Tag Archives: purpose

A more beautiful question

For a while now, I’ve been searching for what author and journalist Warren Berger calls ‘a more beautiful question’ – the kind of question that, with elegant simplicity, can encapsulate a wealth of ideas, concepts and possibilities; that can help to shift the way we perceive or think about something; and that has the capacity to spark breakthrough ideas.

While that kind of preamble almost inevitably sets me up to fail, I think I may finally have fashioned one worth sharing, and it goes like this:

What if business reoriented itself as society’s greatest problem solver?

I use the word “fashioned” advisedly, of course. I don’t claim any originality, save perhaps for the particular combination of words. The ideas and concepts that underpin it are many, varied and long-established – the self-same ones that have preoccupied me (and many others) for years now.

While people may choose different labels to describe the conceptual space here – be it sustainability, creating shared value, purpose-led business, inclusive capitalism or whatever – they are fundamentally united by a common set of assumptions:

  1. That, whatever your views on the role of business, and the capitalist system more generally, in creating many of the problems and inequities we see today, it’s also essential to solving them (as evidenced, for example, by the inclusion of business as a key partner in achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals);
  2. That business, and again capitalism more generally, is perfectly capable of this kind of ‘reboot’ (indeed, as powerfully argued by some smart folks at McKinsey, creating and scaling solutions to human problems may always have been at the heart of how and why capitalism works);
  3. That the fates of business and society are interdependent and it’s in the best interests of both that business steps up to assume this role as a partner of choice in solving social problems (whisper it quietly, but business-based approaches are frequently more effective than government or charitable aid in reducing inequality).

What this all boils down to – what we arguably lost during the cult of maximizing shareholder value, and what we are now slowly rediscovering – is the understanding that the long-term prosperity of business and society go hand-in-hand. Business cannot, and should not, divorce its success from the health and resilience of the social and ecological systems that give it life.

Moreover – in line with Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that the only purpose of business is to create a customer – the idea of seeing business first and foremost as a problem-solving engine, rather than solely a vehicle for maximizing short-term shareholder gain, would seem a much better and broader reflection of what successful companies actually do.

With specific regard to the third point above – and offering an inkling of what reorienting business as society’s greatest problem solver might look like – probably the greatest joy of my current role is the exposure I get to the work of some outstanding social entrepreneurs.

As a firm believer that the sustainability imperative represents the innovation opportunity of a lifetime, understanding and telling their stories (and EY’s role in helping them build the internal capabilities to extend their reach and impact) is something I find endlessly fascinating. After all, in many ways, social entrepreneurs are the purest incarnation of purpose-led business – a mash-up of the social mission of a non-profit with the market-driven approach of business to innovate new products, services or approaches to tackling society’s most pernicious problems.

Take Jibu, for example, a clean water franchise business in East Africa, conceived by brothers Galen and Randy Welsch as a better way to tackle the problem of affordable access to safe, clean drinking water. Its ingenious business model equips local franchisees with advanced, solar-powered filtration equipment that can clean locally sourced water and make it available at a fraction of the price of other bottled water – each franchise effectively becoming a water purification plant for the surrounding community.

More than the question of affordability, the structuring of the business as a franchise also neatly addresses the problem of sustainability (in terms of long-term viability). Whereas donor-funded water schemes often suffer from a lack of local ownership – as a consequence of which, around half of them fail within a couple of years – every Jibu franchise is run by a member of the community it serves.

This puts the very people who benefit from the service in charge of running it, combining their need for clean water with their desire to control their own destinies and build a more prosperous future for their families. It’s a virtuous circle that should see the growth of the business not only provide permanent access to safe water for more than a million people by 2020, but also create 8,000 jobs, in turn providing 8,000 families with a decent and reliable income.

What makes stories like Jibu’s more compelling still is the fact that, more often than not, social entrepreneurs are achieving this kind of success against a backdrop of massive resource constraints. These are master hackers, and you have to wonder what might be achievable if big business took the time to observe, draw inspiration and reverse innovate from their approaches.

Of course, encouraging business-at-large to do so is precisely the purpose behind searching for (and hopefully finding) that more beautiful question in the first place.


What’s your purpose?

Here’s a little thought experiment, teed up by an extract from Aaron Hurst’s excellent book, The Purpose Economy:

Purpose is a verb

Like so many people, I always thought that gaining purpose in life was about finding my cause. When coaching or mentoring over the years, purpose always seemed to find expression through a noun — immigration, civil rights, education and so on. And yet this never accurately described the many people I knew who worked in jobs that had no ’cause’ but still felt a strong sense of purpose in their work, or who had found purpose working across many causes. What started to become clear to me was that defining personal purpose wasn’t about finding a noun, but instead about finding a verb — an action. It’s not only what you are doing, but how you do it and thereby relate to the world. For example, when we assemble a group of leaders in education, we think they share a purpose, but in fact, they only share a cause. Until they can understand the diversity of purpose in the room, the cause has little hope of moving forward or creating meaningful change.

The distinction between cause and purpose is a valuable one, IMHO, and one that bears closer consideration by all of us. Whether you’re an individual seeking to crystallise how and where you might find greater meaning and fulfilment in your work, or an organisation looking to better articulate your place in the world — why you do what you do, and how the world is a better place for it — it all begins with understanding that purpose is deeply personal.

In other words, purpose activation starts from within. If you want to ignite a passion for purpose among the people around you, be it colleagues or clients — if you want them to feel part of something bigger than themselves — then you sure as hell better be clear about what drives you to get out of bed in the morning and how you try to live that purpose every day through what you do and how you do it.

So to the thought experiment…

If you had to write a personal purpose statement, what would it look like? Taking a cue from Simon Sinek’s ‘golden circle’, how would you go about articulating the why, the how and the what (in that order, remember) of your purpose?

In the spirit of sharing — and deficient though it undoubtedly is, as a first stab at this — here’s how I think mine might read:

My purpose is to make it simple and desirable for business leaders to understand and act upon the power of purpose in their organizations.

Why? Because I’d like my daughter to inherit a better, more sustainable world than my generation has, and I believe that the corporation is the only institution pervasive and powerful enough to make that happen.

How? By persuading leaders with a story of hope and aspiration, not doom and gloom; by demonstrating that shared value – the reconnection of strategy and innovation to serving a higher social purpose – is actually a better way to bigger, more legitimate profit; and by illuminating that, while strategies and business models may come and go, it’s that higher purpose that endures.

What’s my contribution? Insightful, easy-to-digest thought leadership that makes the power of purpose impossible to ignore; and practical support to help organizations uncover and articulate their own enduring sense of purpose – one that grants the potential to survive and thrive over generations.

What’s yours?

Are people tiring of ‘sustainability’ (and, if so, what should we do about it)?

Some time ago, I received a tentative approach from Kogan Page about turning my 55-minute guide to building sustainable brands into a more substantive tome. A few weeks of enthusiastic discussion was sadly brought to a halt, though, when the verdict came down from up on high that the ‘S word’ doesn’t sell.

Earlier this week, I stumbled across a blog post citing architect, Michael Pawlyn, who apparently gives some fantastic talks on biomimicry (using design principles evident in the natural world as inspiration for innovation). In these talks he points out that, if someone asked you how your marriage was going, and you answered that it was ‘sustainable’, that would tend to suggest something missing from the relationship!

It’s a fair point and it highlights a very real problem…

As a father, the son of designer parents, and a self-styled purpose-driven strategist, my idealistic attachment to an exciting future – one that offers an elegantly, ecologically and economically enjoyed existence for us all – is so part of my being that I have to consciously remind myself that that’s not where most people live.

In their worlds, were you to play a game of word association, ‘sustainability’ would most likely spark the word ‘green’ (narrowly framing sustainability in the context of environmental protection), rather than ‘longevity’ (opening up a much richer and broader narrative around our capacity to survive and thrive over generations).

Whereas the former is essentially pessimistic and suggestive of limits on business as usual, the latter is inherently optimistic, challenging us to re-envision constraints as an opportunity to design something better, more lasting and truly fulfilling – in balance with (not opposition to) the needs of wider society and the world’s natural systems.

For my money, it’s the absence of optimism and innovation from most people’s mental model of sustainability that saddles the word with its (undeserved) reputation for dullness and moral rectitude.

So what should we do about it? Well, three options spring to mind…

  1. Make a conscious effort to reframe sustainability in our own minds. One of the great weaknesses of the term (its context specificity and openness to interpretation) is simultaneously its biggest asset. As Humpty said in Through the Looking Glass, “A word means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less,” and we can choose how to define it – less about soft moral principles and more about hard business logic; less about peripheral philanthropy and more about core strategy and culture; less about risk and reputation management and more about innovation and value creation.
  2. Talk less about sustainability in the abstract and instead focus on being clear about specific outcomes and practical results. For example, everyone wants lower their energy bills and an architect can talk to clients about how adopting Passivhaus planning tools can help them to accurately predict (and reduce) their energy consumption.
  3. Abandon ‘sustainability’ altogether and call it something else. Here, unfortunately, I run out of ideas. Much like the word ‘brand’, if ‘sustainability’ were stripped from my lexicon, I’d be at a total loss as to what to replace it with.

If anyone out there has any suggestions, I’d be genuinely interested to hear them!

Building a better working world: Unilever style

As regular readers will know by now, I have a massive man-crush on Unilever CEO, Paul Polman (and not just because he was kind enough to say something nice about my book!).

Here’s a leader who really gets new-world sustainability – a world in which Corporate Responsibility/Corporate Sustainability (whatever you choose to call it) is indistinguishable from business strategy, based on the knowledge that best prescription for long-term success these days is making a positive social impact on the world.

Among many memorable quotes from a speech of his I attended a few months ago, as part of Hult Business School’s Visionary Speaker series, was his assertion that “I don’t believe that any brand should be there, if it doesn’t serve a purpose that actually makes this a better world.”

For a window into how this translates into action – how Unilever is connecting every one of its brands to a higher social purpose – there’s no better example than this video for Lifebuoy soap (if you haven’t come across this before, I strongly advise you to have hankies at the ready – it’s a tearjerker!):

And here’s a sample of people’s reactions to it — reactions that, I must say, are of precisely the kind that I have every time I watch Gondappa’s story:

What can we learn from this (aside from it being a masterclass in emotive storytelling)?

Three things, I think…

Firstly, terminology. When Unilever uses the word ‘sustainable’, they’re not using it as a synonym for ‘green’ – exclusively about environmental stewardship (although ‘Reducing environmental impact’ is a key area of focus for its Sustainable Living Plan). It’s much bigger than that. It’s about increasing their social impact and, in so doing, creating consumer preference for their brand(s) and increasing the long-term viability and prosperity of their business.

Second, positioning. Note how the Lifebouy brand is explicitly connected to the higher purpose of preventing disease and unnecessary deaths through the simple act of washing hands with soap. Note how it fits neatly under ‘Improving health and wellbeing’ (another – and the first – of their three topline areas of focus). Note, too, how its campaigns to encourage healthy hand-washing habits across schools and villages, in urban and rural communities across Asia, Africa and Latin America, are a logical extension of the Lifebuoy product and its purpose.

Third, the art of creating value through sustainability. Two numbers tell you everything you need to know about how making a relevant and positive social impact on the world creates brand value. As a result of Hindustan Unilever’s campaign in Thesgora, India, the incident rate of diarrhoea has fallen by 86%. And what effect has that, and other similar campaigns, had on the Lifebuoy brand? Underlying sales growth is 18% per annum over the last three years.

‘Nuff said!

EY: Joining the battle on youth unemployment

You may remember I posted some time ago on the accession of Mark Weinberger as Chairman and CEO of EY, accompanied by a new brand identity and a clearly articulated purpose of ‘building a better working world’.

If you’re a regular reader, then you’ll also have guessed by now my penchant for – and belief in the superior value to be created by – putting purpose at the heart of profit; my belief that, in its broadest sense, ‘sustainability’ is nothing more or less than a perspective on brand and business strategy that inextricably links long-term success with serving a higher social purpose.

For me, that suggests three essential areas of focus in a business context – three preconditions for achieving enduring, sustainable growth:

  • People – In the end, it’s people who create and sustain businesses, and the societies and economies to which they contribute. Lasting, meaningful growth depends on the ideas and ingenuity of talented people in all their diversity.
  • Purpose – That ingenuity should be directed towards delivering social progress. Why does your business exist (beyond making money)? How does what you do, and how you do it, benefit the world? If you ceased to exist tomorrow, why should anyone care? While business models and strategies may come and go, this essential ‘reason for being’ should be constant, as it’s the only sustainable way to unite and motivate all the people a business touches.
  • Planet – If we continue to deplete natural resources, without consideration for their long-term sustainability, then no-one will prosper. Enduring growth also depends on innovating new business models that decouple that growth from environmental degradation.

With regard to the former – and particularly in the context of ‘building a better working world’ – tackling youth unemployment is about as material as it gets. After all, how can anyone claim to be doing so without recognising that this is (as EY’s EMEIA Managing Partner, Mark Otty, puts its) one of the most intractable economic and social challenges we face today?

It’s why youth unemployment justifiably sits atop the EU political agenda. It’s why improving the employment prospects for youth in the Middle East – where more than half the population is under the age of 25 – was a key pillar of the sustainability strategy I helped formulate for one of Saudi Arabia’s leading mobile phone operators a few years ago. It’s why ‘breaking barriers to work’ is similarly a pillar of other leading sustainability strategies like M&S’ Plan A.

It’s also why EY joined the battle on youth employment yesterday, joining the Alliance for YOUth, becoming a signatory to the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, and pledging to offer 55,000 traineeships and 35,000 paid internships for young people across Europe by 2020.

I think that’s a fabulous proof-point for the promise to help build a better working world, and one that makes me proud to be associated with EY.

Paul Polman: 21st century leader

“If you want to change consumer habits – if you want to connect for change in society – we have to use our brands. And the most challenging thing is to give all your brands a social purpose. I don’t believe that any brand should be there, if it doesn’t serve a purpose that actually makes this a better world.”

In short, according to Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, a company or brand that doesn’t serve a higher social purpose doesn’t deserve to exist.  (Go figure that I should have a massive man-crush on him!)

Those few lines above represent just one of many memorable passages in a speech Polman gave to a rapt audience as part of the Hult Visionary Speaker Series in London a couple of weeks ago – a speech in which he not only touched on, but also clearly exhibited, the habits/characteristics that he believes are essential to successful leadership in 21st century:

  • To be authentic and purpose-driven
  • To be systemic thinkers (able to unravel complexity)
  • To be comfortable with total transparency (no transparency = no trust)
  • To collaborate and forge coalitions (capable of creating tipping points)
  • To have a long-term orientation

Hult has kindly made a video of his speech, and the ensuing Q&A session, available on Youtube. If you can find 90 minutes to spare to watch the whole thing, I really suggest you do. If you’re more strapped for time, maybe try jumping in around 49 minutes.

An aside:

Watching this back again last night, I was reminded of one of the very first pieces I ever posted on this blog – my reactions to a similar keynote address given by Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, to an audience at Ashridge over five years ago.

For me, the similarities are striking.

Both delivered some very stark messages, but did so with great authenticity, humility and humour – a very down-to-earth style that made those messages hit home, without ever feeling ‘preachy’.

Just as Ray was, so Paul seems to be more than happy to get out in front of conventional competitive thinking and take bold action. His abandonment of quarterly reporting is a great example; likewise his comments during the Q&A session on more collaborative businesses models (starting around 1:25:00).

I closed out my post about Ray with the wish that we might find more leaders like him in business and in public life. In Paul Polman, we most certainly have.

Nationwide: the feeling is mutual

The slide below is one I use frequently as part of the mix to illustrate the essential differences between old-world CSR and new-world sustainability.

old vs new.010

Looking in particular at the ‘stockholder vs. stakeholder’ view, businesses structured as partnerships or mutuals are often the best examples of this – owned, as they are, by their employees or customers, rather than conventional investors.

While I’m sure there must be many queuing up to pour scorn on the value of these models in the wake of the Co-op Bank’s recent difficulties, results published today by the UK’s largest building society, Nationwide, tell a rather different story. (It’s worth pointing out, by the way that the Co-op Bank wasn’t actually a mutual at the time it ran into difficulties; rather it was, and is, a PLC whose air of mutually is conferred on it by Co-op Group ownership.)

For anyone who doubts the commercial rewards that can be gleaned when you look beyond the received orthodoxy of maximizing shareholder value, check out these numbers:

  • Underlying half-year profits up 155% from £130m to £332m
  • Deposit balances up £5.4bn, a quarter of all such new saving in the UK
  • The rate of new current accounts being opened up 16%

Much of that momentum, I’m certain, comes from the Nationwide’s (increasingly rare) mutual status and the message implicit within – i.e. that their business is designed from the ground up to put customers’ interests first; that they actually give a crap about their lives and their dreams. Even more importantly, it comes from that rather intangible ethos being reflected in very tangible business decisions – like, for example, Nationwide having provided more than a fifth of all mortgages to first-time house buyers in this most recent six-month period.

I doubt it’s too grandiose to suggest that Nationwide doesn’t see itself in the business of lending money. It’s in the business of helping people to realise their ambitions – in this case to start a new life together with a partner, maybe to raise a family, in a place they can call their own. The dosh is but a means to a higher end.

In response, it would seem customers are deserting high street banking rivals to join Nationwide in their droves! And that, perhaps, leads to the most striking comparison of all when you think back to the financial crisis.

Unlike Northern Rock, for example, which went nuts lending more than homebuyers could afford pay – and with predictable consequences – Nationwide’s average loan to value (LTV) ratio on these new mortgages is only 69%, and only 49% on its existing stock. What’s more, its net mortgage lending is virtually identical to the increase in its net savings.

To put it another way, its books are well and truly balanced.