There’s no shortage of ‘nice’ corporate stories about giving, volunteering, fundraising and responsible practices, however they’re not the most powerful purpose stories to be told. Their surface level appeal may not count for as much when serious choices have to be made.
Many companies have untold purpose stories that are far more powerful than the ones they’re currently telling, and they’re missing out on the positive and powerful ripples they can create.
Let me explain.
Purpose in the Past
I left my corporate career in 2007 because the whole making-a-difference thing felt hollow. Companies were mainly interested in showing glossy photos of their people planting trees or sponsoring a charitable cause. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – but is it maximising our impact at a personal and organisational level?
In Australia, a banking sector inquiry uncovered widespread damage to people’s lives through unconscionable practices, forged documents and conflicted financial advice. Government and regulators responded with large fines and more red tape for doing business.
Can a fundraising morning tea can make everything right again? Will recycled print and copy paper cancel out these negative impacts? Will sponsoring a charity put right all of those wrongs? No. No. No.
Does a Good Company Exist?
It’s a good question, however it is the wrong one. Companies are like people – they do good and bad things – and few are either squeaky clean or bad to the bone. Much time is wasted on this good / bad thing – there is no black or white answer, it’s always shades of grey.
Volkswagen was a darling of the ‘good’ company world – as per its inclusion in market indices like the DJSI – until its emissions scandal erupted and suddenly it became ‘bad’ and was removed. The reality is that it was never totally good nor will it ever be completely bad.
Reframing the Question
The question must be reframed so that it has meaning and practical application:
How well do you understand the purpose of your company, how well do you practice it and what stories are backing it up?
Purpose in this context means ‘benefit to society’, not the sales target or financial goal you set for this year. It’s about moving away from stating an activity such as ‘making cars’ to a benefit statement like, for example, ‘delivering safe, reliable and sustainable transport solutions’.
This is relevant because of the shift in thinking about successful business approaches – away from the current paradigm of ‘making money and giving a bit back’ to ‘delivering solutions to society’s challenges in a profitable way’.
Do you see what went on there?
Purpose has moved inside the business model from the periphery – no longer an afterthought or reputation management exercise. Shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism is the language being used for the shift – let’s just call it common sense – and a handful of leading companies have figured it out.
To build a high-performing business with sustainable earnings, it’s far better to deliver solutions that genuinely benefit the customers and communities you serve rather than those that take advantage of people or have a short shelf life.
Studies show that purpose-driven companies have stronger cultures, above-average performance, higher valuations and they attract the best talent in the market. What’s not to like?
Powerful Purpose Stories
How well do you tell the stories about the purpose of your company to your people, your business partners, customers and others? Do your people know what your purpose is? Are they inspired by it? Do they care? Have you given them reason to care? Do they understand how it connects to their team and their role? Is it a reference point or North Star they use in their decision making?
In other words, are you going deeper or staying on the surface?
With your CEO hat on, would you rather hear an insurance company story about raising money at a charity golf day or the introduction of a cancer patient coaching program that improves the lives of customers, increases return to work rates and reduces the size of claims?
The first one is nice, the second is powerful.
What Stories Are You Telling?
By uncovering and telling these stories your people will feel empowered, they will gain the skills, capabilities and confidence they need to deliver your organisation’s purpose, ensuring you survive and thrive in the future.
It’s a powerful new type of story that every business needs to tell often and well.
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Phil Preston is CEO of The Business Purpose Project, helping executives and leaders navigate the shift to the purpose economy. He is a purpose strategist, conference speaker and author of Connecting Profit with Purpose. You can contact him via email@example.com