• Keith Wells

"You want me to vote for what?"

Or, as somebody recently wrote: "When the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen".

Of all the noise around 'purpose', I suspect the loudest is the sound of bandwagon wheels rolling. It's becoming not just a thing for business to embrace, but The Thing. Simon says it is, for Heaven's sake. But look at that famous 'golden circle' and spot what's missing: in amongst the 'why, how and what', there's no sign of a 'who'. Neither the 'who' benefits, nor the 'who' delivering (in some, ideal cases, of course they should be the same people).

I'd like to fix our beady eye on that second group. And then ask the 'why, how and what' questions of (and for) them. Why would anyone commit to doing anything, unless they understand its potential benefit to them? How are they meant to deliver this promise, and how exactly is it going to make them feel or be better? What are they being asked to do (usually differently) and what is going to change to enable them to do it?

Take a look at recent news in the Professional Services sector, and you'll see what I'm on about. Various firms have espoused the idea of 'purpose', to varying degrees of public expression. And that could, or should, be a Very Good Thing. But there are some inherent problems, some of which have become very visible.

Is 'purpose' something that can thrive in a Partnership model? Particularly one that still sits on age-old structures and is fuelled by remuneration systems that reward individual (short term) success? Does the 'purpose' link easily and credibly with the firm's business activities, and therefore with what its people do every day? Is it satisfying everybody's core motivations and needs?

Some recent results show the obvious conflict: if earnings fall, how long before the "let's get back to basics here" calls are heard? If Partners, especially, suspect that the firm's attention has been deflected into areas less relevant and related to its conspicuous business success, their support for further exploration will disappear. So might the entire purpose programme, and anyone associated with it.

We believe strongly in the potential of a purpose to create a sustainable, differentiating business in which people can also believe and feel pride. But a purpose is not the current version of a positioning statement or tagline.

Unless businesses are prepared to re-engineer themselves and define, organise, measure and reward entirely according to the standards of their stated purpose, they're kidding themselves (but possibly nobody else).

For some, it's already December, and they don't know what's going to be on their plate.


The Charisma Index 2019