The time is coming where we’ll look back on how we’re doing business today and marvel at how strange it was.
We’re living out the last moments of a way of working and defining value that we’ll remember with disbelief. We’ll do one of those head-shaking chuckles when we think about the fact that companies once existed without a real sense of purpose — similar to when we remember using phones that were anchored to our walls.
Why I am so sure? Because I believe that there is such extraordinary value in companies having purpose that I cannot imagine a future where that is not prevalent. And because the consequence of how we see value in business today is not just inconvenient — it’s dangerous.
I’m not alone in this view. It’s been nearly a decade since the Stengel 50 purposeful companies showed growth three times faster than their competition. EY tells us how purposeful companies outperform in turbulent times. We’re awash with news of Millennials demanding purposeful places to work.
But despite this, I’m still asked too often what the return on investment of having purpose will be. Basically, business leaders often ask: Is it worth it? Perhaps it’s because we’re inclined to measure the “return” in dollars and we have a pretty fuzzy grasp of what we actually mean by “investment.” My business helps people to find purpose and grow. We’re constantly learning together with our clients about what it takes to put purpose at the heart of a company — and what the return looks like for them. Here’s what we’ve found together.
3 returns to work toward
1. Direction: A pathway through uncertainty: Purpose is your North Star. It gives you a fixed point in a constantly shifting world, helping you to navigate your future growth. Having something so core and so consistent helps you think longer-term about the value you create, so you are less likely to veer off course by short-term challenges. It helps you turn revolution into evolution, because you can innovate and change without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. And it allows you to build enduring, trusted relationships. What you do may change, but a clear purpose means that why you do it stays steady. It’s that consistency as the core that means trust isn’t broken by change.
UK commercial property company British Land is fundamentally changing its business model from developing and managing buildings that generate investment returns to creating spaces that add value to people’s lives. Leveraging its purpose of “creating places people prefer” has allowed a colossal shift in structure, services, and working practices to feel meaningful and important — not confusing and alienating — to shareholders, staff, and customers alike.
2. Connection: Attracting, engaging, and growing your teams and customers: Purpose brings meaning. It creates a connection between people inside your companies, and between them and the people they serve. Forbes contributor Alan Kohll recently described the hunger for purpose as “perhaps the most underrated desire of modern-day employees.” By providing a sense of meaning beyond the product or paycheck, you shift from a transactional business serving mercenary staff and customers to a relationships business serving a loyal community. Purpose gives people a reason to come and stay, to buy and keep buying.
For example, One&Only Resorts defined its purpose with “we create joy” and used it as a way to reimagine its employee and guest experience and critically link the two. The company knows that ultra-luxury depends on providing an experience of joy and connection, not just a stunning vacation property. It also knows the company will never create joy for guests if it doesn’t create joy for the people who serve them. Through its purpose, One&Only is attracting and retaining the highest caliber of talent who are devoted to creating joy every day. And guests feel the power of purpose through the incredible experiences that this team delivers just for them.
3. Creativity: Building and unlocking new value: Purpose opens up more ways to create value. It helps you find ways to create value for everyone you serve. A powerful sense of why you’re in business fuels innovation by shining a light on other ways you can serve your community, and supports profitability by bringing focus to what you invest in and adding value to your brand experience.
Printing company MOO is growing fast. Its purpose of “great design for everyone” means it must operate in constant tension of delivering premium-quality printed goods in a way that is accessible to people who can’t usually afford that level of quality. Navigating that tension has been critical to MOO’s creative process and its success. It is the ultimate creative brief for the expansion of MOO’s offer, which has grown from providing business cards to a suite of services that help brands make meaningful connections and tell their stories with pride.
Expecting these returns from your purpose is one thing, but they don’t come from simply finding it and writing it down. In a recent study, EY found that while 97 percent of companies with a “very well-integrated” purpose see a good or great deal of value return, the percentage drops to 56 percent for those with “somewhat well-integrated” purpose. That integration needs investment in time, energy, and resources.
3 investments to make
Here are three investments you must be willing to make to get your returns:
1. Align your leadership: Make sure your leaders are aligned behind a clear articulation of your purpose and a set of values that connect it to the culture and the offer of the company. Ensure your leaders are committed to modeling that purpose themselves.
2. Tell an authentic story: Build meaning into your purpose for everyone in your community. Create a story of who you are that you can all stand behind. The story has to be authentic; if it turns into a marketing exercise, it won’t endure.
3. Design your culture: Design (or redesign) your rituals and processes to support living your purpose. Help your leaders build their confidence and capacity to lead a purpose-driven organization — especially in their conviction to making tough decisions in line with it.
Perhaps instead of asking why you should invest in finding and embedding purpose in your organization, it’s time to ask: Why haven’t you started, and how can you get your people involved?
Laurie Bennett is a founding partner at Within People, a global consultancy who help brands find purpose to grow the company they love. Get in touch with him at withinpeople.com