Companies with purpose, jobs with meaning – these twin catch cries are increasingly being advocated as an urgent necessary change for future business success and longevity.
Such calls for shared or blended social and economic value are seen as vital for the ability of enterprises to compete successfully by growing their skills, retaining talented people and adding value to their own commercial results, the economy and society simultaneously.
Jim Collins, author, researcher and adviser on high performance companies and leadership for over 25 years summarised this characteristic of great, visionary, long-standing firms as embracing “both extremes across a number of dimensions at the same time – purpose and profit, continuity and change,….discipline and creativity,….empirical analysis and decisive action….
Yes, they pursue profits. And, yes, they pursue broader, more meaningful ideals….They do both. ….Profit is like oxygen, food, water and blood for the body; they are not the point of life, but without them, there is no life.”
The importance of creating companies with purpose and jobs with meaning has been reinforced at a time when business models are being challenged by digital and artificial intelligence technologies, a greater focus on higher environmental, social and governance standards by business and increased shareholder and consumer activism, especially in light of corporate failures and misconduct.
How to inspire workers and create purpose-driven organisations is featuring more prominently in academic research and in social and mainstream media.
Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor, writing for the Harvard Business Review, noted that addressing the problem of disengaged and underperforming employees by tighter oversight and management control is likely to be ineffective. Connecting them with a sense of higher purpose in their jobs is key. Higher purpose is not just a platitude or mission statement, nor is it just about economic exchanges.
Quinn and Thakor define higher purpose as “it explains how the people involved with an organisation are making a difference, gives them a sense of meaning, and draws their support.” Thus, leaders can inspire employees to bring more energy and creativity to their jobs, to be more engaged, and to take risks, learn and raise their game.
For example, a call centre for a veteran’s organisation was not driven by numbers of calls handled or waiting times, but by their promise to provide extraordinary service to people who had done the same for their country.
But, business pursuit of shared social and economic value is not without its critics. Some urge business leaders to literally “mind their own business” and keep out of commentary on wider social issues, which they argue concern only elite minorities, and are not of interest to the average person.
Notwithstanding this, many of the world’s CEOs are exercising their minds about how their businesses can serve the needs of shareholders, at the same time as benefiting a wide variety of stakeholders and the community at large.
- Ginni Rometty, President, Chair and CEO of IBM worldwide, is an advocate of leveraging the power of working at the intersection of seemingly contradictory objectives, namely purpose and profit, human and artificial intelligence, analogue and digital, incumbency and agility. She comments that growth and comfort never co-exist, that you can’t progress without risk.
IBM has concluded that investment in education and continuous learning and hiring for diversity is where it can have most impact. Securing a deep pool of skills for an uncertain future benefits both IBM and the broader economy and community, especially IBM’s technology pathway programs for disadvantaged areas and ‘returnships’ for women, adoptive parents and others to remain in or return to the workforce.
- Another case is BHP. With its origins in Australia over a century ago, BHP is the world’s largest mining company and the largest company on the ASX. BHP has been a prominent voice for bolder action on climate change and emissions reduction, including a price on carbon.
BHP’s incoming CEO, Mike Henry, is widely regarded as a safe pair of hands, particularly for his operational and commercial acumen. He has also been at the heart of BHP’s mobilisation program on climate change and advancing social, environmental and sustainability goals for itself and for its coal and iron ore customers. For BHP, after a period of consolidation and cleaning up its asset base, its push now for greater productivity and unlocking more value from the company is matched by persistent action on its environmental and social concerns.
These social and environmental initiatives are integral to and integrated with BHP’s business strategy. BHP’s approach carries weight beyond the company. Because it is so big, BHP’s actions affect the Australian economy, together with its thousands of direct shareholders and the many more individuals with an interest in BHP through their superannuation funds.
- Then there is Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of the successful Australian tech start-up, Atlassian. He is using his wealth and prominence to lead and promote business efforts to capture new opportunities and solve “wicked problems” that affect both business and the community. An outspoken critic of government inaction, Cannon-Brookes, like many of his generation, sees no contradiction between doing good business and doing business ‘for good’.
In a latest initiative, Mike Cannon-Brookes has partnered with the Federal Government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation to back a new $30 million venture capital fund for start-ups in the agri-food sector, seeking to boost farm and agricultural supply chain efficiency and reduce waste.
These examples illustrate how efforts at shared economic and social value are playing out in business today. There is no single recipe, but it is a starting point for business enterprises to define for themselves what is needed to be a company with purpose providing jobs with meaning.
Jim Collins, ‘Concepts’, see https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts:html
Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor, ‘Creating a Purpose-Driven Organisation’, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2018.
Dan Cable, ‘Helping Your Team Feel the Purpose in Their Work’, see https://hbr.org/2019/10/ , October 22nd 2019.
Aimee Chanthadavong, ‘IBM Boss Ginni Rometty urges businesses to widen the hiring pool to fill skills gap’, ZD Net, 12th November 2019.
Nick Toscano, ‘BHP new chief’s countdown to challenges’, Sydney Morning Herald, November 16th-17th 2019.
John McDuling, ‘Billionaire and green bank commit $16m to venture’, Sydney Morning Herald, November 18th 2019