The purpose-driven business

  • Business
  • Saturday, 10 Oct 2009

Organisational purpose will matter for 21st century employees.

“The new sources of sustainable competitive advantage have people at the centre – their creativity and talent, their inspirations and hopes, their dreams and excitement – companies that flourish will do so because they are able to provide meaning and purpose, a context and frame that encourages individual potential to flourish and grow.” – Lynda Gratton, London Business School

I recently conducted Succession Planning review sessions at various companies and a common theme was the loss of their younger talents.

Backfilling these vacated roles was even more challenging, causing operational and growth issues. As I poked for answers, the usual cry of money, culture and leadership issues were cited.

Diving deeper, it led to the issue of employee engagement and commitment.

At Leaderonomics, we actually have the opposite problem. We seem to be constantly attracting talent from all over the world. In fact, many offer to work for free. Which poses the question – how is it that a start-up social enterprise beats off multinationals in the war for talent?

I think the answer lies in the purpose of an organisation.

At the 2008 Leaderonomics Talent Management conference, Vishen Lakhiani of Mindvalley showcased a job quadrant that highlighted four aspects of a committed employee – money, learning, fun and purpose.

He argues that each element is critical for engagement and retention. Most of us can clearly see why paying top dollar, growing an employee and having an exciting workplace drives engagement and retention. But what is purpose all about?

If doctors were asked what the central purpose of their profession is, they would answer, “To save lives.” If scientists were asked the same question, they would respond, “To make new discoveries” or “To better the world.” Ask teachers and they would respond, “To educate the next generation.” But what happens when the same question is asked of business people? Peter Drucker said, “The purpose of business is to create a customer.”

A prominent CEO told me it’s the pursuit of profit. And others will say it’s about maximising shareholder value.

Unlike other professions, business leaders simply do not have an overarching social purpose of why they do what they do.

Why do you think many employees are no longer satisfied with business as it is today?

The obvious answer – the singular pursuit of profit. There is a saying that “you need health to live, but you don’t live to be healthy”.

Profits, like health, are necessary to ensure your business is sustained but it must have an encompassing social purpose.

Businesses today are fixated with the endless pursuit of money, power, profit, results, and possessions.

This causes stress and burnout as most people are looking to achieve something that is in alignment with their hearts, passion and purpose. Many decide to leave but others stay on and grudgingly comply with their work but are never truly committed.

Whether your company has 25 employees or 100,000, commitment matters.

Committed employees have higher performance and will give up life and limb to ensure your company’s success. So, how do you build such commitment?

Simple – Have a nobler purpose that is larger than life and consuming.

I was amazed at the highly committed employees at Johnson & Johnson (J&J) all around the world. J&J, the World’s Most Respected Company, has a purpose statement prioritising employee’s responsibilities.

The Credo challenges employees to put the needs and well-being of the people they serve first. The lowest priority in the credo is shareholder value. Fathers, mothers, doctors and patients come before shareholders and profit although profit is important.

A credo or corporate vision is meaningless unless the words are taken off the wall and put into action.

In 1982, McNeil Consumer, a subsidiary of J&J, was confronted with a crisis when seven people on Chicago’s West Side died mysteriously caused by an Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule laced with cyanide.

J&J concluded these deaths were due to external tampering of Tylenol and not a manufacturing defect. Instead of trying to protect their profitability, they decided to recall all 31 million bottles of Tylenol at their costs demonstrating the safety of people came first. This costly decision was made based on their Credo, which instructed them to place the community’s interest ahead of its shareholders. Tylenol later went on to reclaim its spot back as No. 1.

J&J employees periodically go through tough times but always find renewed energy that spurs them on because they know that their work is purposeful and helps make the world a better place.

Great organisational vision enables you to build long-term employee commitment.

Your company stops becoming only a means to earn a salary but a means to fulfil their legacy. Recently Leaderonomics was nominated for the AYA Youth Awards and while congratulating our youth leader, I asked what makes her so passionate about the work we do. Being a start-up, some of the work is hard and torturous. Yet, her response amazed me – “we are going to transform the nation via Leaderonomics. I want to be part of this and am going to work tirelessly till we achieve our vision.”

Threats, punishment or monetary incentives may not be necessary to get work done once an employee is committed to the cause (although it may help!).

Engaged employees stay for what they give while disengaged employees stay for what they get from you.

Years ago, Unilever embarked on its “Journey to Greatness” programme taking its leaders to various community homes including Mother Theresa’s Missionary of Charity ashram in India.

Unilever leaders had to volunteer at these community centres while making observations on the centres. Then, they were flown to a remote area to debrief their findings.

Amazingly, they found these centres well supported with long lines of people, including professionals, giving up their careers to commit themselves to these centres. They uncovered a secret – the purpose and mission of these organisations inspired commitment.

Unilever then challenged these leaders to build similar purpose and mission into their brands and products.

Knorr, its cooking aid brand, was given a purpose and a mission to empower housewives by the quality of their food. Each brand was given an exciting purpose.

Unilever’s overall purpose is to meet everyday needs for nutrition, hygiene, and personal care with brands that help people feel good, look good and adds vitality to life.

Every Unilever employee works not just for profit but to make a difference in nutrition, hygiene and care.

Our lives become very powerful operating from a sense of purpose.

People are attracted to social entrepreneurs like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus for many of the same reasons that they find certain businesses like Google so compelling – these extraordinary people share brilliant visions and against all the odds succeed at creating products and services that dramatically improve people’s lives.

The moment this “social” part of the equation ceases to exists, employees lose their commitment to the cause. While there are still 840 million people malnourished and 2.6 billion people have no access to basic sanitation, the world’s 200 richest people more than doubled their net worth in the four years to 1998. If your company is helping to make the rich richer or the poor poorer, most Gen-X, Gen-Y and the Millenniumites do not want to be associated with your company.

What structures do you need to create in your workplace so that work has special meaning and connection? Offering a purpose driven workplace does not mean compromising profit and results.

Successful companies of the future will ensure its mission and purpose relate to our human concerns and considerations and will always capture the commitment of the best talent in the planet thereby ensuring its success. And it’s not a choice between profit or purpose – it’s both. It’s going to be a brave new “purpose-driven” business world.

Roshan Thiran is currently CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise passionate about transforming the nation starting with our youths. Attend a free parent-youth workshop tomorrow at Menara Star Auditorium from 2pm to 5pm and learn about how to inspire your kids to be great while your kid gets inspired across the hall. Go to or for details.

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