“Is purpose more important than profit?” That was the question Alan Murray, the editor of Fortune Magazine, asked in a recent article. And the truth is, a lot of people are asking the same thing right now. From the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies to the conference rooms at Davos, it seems like every CEO is talking about “purpose.”
The idea that a company should stand for something bigger than profit has a long history in business. But in the last few years, it’s become central to the public dialogue. In fact, a recent study we conducted with Oxford University Saïd Business School found that public conversation about purpose has increased five times over since 1995.
But talking about purpose is the easy part. Really, it’s just the first step.
The hard part – the real test of an organization’s purpose – is figuring out how to make it more than just words in a memo. For purpose to really matter, it needs to go beyond an initiative that sits on the margins of the organization. It needs to be a central part of the culture – something people feel in their work every single day.
Three years ago, we explicitly laid out our own purpose: to build a better working world. What became immediately clear is that, frankly, it’s hard to take a purpose from the logo to deep within the ranks of an organization. Since then, however, we’ve also learned three things that can make the process smoother.
First, make sure your people can see the connection between your purpose and your business. A lot of corporate purposes might seem like abstract concepts at first. But when you ask your people to imagine what achieving your purpose looks like in their everyday goals, the concept becomes much more concrete. Then they start to notice examples of how they are helping to make your purpose real through their work every day.
For example, The World Bank Group’s goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity is a clear purpose. In our work together, they have brought this to life by creating services around job creation, infrastructure development and more.
Second, get people engaged at every level of the company. A culture of purpose has to start from the top, but it also has to permeate throughout the entire organization. So make sure that your top executives take the time to gather their teams and tell their own stories about how your purpose drives their work. And, ensure leaders are encouraging their teams and people to do the same. Talk about the client engagements you’re most proud of or projects you’ve completed to illustrate what advancing your purpose looks like, in both large ways and small.
It is also worth creating programs to recognize individuals and teams that bring your purpose to life. Unilever is well respected in this arena. Our own global award program, Better Begins with You, awards funds to the winners to further develop strong ideas that bring our purpose to life every day, making this more concrete for the wider people population.
Third, measure your results. There are a few key indicators that can help measure how effectively your purpose is connecting to your people and your business goals. To start, look at your hiring and retention numbers. Do people want to work in your organization? Once they get there, do they want to stay? Most organizations find that both of these numbers go up dramatically – often to all-time highs – once they begin talking more explicitly about their purpose.
It’s also important to hear from your people directly. Every year, take the time to survey all of your people, and then use that information to measure how engaged and committed they feel to their work. Are they aware of your larger purpose? Do they feel like it authentically connects to the work they do every day? We’ve found this is critical, because at least at EY we know that when people are more engaged, we deliver better client service and get better results.
Beyond these, purpose really comes down to mindset. It means building a culture that taps into your people’s sense of aspiration. It means empowering everyone you work with – from your clients or customers to your employees to your communities – not just to do better, but to be better. After all, purpose is truly about doing well by doing good.
Author: Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman & CEO, EY. He is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.