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What’s the Point of Purpose?

It might surprise you to see this title from me, someone who dedicated her life to understanding the depths of what Purpose really means for both individuals and organizations and the intersection of both, more than two decades now. When nobody talked about it; at least not in business and work context.

I will explain why I am alarmed and you should be too.

I live and breath Purpose; speak about it, write about it. I am dedicated to increasing awareness around it. BizCatalyst 360° recently published my article below:

Why Should CEOs, Leaders & Founders Care About “Purpose”?

It was originally published in January 2017 at Huffington Post. I wrote about how crucial for CEOs to understand Purpose. Why it is needed. Obviously I believe in it.

Some of you who know me or follow me would remember I was happy to see CEOs at Roundtable, all 181 of them, signing a document on August 19, 2019, that got published in major newspapers showing their pledge to have a purpose and care about all stakeholders not only shareholders. When I shared it as a step in the right direction on social media, it was met with a lot of skepticism by my wise circle of friends. Nobody believed them. For very good reasons of course.

I needed to be hopeful. I wanted to believe so badly. We decided we will keep them accountable and watch them closely if they abide by it. The words Purpose and Stakeholder Capitalism/Economy were used even more after that.

Part of the timeline that looks good on paper:

Sometimes I add a section in front of this timeline with my story:

  • Dec 1998 I left IBM because my job was not aligned with my purpose
  • 1999-2003 Seeking my Purpose journey
  • Mar 2003 Started YourBestLife to help others find their purpose
  • 2008-09 Researched companies who do good in the world and make good money
  • 2010 Found amazing companies: Purpose beyond Profit+Leader with EQ
  • 2010 Started Purposeful Business

In the last few years, almost every day, I started having knots in my stomach, seeing Purpose used for all the wrong reasons. I know how it gets implemented, I know organizations and more importantly lives transform in front of my eyes, I know which companies really embrace it well and are considered truly purposeful. So I know it was not a nice word to throw out there anytime you want to look cool and trendy. It works for people and for all stakeholders if done right and taken seriously.

Every time a friend tagged me for a company that looked purposeful and like they did something good for stakeholders vs shareholders, I made sure it is real and not a loose use of the word they used for slogans and branding only.

I started being extremely careful about which organizations to highlight and mention in my speeches and articles. I do not want them to fool the general public and the consumers. We all know they cannot fool their own people.

Purpose became even more vital with Coronavirus. Organizations need to be 100 times more attentive to their people. Purpose can be the only grounding element of your organization when everything is remote and uncertainty rules in our lives. As Garry Ridge, CEO of a very purpose-driven company WD40, explained to us on a recent community call, the actual purposeful ones are doing well during the pandemic because they already have the culture that works and bond their people. Their teams know they are at work for a reason bigger than their paycheck. I wrote about it in my What Covid19 is Teaching us about Purpose.

Research conducted during the pandemic finds that when comparing people who say they are living their purpose at work with those say they aren’t, the former report levels of well-being that are five times higher than the latter. (See Jonathan Emmett, Gunnar Schrah, Matt Schrimper, and Alexandra Wood, “COVID-19 and the employee experience: How leaders can seize the moment,” June 2020.) So we know it works and it is vital now.

Since last year I found myself spending most of my time telling the general public what Purpose is NOT, more than what it is. It worries me every time I see it used with the wrong intentions.

You can also tell from some of the titles of my articles the trends that forced me to write:

It is all about Purpose (Why should CEOs, Leaders Care So Much Shared Above)

And now “What’s the Point”

The organizations that do not care about people but profits are the reason why the word became so much of a fad. They are ruining it for all of us. Look at some of what I have been seeing and reading recently.

Just check out the study that this NYT article referred to yesterday. It was conducted after the pandemic started to see how these Roundtable CEOs acted during these times to be purposeful. There are examples from Amazon, Wells Fargo, Salesforce, Marriott, and more. The name of the article says it all ” Stakeholder Capitalism Gets a Report Card. It’s Not Good.” Please read it yourself and make your own judgment to see if they are keeping their pledge or not.

If you don’t like NYT, but rather read WSJ, here is the article named Stakeholder” Capitalism Seems Mostly for Showfrom August 7th, 2020. This article also mentions how the Covid-19 heightened the expectations that large companies will serve the interest of all stakeholders. Of the 48 companies that responded to a question about the approval of the Board of Directors to sign the Purpose statement on August 19thof 2019 as stated above, only one said yes. The article concludes that shareholder value is still the major focus of these companies.

Apart from the Purpose part of the story, another article at WSJ on September 19-20 said “for elites, exercising social responsibility should mean more than giving away money, though it is an admirable thing. It should mean sharing your brain – serving not just giving.” The article refers to Bezos and Zuckerberg and tech elites alike. I agree. I also want to add true purposeful companies do not only donate money or give away volunteer hours either; their core business is attached to be a bigger need in the world.

This is why I say please be alarmed when you hear the word Purpose; please be careful and make sure they are real. Let’s keep these big corporations accountable especially at a time when they can really do good in the world when so many suffer. It might even be the easiest time to come up with a Purpose if they don’t have one.

We live in a world with fake promises to look good and it is important to know which one is doing it for the right reasons. I keep lists of the good ones and there are really amazing. Those are the ones we want to support. I am an incurable optimist; so don’t worry, I do believe the good will prevail.

Like Dalai Lama says:

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.

Even if they are not going to keep their promise, at least we do not want them to hurt stakeholders.

Brooke O. Erol
Brooke O. Erolhttps://www.purposeful.business/
Brooke O. Erol started her career at IBM following the traditional path she was given to be "successful". She quit her "great job" on paper after 11 years, feeling she is not aligned with it. She started her journey to find her purpose in life. She started her first business in 2003; Your Best Life to help professionals who don’t like their jobs and want to find more meaning at work. After being around so many unhappy people at work as her clients, she decided to help the organizations and leaders who employed them. She started her second business; Purposeful Business to help leaders catch up with our times and grow their businesses without sacrificing the well-being of their people; where profit becomes a by-product rather than the main goal. She believes life is too precious to live only for weekends and retirement. She is the author of Create a Life You Love. She is also the co-author of "From Hierarchy to High Performance: Unleashing the Hidden Superpowers of Ordinary People to Realize Extraordinary Results" that became an International Best Seller in 2018. She speaks and writes about Leadership, Purpose-Driven Life and Organizations, Future of Work in the US, and abroad.

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