Larry Fink’s recent letter to CEOs shows how the idea of purpose in business has hit the mainstream. From attracting and retaining the best talent to solving today’s biggest global issues, the BlackRock CEO’s belief is that purpose-led businesses set themselves up to outperform the norm in the long term. If this champion of capitalism understands the importance of purpose, then certainly all businesses should start to follow suit… and yet brands are increasingly in the spotlight for messing up as they attempt to articulate a sense of purpose to consumers.
“Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them.” — Larry Fink
Gillette’s recent commercial puts the brand in a league of case studies where trying to look purposeful lands a business in hot water. Purpose is at risk of becoming the new greenwash.
Purpose is the authentic reason your business exists. It’s not a slogan or a campaign tagline. It’s an enduring intention that guides your business success. And because purpose demonstrates how you serve others, it offers a way of strategically delivering value to all stakeholders — not just profit to shareholders.
That’s a lot of expectation piled on to one short statement. Leaders are starting to feel the pressure to get purpose right, and avoid cynicism from their people and the communities they operate in.
Here are five questions to ask — adapted from Within People’s Guide to Finding Purpose — to help every leader ensure their purpose is, well, fit for purpose.
1. Is your purpose timeless?
Purpose is something to connect to — not move toward. It’s not about being number one or the best. It’s our deepest intention, and the reason why people buy into us.
Amy’s Kitchen has always been purpose-led. For over two decades, Rachel and Andy Berliner have worked to bring organic, vegetarian meals to as many people as possible. Our journey of exploring purpose with Amy’s was about the Berliners’ legacy — being able to bottle up what has made their business a success and ensuring that it continues to do so, long after they passed their leadership on to others. The ability for everyone to express the purpose of the business gave Rachel and Andy confidence that even though the business will change as it grows, the guiding principle at its heart would endure.
2. Can your purpose pass the “Goldilocks Test”?
The running joke in the first season of HBO’s Silicon Valley demonstrates our Goldilocks principle best. In the show, each startup seeks funding by pitching its platform’s purpose of “making the world a better place.” Perhaps too grand an intention for a humble SAS platform?
Every entrepreneur I have ever met has told me that they started their business because they had an idea of doing something better than someone else. In that truth lies clues to the purpose of their business. The Goldilocks test helps keep us grounded in how we express purpose — our business is not so grand as to claim to save the world, and not so small as to just be a product or service. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, what we are looking for is something that is just right.
Dan Hegarty, founder of groundbreaking FinTech startup Habito, shares that his reason for starting the business was a desire to take the pain out of buying a home. That’s not saving the world (too big), and it isn’t just about tech making a financial transaction easier (too small). Habito gets purpose just right by pointing to the emotional connection to what having a home means to all of us, and the support we need in navigating one of life’s most stressful purchases.
3. Does your purpose reflect the impact you make?
We find purpose in the intersection between the problem we solve and the role we play in the solution. In that sweet spot we find the impact we actually make on people’s lives. Leaders like Dan Hegarty from Habito or Rachel Berliner from Amy’s Kitchen may not consciously consider this when they breathe life into their business, but any attempt to express purpose must focus on impact to ensure that we ground our business in service to others. Doing so will always keep our business decisions honest and focused on those we are here to create value for.
4. Is your purpose real?
Purpose must be authentic to create a connection to our people and our customers. Finding it shouldn’t be outsourced to your advertising agency. It doesn’t need a planner or a copywriter to make it punchy. It should never have a hashtag attached to it. It just needs to be the truth. And in being real, it will be inspiring.
5. When you are at your best, are you living your purpose?
Values are the behaviors we expect of each other. They are what keep us honest, drive our business forward, and create the connection between our business, teams, and customers. With the popularity of purpose, brands are forgetting that the most critical way to grow their businesses responsibly, increase trust, and create great places to work relies on acting with integrity through values. While your purpose communicates what you stand for, your values demonstrate how you uniquely show up for what you believe in.
British Land is a Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 business that exists to create places people prefer. This means not only developing award-winning campuses but also ensuring they are an employer of choice. While their purpose is essential to guide them, it is their values that is attracting the best talent and clients to their business. For example, their value of “bring your whole self” ensures they create the conditions for diversity and acceptance in a traditional industry that previously had not engaged with inclusion. With this value they are actively engaging their people to develop a more accepting and creative work environment.
Finding purpose is really just the start of a journey of growth for business. Getting the foundation right is your essential first step.
Jeff Melnyk is a founding partner at Within People, a global consultancy who help brands find purpose to grow the company they love.