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I had the pleasure of hosting a roundtable discussion at The Crowd’s July event centred on the value of purpose. The Crowd provides a forum for business, advisors and NGOs to share thinking around solutions for market failures with a view to creating a better society – and it did just that. A fascinating plenary discussion, led by a diverse and experienced panel, brought to life the risks posed by a corporate sector that is not led by a sense of purpose delivering benefits for both business and society. As Unilever’s CMO, Keith Weed, put it: “We talk about the business case for sustainability… but what’s the business case for destroying the planet we live in?”


At a time when the term ‘purpose’ is often misconceived, it was reassuring that our table had the same understanding. Purpose was defined as a company’s reason for being or, otherwise put, ‘articulating how you would be missed if you weren’t here’. A central idea, though, was that purpose should incorporate all of a company’s stakeholders – an idea supported by PwC’s 20th CEO Survey in which 85% of CEOs stated that it’s more important to run their business in a way that accounts for wider stakeholder expectations. One participant at our table couched the idea of purpose in something more personal. “Purpose is what makes me go into work every day.”

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Our table argued that leadership is ultimately responsible for shaping, articulating and driving purpose throughout the organisation. They have an obligation to the rest of the organisation to cascade a common or shared sense of purpose to employees at every level. Whist employees uphold and fulfil the company’s purpose in their day-to-day jobs, it shouldn’t be their responsibility to proactively derive a sense of purpose from their work.

There is an underlying tension here. Although leadership should set the parameters for purpose, it cannot be a rigid concept that fails to allow employees to express how they understand it. An HBR article on corporate purpose explains it well: “Senior management tends to have a greater sense of purpose than middle management, who in turn have a greater sense of purpose than lower-level employees. Senior management may try to cultivate a sense of purpose, but employees are generally not buying what they are selling.”

The distinction is between creating a culture of purpose for your people and with your people. Purpose done for employees can seem constricting, inauthentic and can even spread disengagement and dissent among the ranks. Purpose done with employees instils a sense of pride and trust in the company; gives them a voice and demonstrates how their daily tasks align to the company’s broader purpose; giving them a banner to rally around. This all makes sense, but how do you do it?

I felt panellist and Clearscore’s founder, Justin Basini, put it best:

“As a company you need to think about how you create a space to allow people in your organisation to make better decisions.”

Our roundtable picked up on this idea. Yes, leadership needs to create a top-level sense of purpose that employees can align to; but what really brings purpose to life is allowing your people to discover what it means for them on their terms. The most effective combination when embedding a culture of purpose is to provide the overarching sense of a common goal that enables people to act as a functional collective, alongside the freedom to interpret and express purpose as an individual.



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