The purpose - profit problem

It's been an interesting couple of weeks. I've spent them rushing around, physically and mentally, trying to deliver on many levels and get clarity about what motivates me. Meeting with board members - my wise owls - challenged me to come up with some answers, to set out a clear vision. Tough love, some call it.

John Izzo and Jeff Vanderwielen, in their book "The Purpose Revolution", describe as the first step needed to thrive in the age of social (and environmental) good the need to clearly find and name your purpose: namely, you must live the purpose you profess. Catchy soundbite, that! But, what does that mean when you're faced with the daily challenge of securing customers for your business; when you have an empty order book; when the lack of income is impacting on your life, and that of those around you?

 Agree your purpose and your direction becomes clear, too

Agree your purpose and your direction becomes clear, too

My purpose has always been to help others on their sustainability journey, to show them a way to generate social and environmental good alongside being profitable. But there's the thing: where is my profit? Like it or not, I'm not running a charity. I have to earn enough to live, how ever frugally. So, I need to have an offering that people want (not simply a service that they need). 

Bearing all of this in mind, I'm focused on building a relationship with customers (or rather, businesses that will become future customers). Engaging them, demonstrating that I genuinely care about their wellbeing - as much or more than I do about any profits. I'm also still concentrating on the purpose of Earth Matters to helping society solve its problems, crucially promoting a more sustainable way of living - a true circular economy. Am I activating those twin purposes?

 Sharing ideas on purpose, helping businesses spot opportunities

Sharing ideas on purpose, helping businesses spot opportunities

Yes, research shows that focusing on purpose over profits builds business confidence and drives investment (Deloitte, 2014 Culture of Purpose study). Companies leading with real purpose are found to build a deeper relationship with customers, going beyond the transactions of buying and selling; connecting with the customer. All well and good.

The problem is the inherent tension between a profit focus and a purpose focus. It's quite a challenge. Inside your head are two voices, each trying to drown out the other. Purpose or profit? Oil and gas companies struggle with this, and frequently struggle. Yes, they can talk a lot about purpose and how they are leading society's journey to a renewable future. But, they tend to fall short of actually delivering on this, as profits trump their purpose aspirations (too much short-term thinking, as they seek to keep shareholders happy).

 Talking the talk on a renewable future, while undertaking exploratory fracking, does not go down well!

Talking the talk on a renewable future, while undertaking exploratory fracking, does not go down well!

There's also the authenticity question. Companies can tell a good story and appear - at least for some of the time - to be delivering on their promises while under the spotlight. Unfortunately, in the cover of the shadows, their performance can be anything but authentic. Take Volkswagen, for example. Clean diesel was the message, but this was dramatically undermined as they devised software to trick the emissions tests. Once found out, the damage to the brand has been considerable.

 VW, a brand irreparably damaged?

VW, a brand irreparably damaged?

Businesses also need to be credible and avoid over-promising. I recognise this challenge only too well. As companies jump on the purpose bandwagon, it can feel forced and unclear. It needs focus, preferably on an issue that's directly within the business' sphere of influence. At the same time, some businesses (and I've met many, particularly among SMEs) have a well-established purpose but tend to stay quiet about what they are doing, before suddenly finding their voice. A consistent approach is crucial if you're to be believed.

 Open the box, unpack your sustainability story: be consistent in your messaging. If you're doing great things, let your customers know

Open the box, unpack your sustainability story: be consistent in your messaging. If you're doing great things, let your customers know

It's all about balance, consistency, and authenticity - you've got to mean it, passionately. So, when times are rough and you find yourself unclear about your purpose, take time out to refresh your purpose statement, decide where you fit, and then share your drive in order to activate that purpose in yourself and those around you. It needs reconnection, headspace, call it what you will.

 Time out to recharge and rethink your purpose; it's priceless

Time out to recharge and rethink your purpose; it's priceless

I'm off to do the work to find, define and shout about my purpose. Getting back on the bike after a wobble or a fall is never easy, but it's the way to be successful. For me, the challenge of pulling together a new workshop "Creating the Waves of Change" is helping to clarify my ideas and set out the purpose I seek. Perhaps it can do the same for you. Get it right and you can have purpose and profit.