The Rise of Purpose-driven Organizations and Individuals

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In his best-selling book, The Purpose Economy (updated in 2016), Aaron Hurst talks about purpose as the new driving force of the economy, saying it has become a business imperative. Hurst goes on to say that “the Purpose Economy is defined by the quest for people to have more purpose in their lives,” explaining that “it is an economy where value lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers – through serving needs greater than their own, enabling personal growth and building community.”

Hurst explains that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which puts “self-actualization” at the top of this famous, five-tiered pyramid, is one reason the Purpose Economy is growing.

Purpose-driven businesses, although not new, have been on the rise for the past decade. This phenomenon is the confluence of many things:

  1. the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008;
  2. mass penetration of the Internet in U.S. households (80 percent in 2012) and the advent of social media, offering everyone the opportunity to create and publish content to promote themselves, their businesses, causes they believe in, etc.; and
  3. Millennials entering the workforce and becoming the largest generation in the U.S. workplace in 2015. These digital natives, who relentlessly pursue truth and transparency on- and off-line after having witnessed the decimation of their parents’ retirement savings in the last economic meltdown, are skeptical of business and other institutions who are not concerned about the greater good.

Savvy businesses have realized that to earn the trust of consumers, especially Millennials, they must rethink their obligation to society more broadly beyond just making profits for shareholders. They must give all stakeholders, including employees and customers, a more compelling reason to believe in and support them. Almost nine in 10 (87 percent) Millennials globally believe that “the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance,” according to the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey.

Purpose-driven marketing went mainstream in 2010 when the biggest brand manager in the U.S., Proctor & Gamble’s Global Marketing Officer Mark Pritchard, announced at the Association of National Advertisers Conference that his mega-brand corporation had moved from “the selling products business to the business of improving life.”

Today, smart companies are communicating their business purpose, beyond the more traditional, “internally focused” mission statements, articulating the business the organization is in now and what it will be in the future. These savvy businesses are either articulating a business purpose, separate from their mission, or making their mission statements more “externally focused” to present a succinct case for their role in society and how they serve people and planet.

Business purpose is being communicated by a diverse range of businesses from consumer products to professional services, including:

  • Walmart (save people money so they can live better)
  • Whole Foods (nourish the health and well-being of people and planet by being the authentic purveyor of food for the greater good)
  • Google (organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful)
  • Starbucks (inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time)
  • Harley-Davidson (fulfill dreams of personal freedom)
  • Patagonia (build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis)
  • Warby Parker (sell affordable eyewear and give back to developing countries by providing eyewear to those who need it the most) and
  • Deloitte (make a positive, enduring impact that matters).

Businesses have resorted to communicating their purpose because of strong evidence, indicating that “purpose-driven” organizations significantly out-perform “profit-only” focused organizations – 1681 percent vs. 118 percent growth over a 15-year period among all S&P companies, according to the book, Firms of Endearment, How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose (Second Edition, 2014).

If one extrapolates the idea of being purpose-driven down to the individual level, it makes sense that “purpose-driven” employees will significantly out-perform “me-only” focused employees who are not committed to leveraging their talents, expertise and passion in service of other people and the planet.

According to LinkedIn’s 2016 global study, “Purpose at Work,” examining the role of purpose in the workplace, purpose-oriented employees have higher levels of engagement and fulfillment with their work. And, they outperform their peers in every indicator, including expected tenure and leadership competencies like self-advocacy and comfort with senior leadership.

With 70 percent of U.S. employees “not engaged” at work, according to Gallup’s State of the Workplace Survey 2017 released last month, smart businesses would be wise to help their employees discover their life purpose and then work with them to find the alignment between their individual purpose and the organization’s business purpose.

Not helping employees, especially purpose-focused Millennials, determine their “why” or life purpose leaves this important issue an unanswered and, likely, unsettling question mark. And part of that question mark is likely: “Should I be working here?” Smart employers, especially purpose-driven businesses, would be well-served by helping employees discover their “why” – which overarches your entire life and is not specific to a job or career – and then help them connect it to the “why” of their organization.

Helping employees answer the question of “why” they were born makes sense because, as Mark Twain once said, the “two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” Any smart employer, committed to nurturing and retaining top talent, should want to be strongly connected to one of the most important days in their employees’ lives.

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