Redoing The Role Of Business In Society
Recently I worked with someone who wanted to push purpose to the forefront of their multinational business. The challenge was to move from talk to action: to let actions speak louder than words. Challenge accepted.
I resisted the urge to offer my usual advice of “Just do it”. While this is good advice for many aspects of life, it was not enough for the complex challenge this person was facing. So, we went over examples of strategies used by some truly purpose-driven companies around the world.
I thought it could be useful to share our discussion. I know other companies are struggling with the same thing. Especially these days.
In our recently published book, we wrote:
"As Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Dillard puts it: 'How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives'. The work we do says a lot about the way we lead our lives. Imagine this: you’re 80 years old and surrounded by your grandkids. They ask you about the things you are most proud of. You reflect on your life, and poke about in your past. Filled with pride, you tell them about the life you lived... Would you mention your job or the meaningful work you did with your colleagues? Did your career contribute to a better world? Research at the University of Leiden concludes that 25 percent of employees doubt the usefulness of their work. In his book Bullshit Jobs, anthropologist David Graeber quotes a British study showing that 37 percent of workers feel that their job does not make a useful contribution to society.
"Of course, meaningful work is not always an option, especially when people are struggling just to survive. But in the western world, this is not usually the case. Why do we accept that work is just about making money? Why do we agree to work for a boss whose only goal is to get richer, and for shareholders who don’t look beyond the next quarter? What if, instead of accepting this sort of situation, we spent our time on work that has a positive impact? How nice it would be to work for organizations that believe in positive change. We felt for ourselves the painful mismatch between the work we did for large corporations and our personal desire to feel useful. Decisions were largely based on profit. The entire strategy was about money; the only measure of success, financial. Focusing on maximizing profits promotes morbid short-term thinking. Managers are pushed by stakeholders to take decisions that ensure a swift return on investment, often at the expense of everything and everyone."
Making the shift is not easy. Most companies are still organized to please shareholders first, customers second and employees third. It is hard to break from that—to recalibrate what a business is about while balancing various interests.
But even though it is challenging, there is no other choice. It is the right thing to do. We have built the system. We also have the power to change it.
Holier than the pope
The fixed idea is that if a company announces its purpose, it ought to be holier than the pope. For example, announce you are all about sustainability and you cannot afford a single mistake. You will be vilified for it. However understandable, these reactions demoralize companies that are not yet strongly purpose driven. It is an excuse not to start down the path of change.
The choice becomes binary. Do not do anything at all, or take a huge risk. Most companies opt for the former. But the choice is not binary. There is an alternative.
Here is the most important “purpose advice” we have come across on our visits to many purpose-driven companies: It’s about becoming purpose-driven, not being purpose-driven.
Show progress, not perfection
When embarking on the purpose path, many think they need to be perfect. This is seen in how purpose is communicated. Imagine a feel-good TV commercial and a catchy jingle using words aimed at glossing over reality—like putting lipstick on the pig. It all seems to be about communicating the good, not about acknowledging the bad or ugly.
No wonder skeptics start sharpening their swords in anticipation of your missteps. And, it is fake. People hate fake.
You should not aim to show perfection. Instead, show progress. It is admitting that you are not where you want to be, and that you are still getting there. Show that you are on a journey to become ever more purpose driven.
Share your progress. If, for example, you aim to become less polluting, reveal how many tons of CO2 you are still pumping into the air. Then, regularly show how you reduce that number.
That is what Patagonia does (in its annual B Corp report. This shows they are not perfect. But at least they are making deliberate moves in the right direction, showing progress, transparently, every single year.
This builds trust: a bold combination of transparency and progress.
My message is that companies do not have to make a binary choice between being purpose driven or not.
There is an alternative. It is becoming purpose-driven. It is a vulnerable, transparent, and continuous process to become ever more purposeful.
When it comes to using business as a force for good, which companies inspire you? Which ones are worth highlighting? Drop their names in the comments below.