The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Grappling with the Challenges of the ‘Purpose Journey’

by Gael O'Brien

From motivating employees with a big sense of purposeto being a purpose-driven organization or leader to the value of creating cultures of purpose (which this column addressed last month) – new programs, articles and books continue to surface about the purpose journey, indicating that while the road has been well-travelled in recent years, arriving at the destination compels ongoing new- issue site maps.

In spite of research calling out the increased benefits in engagement and productivity that emanate from business leading with purpose, the downside is expectations also increase about how organizations handle their roles as employer, innovator, leader and neighbor connected to and influencing the larger whole.

The dark side of purpose is that once you start talking about it, you can’t lead wearing blinders because accountability for impact comes with the territory. And connection to society can be a hard thing to wrap one’s arms around, which may be why shutting down when things go wrong has been a common default. The long silence  of General Motors over ignition switch failures is reminiscent of Toyota’s silence on unintended acceleration and Ford’s silence nearly 40 years ago about fuel tank explosions in its Pinto. Breaking the silence is about acknowledging the accountability of connection.

In the spirit of lead, follow or get out of the way, Aaron Hurst  argues in another new book, The Purpose Economy, that a new economy is evolving out of the current information economy where purpose is “the new organizing principle.” He says it is being driven by factors including: how technology is being leveraged for self-expression, community building and service; Millennials’ search for meaning; the legacy of Generation X leaders involved in the dot-com boom; global turmoil (economic, political and environmental); the impact of positive psychology; increasing connectedness from accelerated globalization; and our living longer.

Hurst points out a purpose economy organization happens by degrees (as it is never 100 percent). It integrates into its enterprise creating/building purpose for employees, customers, participants and/or throughout the supply chain “through serving real needs, enabling personal growth and building community.” It is about bringing one’s humanity to work. He promotes a different approach to the “learn, earn and then return” model advocated he says by former Medtronic CEO Bill George. Rather than waiting until the final third of your life to give back, Hurst, who founded the Taproot Foundation which enlists professionals and companies in pro bono volunteering to non-profits, advocates blending “learn, earn and return” into every year of one’s career.

Whether “the purpose economy” catches on, more entrepreneurs and global companies are addressing their impact as they seek out opportunities to create social value for their organizations.

Social value can be created through “social innovation, social entrepreneurship, policies, products, services, collaboration and core competencies,” according to Creating Social Value: A Guide for Leaders and Change Makers by Cheryl Kiser and Deborah Leipziger. The new book evolved from a Babson College MBA course that brings business leaders into the classroom to answer questions about the different ways social value is being co-created between a company, stakeholders and society.

The more companies explore their purpose and impact on the larger community, the greater the likelihood they will adopt more open and accountable ways of dealing with potential crises. The more companies see themselves as having stakeholders -- employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and investors -- rather than being accountable solely to shareholders, the more holistic approaches to issues are possible. The more the cost of doing business is understood through a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit, the wider the lens to assess the total impact of decisions and results. And, the more creating economic value is linked to creating social value, the more shared value benefits both business and society.

Henry Ford said it best: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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