Purpose, without impact, is dead.
Purpose is the word of the day.
It would be impossible to scan any business publication tomorrow morning without finding something written about the growing importance of purpose in business. In fact, as you read this, there is without a doubt on every continent, dozens of gatherings of executives in conference rooms taking turns on a whiteboard hammering out what their company’s purpose is.
And just to be clear before we go on:
That is a good thing.
Actually, it’s a great thing.
It’s great to live in a world where business is waking up to the need of having a purpose beyond profit and beyond shareholder dividends. A purpose that provides a northstar to illuminate their unique opportunity to make a contribution to the betterment of our world. It’s great to live in a world where the giants of our time — the most economically resourced, the most talent rich, the most pervasive platforms — are beginning to see all of that might and power through the lens of purpose.
But as great as all that is, it is incomplete.
For a brand to claim purpose is to arrive at first base, but not home.
There is a current trend in the halls of business to establish a purpose, go right to the high-fives, put up a new plaque with “We are a purpose ______” , hire an ad agency to make a marketing campaign with a purpose-sounding tagline, and then go back to business as usual.
It’s the business equivalent of George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Because purpose without impact is like intention without action: All the positive precursors, without the real world precipitate of impact, are not really alive in the world.
As it’s been said, “Faith without works is dead.”
It’s important for us to remember that creating impact is the reason we looked for purpose in the first place — so we could gain direction and clarity on the nature of the impact we are actually on the planet to create, and then develop real-world products, services, and initiatives that achieve it. And to have those propel core business success as opposed to accessorize the annual report.
In our work of moving brands and organizations from purpose into impact, the process reflects a classic three act arc:
- As we look at the company and do the archeology on the “why” of its origins and the “why” of its goods and services, what comes forward in terms of its true purpose in the world?
- Now in contact with that purpose, what would be the opportunities of real impact you could take on that would align with and prove out that purpose?
- Having centered on an impact opportunity, what might be a real-world quantifiable impact goal and blueprint to achieve it, and how can the design generate business success so that the impact is sustainable?
And in service to greater impact at scale, what we prefer in Act 3 is surrounding the impact initiative with stakeholders from all the cultural sectors (civic, philanthropy, creative capital, citizens, business, etc.) who join the brand in what we call shared missions — providing proportionally greater reach, greater resources, and thereby greater impact.
It’s also important to understand that embracing purpose shouldn’t just trigger initiatives for impact out in the world, but also initiatives within the organization that align its structures, principles, and practices to maximize the conversion of purpose into impact. These inside initiatives are also a way to communicate and provide trelliswork so that the intention, energy, design, and effort of every heart and mind in the organization is aligning toward impact.
If we were able to jump ahead in time, into a business school lecture hopefully not too far in the future, we may well hear these words:
“The directive business tackled in the 20th century was to scale growth. Having followed that code well beyond the threshold of benefit and into the zone of dysfunction and dilapidation, the 21st century marked the historic and timely fulcrum when business embraced a new code and role in the world: to scale positive impact on the planet.”
What is also exciting to envision are the new satellite sectors of businesses to emerge in service to global business embracing impact. One could look at the 20th century business directive of scaled growth as giving birth to satellite sectors like business consulting and advertising which single-mindedly served that directive for the last hundred years. Might the 21st century business directive of scaled positive impact create a new satellite sector of companies dedicated to helping the giants of our time not only discover their purpose but actualize it in real-world practices, products, and cultural initiatives to scale impact for the next hundred years? Reality being that enso is not alone in the world in putting in all our chips to be of service this way, one could assert this new wave is already in the bud and about to reveal itself in a significant bloom. Which is timely given so many of business’s greatest thinkers and talent are leaving the old satellite sectors and looking for new endeavors with greater meaning and potential for being a part of positive change.
And so it will be almost certain that business will not be pushed over that fulcrum toward positive impact by outside forces like it has in the past — the activists, the demands of its users, etc. — but this time pulled over by forces from the inside: a new generation of leaders who didn’t evolve with the old coding of growth-at-all-costs, but the new coding of, “how can I use my life, skills, and the business platform I find myself in to generate positive impact on the planet?” Any business in operation today knows this generation is already emerging — they know that demonstrating at least the awareness of this new directive is an imperative to attracting the top performing millennials and the brightest Gen Zs graduating from the best schools today.
The writing is on the wall that the evolution from purpose to real impact is happening.
And it isn’t just writing put there by fanciful idealists ungrounded in the realities of business. It’s writing being put there by its true titans and visionaries who have mastered those realities better than any other. The following quotes are, consecutively, from the holder of the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, ; the now famous letter to the world’s CEOs from the chairman of Blackrock which at $5.9 trillion manages more money than any investment firm in the world; and from the CEO of Unilever which will generate $61B in revenue this year:
“Companies that are breaking the mold are moving beyond corporate social responsibility to social innovation. These companies are the vanguard of the new paradigm. They view community needs as opportunities to develop ideas and demonstrate business technologies, to find and serve new markets, and to solve longstanding business problems.” — Rosabeth Moss Kanter
“To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.” — Larry Fink
“If I project ourselves out five or 10 years, then I don’t see Unilever as an advertiser, I see us as a solutions provider. I see us as a co-creator, with the consumer, of mainstream sustainable living. Neither the word, nor the accounting line of “advertising”, means anything to me.” — Paul Polman
Purpose is the word of the day.
To make sure it becomes more than just a word, positive impact needs to be the goal of the day.