Why purpose matters

There’s a growing body of evidence that companies with a well-defined purpose, which balances the generation of profit with wider societal benefit, have higher productivity and perform better. Of course, profit generation can be of benefit to society, for example by creating a tax base for government, providing income streams to pay pensions and funding investment and further employment. But in a modern functioning economy it’s not enough - businesses need to do more, by being a force for good.

Whether it’s a food manufacturer seeking to make healthy meals affordable or a pharmaceutical company aiming to eradicate illness, a clear purpose can inspire. It also has the potential to improve the public’s faith in business.

But what happens when there appears to be a mismatch between a company’s purpose and what it seems to be doing in practice? Little could undermine trust in business more.

No business is immune to difficulties and criticism. It’s easy to see why a higher societal purpose can sometimes seem detached from what’s happening on the ground. In these turbulent times, when it’s often easier to point the finger than do, a business might feel a worthy purpose is tempting fate, and opt for one that’s easier to live up to.

I believe there’s more reason than ever for businesses to aim high - even if it appears idealistic and risks scrutiny on that business and its leadership.

Our purpose at PwC is to build trust in society and solve important problems. It’s precisely the important problems - whether insolvencies like Carillion, combating cyber threats, or providing assurance on financial statements - that often generate the most scrutiny and where we most need to improve trust. Is delivering our purpose work in progress? Absolutely. Is it the right aspiration? I believe so.

If we take our work on Carillion as an example, where our role supporting the Official Receiver has recently been in the spotlight. Our team there is focused on maintaining public services and has helped preserve more than 10,000 jobs so far. Taking responsibility for the Group from day one of the collapse has limited disruption to services such as the cleaning of schools and gritting of roads.

Having a sense of purpose and a shared belief that they’re making a positive impact to society, helps the team stay focused under intense pressure and outside interest. If the process wasn’t well managed there would be a very obvious impact to public facilities.

This is just one example out of numerous complex assignments we undertake. Many have a very obvious societal impact - such as investigating how technologies can reduce social exclusion or working to ensure pensioners are purchasing the right retirement products - but it’s important for me that all our people understand our purpose and how it fits with everything we do. For only if employees believe in it, do businesses have a chance of getting the outside world to do the same.

I like to think that the many people who’ve worked with us understand it and that’s partly why 60,000 alumni are still actively in touch.

But there’s more to be done. We plan to do more to explain the work we do, why our size and skill mix is necessary to deliver the value our clients need, and how we live our purpose day to day. We also need to acknowledge where we don’t always live up to these ideals. In today’s complex world, where organisations are far reaching, markets are shifting and change is accelerating, not everything always goes to plan and we don’t always make the right choices or spot every mistake.

Keeping our purpose front of mind helps us to learn from our experiences and get better at what we do.