In an Uncertain World, Trust Your Purpose

If you're feeling uncertain, you're not alone -- the global business environment has become incredibly complicated and hard to read, and the world is changing at an unprecedented pace.
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If you're feeling uncertain, you're not alone -- the global business environment has become incredibly complicated and hard to read, and the world is changing at an unprecedented pace. The only certainty right now is uncertainty. That's what more than 1,000 business leaders around the world told PwC in my firm's 19th Annual CEO Global Survey (released this month at the World Economic Forum in Davos). Only 27 percent of CEOs surveyed say they believe global business growth will improve over the next 12 months, and nearly as many believe it will worsen. CEOs are grappling with greater complexity, geopolitical insecurity, and new stakeholder expectations. These are indeed challenging times.

Many of the report's findings were foreseeable; business leaders are naturally worried about cybersecurity, changing regulatory requirements, and major demographic shifts. But one statistic took me by surprise: 55 percent of global CEOs and 63 percent of CEOs in the U.S. say they are concerned about the lack of trust in business, as opposed to 37 percent just three years ago. Distrust is clearly bad for business. To attract new customers, clients and retain current relationships, we must drive business performance. And to drive business performance, we must inspire trust. What doesn't surprise me is that many business leaders seem to understand that trust and purpose go hand in hand, and believe that there are fundamental connections between purpose, trust, profitability, and prosperity.

Companies define purpose in different ways. According to our study, nearly 70 percent of CEOs say that having a sense of corporate purpose can provide a roadmap for today's new, fast-moving landscape. For many CEOs (mine included), purpose is why their business exists. For stakeholders, the "why" becomes "what," specifically the benefits to their customers, employees, and communities. And what stakeholders expect, CEOs tell us, is changing. Topping the list: views about the societal impact of business. To remain profitable, companies must provide wider stakeholder value, from the impact on local communities created by improvements in supply chains, to operations that promote sustainability of natural resources, to innovative strategies for talent recruitment in local markets. Business profits and societal prosperity are inseparable: purpose is what aligns and unites them.

At PwC we think of purpose as the North Star, the guiding light for everything we do -- a common destination we journey toward together. It means embracing a shared understanding that there is humanity and a deeper potential in our work beyond profit. It means striving to gain a broader and deeper understanding of our stakeholders' needs, and defining (and, ultimately, measuring) business success in new ways that take purpose into account. We don't have all the answers, but we know that grappling with global economic uncertainty must be a collaborative effort.

Trust is about replacing uncertainty with a sense of security and confidence. Companies must know what they stand for and then stand behind their words. The business environment will continue to be disruptive and fluid. Bringing corporate purpose to life on the job every day and with all of our stakeholders helps create focus, coherence, and stability. Commitment to, and clear communication around corporate purpose, will not erase uncertainty. But CEOs around the world agree: having a sense of purpose that embraces the broader impact on society can provide a roadmap for the future in our new and fast-moving landscape.

Here are two other statistics from the report that impressed me: more than 80 percent of CEOs in the U.S. say that they prioritize long-term over short-term profitability, and 62 percent of U.S. CEOs say their purpose is centered on creating value for wider stakeholders, rather than on creating value for shareholders only. Business leaders around the globe are willing to accept uncertainty to provide greater stakeholder value for the future. So we need purpose, the North Star that guides us forward together, now more than ever. I am confident that if we trust and live our purpose, our purpose can inspire trust.

For the second conversation in our Purpose@Work series -- a discussion designed to explore how we can infuse a deep sense of purpose into our work -- we're going to focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the theme of this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.

How are you using technology to elevate purpose in your organization, community, or project? Let us know at PurposePlusProfit@huffingtonpost.com or by tweeting with #PurposeAtWork.