I attended my regional CIPD AGM last night and I was privileged to hear Shakil Butt speak on the subject of purpose. It was a broadly ranging presentation in which Shakil drew on his own experience to encourage us to seek purpose within our professional lives and gave us some suggestions towards helping others to do the same.
In the questions that followed, I challenged Shakil - who spent most of his HR career in the third sector - on how one can find meaningful purpose in an organization whose true purpose was to make money and I took it up with him again, afterwards. And, great as his experience and perspective was, I don't feel that it was a question he had been forced to confront, professionally, before.
But for those of us working in the FMCG world, away from social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we have to confront the reality that our companies' true purpose, however else they might colour it, is the pursuit of profit. Within the law and within the ethical and moral parameters the company has placed upon itself, the compass of capitalism points due money. How, then, can we provide Purpose to our employees, ourselves and, indeed, our company?
It bears thought, first, to ask ourselves why purpose is important: not just to profit-making enterprises, but to any organization. The value of a corporate purpose is that it's something people can rally around, get excited about and act as a guiding light such that, when in doubt, they can follow the purpose. Which sounds lovely, but what we really mean by this, in any sector, is that we want something that will make our employees turn up in the morning, work hard, do their best and not try to screw us over. Whatever noble trappings you place upon it, purpose is a tool for productivity. Without a purpose, we are hamsters in a wheel, running like mad and going exactly nowhere. But and enterprise with a purpose has a dual advantage, beause not only do you get the effect of this motivating binding principle; you also are actually doing the thing that moves you towards your purpose.
I recently visited a neighbouring business and was very impressed with the many certificates on the wall of the Reception area (no doubt, the whole point of them being there), but among them I spotted a mission statement. And I was struck by several things about it. It was quite wordy. It was rather vague. But, most striking of all, it made no reference to making money.
There seems to be an idea that a profit-making business can't say outright that its point is to make money. I saw this idea in Shakil's presentation and his answers to my questions. I encountered the same resistance, not long ago, when I spoke to my Board about setting out our own business plan. "We can't" they complained to my suggestion, "just come out and have 'making profit' as our purpose!"
Yes, I argued, we can. If we do it right.
If a profit-making organization pretends its purpose isn't to make money, it is lying to itself, its employees and its customers. And the lie is obvious to anyone with half a brain.
But, at the same time, if a profit-making organization pretends that it has no other values or objectives other than making money, it is also - more often than not - lying to itself. Any organization that chooses to operate publicly and within the confines of the law by definition, isn't prepared to do anything for money. Because otherwise it would be a criminal organization. It pre-assumes that there are legal limits on its actions. And most organizations, consciously or unconsciously, have values more restrictive than mere law that they operate within. It helps to articulate these, of course.
What that means is that there is good profit and bad profit. How you define that will vary from company to company, but here's the thing: your employees want their company to make good profit. Your employees like to see their company do well. They like to know they belong to something growing and successful and profitable, even if the actual outputs of the company do little to increase the overall wellbeing of humanity at large. Good income comes from selling products and/or services that people want, at a price that's fair. Good expenditure comes from paying competitive salaries and giving good benefits to dedicated workers who feel valued and recognized for their contributions. If your good income is greater than your good expenditure, then you're making good profits.
Capitalism isn't inherently bad. It is bad when the regulatory framework and actions of its participants lead it to exploit its resources: when it sells bad products at inflated prices and underpays its under-appreciated and unrecognized workers. Those are bad profits. It is bad when it allows itself to damage the environment, manipulate politics and do harm to others.
The vast majority of humans - the ones who aren't psychopaths, and even some of those - don't want to see companies go bust or people lose their jobs or communities fall apart. Profit is the cohesive element that pulls these things together, and good profit is the strongest glue.
So if you're working in a profit-making organization, dedicated to making profit, don't feel that your employment lacks purpose. Profit - good profit - is a noble purpose, regardless of whether you're actively engaged in work to make the world better or not.