewardship must continue to stay true to their mission, vision and values as they grow, mature and reinvent themselves. Much like your current image when compared to a childhood photo, companies bear a resemblance to their former, nascent selves. It’s when organizations lose their connection to this original intent and customer focus that they lose their way. They cast about searching for a toehold by rebranding or restructuring with no meaningful understanding of how and why they exist. A collective amnesia about why they exist and whom they serve sets in and confounds the focus of the business.
In the end, establishing a line of sight into organizational purpose is a leader’s job – not just once as part of a visioning exercise – but rather continually incorporating purpose into every moment and process of leadership. To optimally engage business performance, personal, team and organizational purpose must be aligned.
About the Author
Janet Feldman is a Managing Principal for Korn Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting, based in the Firm’s Minneapolis office.
As an executive coach, former licensed psychologist and certified public accountant, Ms. Feldman brings over three decades of experience advising C-suite and other senior executives. Her broad business knowledge and acumen bring insight and clarity to complex leadership issues.
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