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Why Purpose is Taking a More Prominent Role in Business


Why Purpose is Taking a More Prominent Role in Business

Business leaders don’t often use “Purpose” to describe why an organization exists. Rather purpose has been more commonly used by non-profits and the military. However, purpose often resonates strongly with employees. Therefore, when business leaders effectively define and articulate the business’ purpose, employees understand the purpose, are able to personally support it, and know how their work contributes to success. The business greatly benefits from these committed and engaged employees.

The Importance of Purpose at Unilever (1)

One reason Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, views a corporation’s purpose as important is, “a life with purpose” is highly important to millennials. Millennials want to work for companies where they can 1) make a difference, 2) positively influence others, and 3) ultimately leave this world in a better place than they found it.

As well, Unilever strongly believes the purpose of business is to serve society, not take from it. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), a substantial and broad long-term initiative decouples company growth from environmental footprint and increases corporate social impact.

Through the USLP Unilever has grown by addressing external issues such as food security, deforestation or sanitation. Since working on these initiatives under Unilever brands (e.g. Lifebuoy, Dove) is tremendously motivating, Unilever is now the preferred employer in most of their global markets.

Millennials Consider “Purpose” Important in Selection of Employers (2)

Employees, particularly Millennials, view a company’s purpose as a way to identify how they can bring meaning to their work and understand their contribution to the company.

Company leadership unable to lessen their firm grip on things like profit, growth and market share to incorporate an organization’s purpose more holistically, specifically in ways that drive employee engagement and commitment, are missing huge opportunities.

Successful leaders clearly communicate the business’ purpose and how various segments, skills and initiatives throughout the company drive solutions for customers. They also show that while increasing company value, achieving the purpose also provides solutions for societal and/or environmental problems.

Companies that actively include purpose through leadership practices, communications and talent strategies will reap the rewards of talented, committed and engaged employees.

Purpose Guides Effective Decision Making During Intense Change (3)

The military most often achieves its objectives in highly chaotic environments. Almost by definition they live and must readily adapt to change in adverse conditions.

Given the extraordinary scope, scale and pace of change in corporate environments today, adopting elements of what drives military success is quite appropriate.

Military troops are fully immersed in the combination of 1) purpose and 2) doctrine. From a business perspective, consider purpose to be the overarching goals and objectives of entire divisions, product lines, etc. – both short and long term. Doctrine then provides the guidelines from which “troops” achieve the purpose. Therefore, in business, doctrine approximates procedures and other guidance documents from which employees make decisions.

Clearly, having a well-thought-out, definitive – and supported – purpose is step one. Secondly, strong doctrine sets guidelines that then enable people to use their knowledge to make decisions appropriate to their skill set and level within the organization. The best guidelines are flexible so employees can adapt as conditions/change necessitate.

Looking Forward

Traditionally business use of “purpose” has applied solely to typical success measures such as profitability, growth and market share. However, since employees view purpose as a means to assess how their work for a company can help them find personal fulfillment, it’s clear leaders that take the broader view – and ensure that the purpose they define is actively used as a guide for decision making at all levels will attain not only commercial success, but also improve our world.

Recalibrating Actions:

  1. If your company doesn’t currently have a well-defined purpose, it’s time. Ensure you and your leadership team put the effort into it that it deserves. It must focus on the standard business objectives, yet needs to incorporate the “bigger picture” of benefits to the greater community/key social issues. It’s also desirable to gain input and feedback from a variety of employees. When you share the purpose with the organization, if it is at odds with what many employees perceived/expected, you have work to do!
  2. Review the various types of company “guidelines” to make sure they indeed provide direction for how to achieve the purpose, yet are flexible enough to allow for changes needed due to circumstances not considered when they were created.
  3. Set periodic reviews (phased?) for all types of guidelines to re-assess how well they communicate, whether they still are focused on what will drive the company further toward its purpose, and whether the number and types of flexibility that need to be built in are present.

Review ALL internal communications. Are they aligned with the purpose? Do they incorporate the “broader good” of the company?

  1. Mars, Alexandre, Doing Well By Doing Good: An Interview with Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, Huffington Post, “The Blog”, May 9, 2016
  2. Putting Purpose to Work: A study of purpose in the workplace, PwC, June 2016
  3. Lukens, Mark, The Hidden Leadership Skill Every Good Parent Eventually MastersFast Company, June 19, 2016
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