Why are you doing what you do?

It is worse, much worse, than you think.

So begins David Wallace-Wells’ terrifying account of climate change and the future that awaits us, “The Uninhabitable Earth: a story of the future”. There honestly is no nice , sugar-coated way to tell this story. It’s just one of a growing number of wake-up calls that we’d do well to heed.

Faced with the science, there are now real signs that people are waking up, responding to the climate emergency by speaking out, joining movements for change, and making informed decisions about their lifestyles and aspirations. Many are finding new purpose. A stimulus for action. A reason for living rather than simply existing, if you like.

What is your purpose, your values, your beliefs? How do those influence your choices as a consumer?

What is your purpose, your values, your beliefs? How do those influence your choices as a consumer?

It’s the same, too, for business. Moving with the times, business owners are realising that there is so much more than simply making something and finding a customer to buy it at a price that makes a profit Consumers - us lot - are far more discerning than than we were. We want to know that the products and services we use do not cost the Earth, do not exploit people and, in fact, produce net positive outcomes for people and planet. John Izzo and Jeff Vanderwielen, in their inspiring book “The Purpose Revolution”, refer to this as a revolution of expectations. This revolution is happening among employees, customers and investors.

A growing number of businesses are awake to the opportunities and, indeed, obligations to operate with purpose, to address the world’s biggest sustainable development challenges.

Business that innovates can bring forward exciting solutions and technologies, minimising negative impacts and maximising positive impacts on people and the planet, and can be profitable at the same time. In fact, with the perfect storm of environmental degradation and climate change, it’s only those businesses which are prepared - making the waves of change - that will enjoy profits in future. Operating sustainably will become the norm. It has to.

So, if you want to run your business with purpose, ethically and sustainably, where do you start? What are the guiding principles to be followed? The seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) define global priorities and aspirations fo 2030. Importantly, they also offer business the tools and knowledge to strengthen engagement of customers, employees and other stakeholders; and communicate consistently and effectively - to tell their story. In short, to establish a reputation for doing things the right way.

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If you can connect people to your purpose, then you’ll be likely to gain a sustainable, competitive advantage. There is little doubt that companies which are focused more deeply on purpose - why they’re doing what they do - and on delivery of social good will be positive for their employees and for wider society. With this comes improved employee motivation and retention of talent. With an aspirational focus on making things better, business can engage consumers in new and exciting ways that build brand and product loyalty, creating a close, synergistic relationship.

If you’re unsure about this, consider the 2016 survey conducted by LinkedIn: a sample of more than 26,000 members in 40 different countries found that 37% of LinkedIn members are “purpose-oriented” and 38% considered purpose to be equally weighted with either money or status. There are huge emerging markets to be reached: 80% of consumers in China and 71% in India have indicated a willingness to pay more for products from companies with a clear purpose.

Despite all of this, developing a clear purpose isn’t always easy. The way to do this is by championing a cause that aligns with your customers, employees and other stakeholders’ values, beliefs or ethics. Ensure that your company stands for more than a great product or service, and you will soon reach beyond the traditional product or service relationship (i.e. the transactional level of buying and selling) to become a community member, part of the solution to a problem. You are a valued partner in a group that’s focused around a common good (e.g. eliminating hunger, ensuring good health outcomes, improving educational outcomes, providing clean water and sanitation, and so on).

Developing a clear purpose requires business to focus on the key areas where they can make a difference

Developing a clear purpose requires business to focus on the key areas where they can make a difference

People tend to respect companies with the courage to try to right the wrongs that they see in the world. So, championing a cause that you believe in provides hope and builds trust. This does not require grandiose gestures, either. Taking a stand can be as simple as sending a clear message during times of uncertainty.

Getting a business leader to discover purpose really does have to come from within; it needs to be a personal question. Talk about the business invariably focuses on profits. However, get people talking about their personal purpose - what gets them out of bed in the morning, what they want to be true in their personal lives (including how others see them), and you start to see magic happening. What’s more, it’s far more fulfilling to be around other people with purpose, particularly when it chimes with our own values.

Only this week, someone asked me whether purpose was just another way to describe mission. I can understand the confusion, to be honest. However, while a mission statement explains what a company does, a purpose statement describes why that company exists for the benefit of all stakeholders, now and into the future. So, in order to make your own business’ purpose statement, consider whether it is:

  • authentic - is it genuine, true to who you are?

  • compelling - does it spark interest and move people to stretch their boundaries?

  • congruent - does is fit the nature of your business, mission and values?

  • scalable - can employees at all levels of the business relate to it and make it theirs?

  • attainable - is it realistic and can it be done?

  • connecting with employees - does it fit with the talent you want to attract and retain?

  • connecting with customers - does it fit with their interests and values?

  • connecting with investors - does it fit with their values?

You can’t do everything. The key task is to fit purpose to your business - find a purpose that truly fits with your unique business. Find a connection between the business, society and the environment, as a way to help your purpose emerge around common causes that you can actually influence.. And, just like that, we’re back to the SDGs. Pick out a couple that resonate, that are relevant to what you do, and make addressing their targets your purpose.