The spur for this post is a great opinion piece by Soli Townsend, co-founder of Futerra, which I belatedly caught up on this week, and which has caused me to re-evaluate a lot of what I’ve said and written in the past about purpose. Much of that – as will no doubt sound familiar to many of you – has been to encourage people to think about corporate purpose through the lens of questions like:
- Why do you exist, beyond making money?
- What do you stand for?
- Why is the world a better place with you in it (or, conversely, why would it be poorer if you weren’t there)?
To that end, in my past life as a brand strategist, a popular exercise I used to run with clients was to get them to write their organization’s own obituary – an invariably eye-opening experience that forced senior execs to focus their minds on what they’d wish their brand to be most remembered for. But as Soli observes (brilliantly, IMHO) there’s a potentially fatal flaw in framing questions, such as the above:
Their in-built introspection.
Such questions all too easily drive conversation in the direction of self-service – about fulfilling your brand’s own destiny and defining your importance on your own terms. The more I think on this, the more it feels directly at odds with the need to drive conversation in the direction of service to humanity – one whose starting point is to reflect on society’s toughest challenges (as represented by the SDGs), and then to ask how are we distinctively positioned to help solve these problems of people and planet (profitably and, hence, sustainably)?
Comparing and contrasting these different directions, it’s not hard to see how purpose has, ironically, somewhat lost its purpose – or, at least, how a noble idea has ended up fracturing into genuine and less-genuine executions.
At one extreme, we have a host of smaller enterprises (e.g., the impact enterprises we work with through EY Ripples) and larger ‘born purposeful’ brands (e.g., Natura, Patagonia and the like), many of which have joined the B Corp movement and legally changed their status, so as to allow pursuit of a higher social purpose to come before generation of shareholder returns. (We also have other large organizations, such as Interface and Orsted, that have taken climate change as their cue to implement root and branch transformations of the core business strategy and operations.)
At the other, sadly, we have a much larger group of businesses who’ve created slick purpose statements as shiny new wrappers for business-as-usual. In changing (next to) nothing about how they operate, they’ve reduced purpose to the status of brand asset – and CR/sustainability to the status of afterthought – rather than the business strategy it should have been.
So, what’s Soli’s suggestion for steering clear of self-serving purpose puffery and refocusing on genuinely and meaningfully contributing to society? Thinking in terms of what she calls servant brands.
While your first reaction to this may well be to pooh-pooh it as ‘emperor’s new clothes,’ I genuinely believe there’s something valuable and distinctive in this. First of all, it sure as heck encourages businesses to anchor their thinking in the world beyond their own bubble. And second, it poses a very different set of framing questions for defining purpose – less about who you are and what you stand for, and more about who/what you are in service of and how what you do fulfils broader societal goals.
Though not precipitated by the COVID crisis, this shift from purpose rooted in self to purpose rooted in service is certainly accentuated by it. For, as Soli writes:
Put bluntly, when all of us are facing mortality, and terrified for our loved ones and society itself, none of us gives a damn what your brand stands for. Your essence is irrelevant. Your carefully honed statement means nothing… [T]he only thing that matters right now, more than anything, is to be useful. The only question worth asking today [and in the future] is ‘are we useful?’
Servant brands start by identifying what society needs most, then figure out how they can develop/channel core competencies to best serve those needs. Servant brands are open and honest – they share data, insights and solutions that can help scale and accelerate social progress, and speak with a truly human voice, rather than their words sounding like finely-tuned legalese. And servant brands are courageous – they have the guts to stop doing/making things that don’t serve the long-term interests of people and planet, and focus on innovating new products, services and business models that do.
Now would certainly appear to be an opportune moment for business-at-large to absorb and apply these insights. Again, not created by COVID, but certainly accelerated by it, a poll reported in the Guardian this week would suggest that momentum is growing behind another much-needed shift – that of moving from measuring prosperity in terms of the rate of growth to understanding it terms of people’s lived experience of it.
That poll not only found that 8 out of 10 Britons would prefer the UK government to prioritize health and well-being over economic growth during the COVID crisis, but also that 6 in 10 would still wish that to hold true after the pandemic has subsided. That such a large majority should favor prioritizing quality of life over purely economic indicators should lend more power to the elbow of those wishing to advance the vision of a wellbeing economy – building back better by rooting policy- and decision-making in new goals that give primacy to long-term human well-being and environmental regeneration.
I’ll leave you with an extract from another great thought piece by Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO of the B Team, which neatly integrates all of the above and more:
What if we now found the courage to reimagine and reset our personal and professional purpose to be of service to humanity? What if we agreed to a global set of imperatives to help guide the co-creation of a new social and environmental contract, one that left neither people nor the planet behind? What if we were brave enough to use this pandemic pause to reset our definition of success? What if we made sure to measure what matters, like the health and well-being of all life and the natural systems that help us thrive?
What if we reimagined private and public sector leadership to be gender balanced and diverse? What if we paused long enough to learn to manage our egos and embraced the fact that we are ONE, be it against this global pandemic or other challenges like climate change and breakdowns in nature, unsustainable levels of inequality and low-to-no trust the world over?
The leadership we now need is the kind that that is willing to answer these questions with bold dialogue and brave action. The kind that is ready to take a personal risk for the benefit of humanity. The kind that that embraces courage and humility in equal balance – knowing that while the road ahead may be uncertain, it is our responsibility to build back better.
Bon weekend, everyone.