Insight article

The three sides of Purpose

In this age – where tech-driven transparency, consumer demand for authenticity and our ongoing pursuit of meaning continue to rewrite the rules of corporate behaviour – purpose has become a hot topic among many of our clients. From many interactions of this nature, it’s clear that the motivation for creating or refining purpose is multifaceted,  and at times I sit in meetings with the feeling that everyone seems to be talking at cross-purposes… which is of course a little ironic.

In many ways it’s not surprising. A company’s purpose is at the intangible end of how it describes itself, unlike the visible and physical attributes of what it has, what it does and how it does it, though of course they should be connected. And purpose is a highly emotive subject. A business without purpose is, arguably, just a money-making machine, extracting value from others without giving anything back. In an economy still defined by the results of financial greed, and increasingly aware of the environmental and social impact of corporate activity, it’s increasingly unacceptable – from a social and commercial perspective – to remain disengaged.

Beyond the moral imperative, there seems to be three themes that emerge from the ‘purpose of purpose’ discussions. They’re interconnected, but it’s useful to unpick them.

The first is what James Collins and Jerry Porras, back in the mid 1990’s, called ‘core ideology’. As part of their research into the attributes of long-term successful businesses, they identified purpose as: ‘the glue that holds an organisation together as it grows, decentralises, diversifies, expands globally, and develops workplace diversity’. Simon Sinek took up the theme in 2011 when he shrewdly argued that companies, like Apple, that are more innovative year after year after year ‘start with the why’. In this sense, purpose is establishing a fundamental role for a business within society that transcends its current products and services. Walt Disney may have started with animated mice, but its role in making people happy through wholesome family entertainment is still highly relevant, and has created the foundation for films, theme parks, toys and the rest.

A few years back we, at The Storytellers, defined our own purpose statement: to move more people to do great things. This gives us a platform to not only express the more intangible side of what we do – the connection we help people to feel to their work, and clarity and motivation we help to create across organisations – but also the hard skills we provide through our leadership development and L&D modules, that give people the means to really live the purpose of their organisation. As we are an interdisciplinary business offering a range of services, we found the statement a useful mechanism for expanding and guiding our development. It also really helps us to explain what we do for our clients, which brings us to the second purpose of purpose.

Brands have been extolling the virtues of purpose for many years, as a foundation for building trust and loyalty with customers. Here, a company’s purpose outlines its motivation for engaging with you. It sets out what it believes. Providing you share that belief, you will feel much more comfortable in buying a range of products and services from it – as long as they deliver on that purpose. You’ll also be more willing to pay more, and stick with them through diversification and the commodification of the market. Sinek talks about Apple’s belief in challenging the status quo through beautifully designed products. I’m old enough to remember that pioneering feeling I got when using my first computer from Apple. So it was natural for me to turn to the same company for my first laptop, digital music player and smartphone.

A strong and well established purpose can also help to build that elixir of marketing: a sustainable competitive advantage. This is especially important in an age when what you have, what you do and how you do it can almost always be copied. The difference today is that purpose must be made real in the ‘How’ of the business – the systems, operations, organisational design that truly bring purpose to life. Rhetoric is no longer enough. The smart marketeers like Unilever – who are themselves global leaders in purpose-led business, and have now committed to work only with brands who share their values – know that the world is full of companies making moisturisers, but only one, Dove, is committed to helping improve the self esteem of girls worldwide. Yet consumers are not the only audience motivated by Dove’s purpose. This brings us to the third purpose of purpose.

Talk to any HR Director for long and you’ll get onto the subject of ‘Millennials’. These creatures from another generation are now populating our organisations, and we’re told they are looking for more than money. This is the generation that is motivated by purpose and meaning! Without it, we’re told, they’ll just pull out their backpack and pursue life elsewhere. We know that The Storytellers’ millennials care deeply about our purpose as a business, and so far we’ve managed to help them resist the lure of the open road.

But the bigger point is that everyone needs a sense of purpose. Isn’t it the basic message behind the shocking disengagement statistics and draining productivity and misery we see after three decades of ‘money is king’ corporate philosophy? Gallup’s annual engagement reviews continue to tell us that employees are in crisis. According to its 2017 study, 85% of all US employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. That’s about $7 trillion wiped off their national bottom line. So maybe the millenials have it right. Dan Pink, the writer on work and behavioural science, talks about purpose being one of the three core motivators for work, alongside mastery and autonomy.

In their new book, The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath refer to research undertaken by professor Morten Hansen into employee performance. He got managers to rank their employees by performance, and then categorised the employees by their passion and sense of purpose for their work. Those without passion and purpose not surprisingly were low performers. However those with high purpose but low passion performed significantly better than the other way around. ‘Purpose trumps passion’ heralds the Heaths. ‘The best advice is not ‘Pursue your passion!’ It’s ‘Pursue your purpose!’

The challenge here for business leaders is not just to define a motivating purpose for their business, but to cultivate a sense of purpose amongst their employees: ‘to unite people who may drift in different directions’. Purpose doesn’t need to be so grandiose, and it doesn’t need to be an expensive branding exercise. It needs to give people a sense of value, and contribution, and connection to something bigger than themselves. This isn’t just about ‘Purpose Statements’. Purpose can be conveyed holistically, through multiple parts of a business: its values, its social contribution, the impact it has on its local community, as well as the world at large.

This is where the power of storytelling comes in. Take a pharmaceutical client of ours, who was going through a difficult transformation. They recognised that their employees where more likely to come with them through the change if they reconnected them back to the ‘why’. So we built a narrative that set the change within the context of the organisation’s purpose and vision, and invited leaders to bring it to life through their own stories. The CEO kicked things off with a highly emotive, personal story about why he had left his earlier career as a doctor to join the industry. This sparked storytelling conversations throughout the organisation that helped remind people of their purpose and meaning for coming to work. Within a year the transformation KPI’s had been exceeded.


Marcus Hayes

Marcus Hayes

Co-founder and Director