Connecting dots
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Connecting dots

Desperately Seeking Purpose

How organizations and employees are grappling with shifting societal dynamics (a series)

a conversation with David Armano

Cross posting from Perspective and Context

I’m Frederic Guarino, futurecaster and analyst pivoting from tech into ESG and climate action. My areas of interest: geopolitics, climate action, the intersection of media and democracy. The views expressed here are my own.

Nations rise and fall but their origin story is always key to understanding them in our present topsy turvy times. My native France was formed as a sovereign state before it became a nation, this explains in part its adherence to dirigiste policies.

The America where I grew up was founded by strivers looking for adventure and riches, and business has been a prime driver of public life since the 18th century.

Fast forward to this week’s release of the Edelman Trust Barometer and it’s clear societies are reliant on business to effect change.

Covid-19 will prove to have been the jet fuel that accelerated 3 key trends:

1- Big Tech’s ever-growing entanglement in our lives

2- The sunsetting of the Taylor/Fordian model and the death of industry as a matrix for business organization

3- The quest by employees for meaningful purpose in their work

The 3rd trend — the quest for purpose — is a powerful weapon to realign interests all along the value chain and its tectonic influence is already being felt.

The bridge between fiduciary responsibility and social impact can be challenging as the Basecamp controversy demonstrated.

I connected with David Armano over a Clubhouse room and we started a conversation.

He wrote 2 excellent pieces on the topic: You’re A Social Impact Company Now and What The Progressive Populist Movement Means For Brands Desperately Seeking Purpose

Frederic Guarino: How will purpose be an ever massive guiding force for both employers and employees ?

David Armano: Employees, especially in early stage career mode are desperately seeking purpose at their place of employment. Hulu’s documentary of WeWork provided amongst many things how important it is for employees just starting out in their career to feel a higher sense of purpose — aligning their values with the values of the company they work for. In the case of WeWork, under the cult-like “leadership” of original co-founder Adam Neumann, he understood this dynamic all too well and depending on your viewpoint, at minimum harnessed this dynamic or at most, exploited it for personal gain. But there’s multiple cultural and societal drivers at play that transcend generational dynamics.

In just the past five years, we’ve seen a rise in polarization, populism, nationalism, open discussion/debate around issues of race, equality, social justice and to top it off, a global pandemic complete with an uneven K-shaped recovery that has accelerated wealth gaps. Recently, a petition circulated around Apple asking if the company was willing to stand up for Palestinians and it’s just the latest of many examples to come where societal and yes even political discourse has now become part of the workplace experience.

Frederic Guarino: Is there a single event that struck you in US business’s new purpose-driven ethos ?

David Armano: I think there are four.

First, it was millennials gaining more purchase power as well as entering the workplace and wanting to align their values with their purchases and employers — this is continuing with both younger millennials and GenZ.

Secondly, the election of Trump. It is no accident that in February 2017, right after Trump won the election, several Super Bowl advertisers like AirBnB aired purpose-led advertisements which took on societal issues such as immigration. The Super Bowl is the ultimate American culture barometer and this signaled the mainstreaming of “brand purpose” and activism.

Another is George Floyd, BLM and social justice/equity. This society shaping event sparked uncomfortable conversations around race, resulting in many companies supporting the BLM movement in their marketing, communications, philanthropy as well as investing in internal DEI initiatives.

Lastly, all things sustainability — every company has some formal declaration in place that lays out their ambitions on making progress on issues like their carbon footprint and environmental impact.

These four things in aggregate are now inextricably linked to higher order aspirations organizations have around things like mission, vision, values and of course, purpose. We may see more business examples like Coinbase who view these as too complex or distracting from their core mission, but even for an organization like this — it will become increasingly challenging to sidestep the larger trend of societal issues seeping into work in the long term.

Societies are voting with their wallets as much as the ballot box and capitalism as a social change engine will keep surprising us. Case in point: JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon is building a coalition to re-invite felons back into the US workforce. His argument is simple: 70M Americans are felons and therefore have a tough time getting hired.

Social change will come from everywhere !

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