Making Purpose Personal

When you work for a power company you quickly come to grips with the fact that you make and sell the most boring commoditized product imaginable: your customers can't see your product, taste it or smell it and if they have the misfortune of touching it, they die. So you compensate by taking pride and comfort in the fact that you are providing the very foundation to modern society - all human services, all wealth creation, much of what enriches the human existence - is made possible by the ready availability of safe and affordable electricity.

And that, actually, is pretty heady stuff and a compelling source of quiet pride for power company employees.

Then one day you wake up and realize that, while you are doing this great thing to enable today's modern society, you are degrading civilization's future potential. Slowly but inexorably, as an unintentional byproduct of your company's activities, you and your company are playing an outsized role in cooking the planet. You try to look away from the existential risk; you try to ignore the moral implications. You repeatedly run through all the good things your company is doing in an attempt to rationalize...but in the still of the night as you tuck in your children, the dire ecological future you are bequeathing to them, rattles around in the back of your mind. 

That's when you get Purpose.

The first step to being a purpose-driven company is ensuring that your purpose is both easy to understand and important. "Saving the planet", obviously, is both. In many ways, it is the ultimate Purpose. It is objectively more important than "helping American kids be less obese" which might be a worthy purpose animating a healthy junk food purveyor. And it is just as easy to understand, but intuitively more actionable for a private sector company, than "creating world peace".

Armed with a transcendent (in our case) Purpose, you turn to getting everyone in the company on board.

If you are doing a clean energy start up, it is relatively easy. Your company undoubtedly attracted a preponderance of true believers as employees through self selection. But what if you are trying to convert a fossil fuel burning company from brown to green? That requires a focus on first principles leavened with some right to left thinking. If you are a company that takes its core values seriously, you begin by linking the Purpose to one or more of those values and by devising a Solution, ambitious but attainable, that fulfills your Purpose.

As an American electricity company, the Solution was easy to articulate and even easier to understand: the wholesale embrace by our company of decarbonized energy. If we pushed aggressively into clean energy, we reasoned, we not only eventually would stop being the biggest part of the Climate Problem, we would have the opportunity to be an even bigger part of the Climate Solution (as decarbonized electricity displaced other forms of energy - like gasoline in cars). Having a compelling Solution, gives hope and optimism to your Purpose. Employees need that.

With a worthy Purpose and an attractive potential Solution, you focus your efforts on actually achieving broad acceptance internally. It's important because a purpose-driven company is worse than a company with no higher purpose if its employees don't believe and tilt in the opposite direction, deriding the Solution and dismissing the Purpose. Cynicism will result and suggestions of hypocrisy will be leveled which, in turn, will breed disillusionment in the hearts of the Company's thought leaders and fast followers.

Its tough in a big company to achieve total consensus as to Purpose under the best of circumstances. When pursuing that Purpose means embracing dramatic change to business-as-usual, the difficulty is multiplied many times over. A smattering of nonbelievers is not a problem as long as they are isolated; pockets of resistance are the problem.

To combat this, everyone in the enterprise needs to be fully engaged in achieving the Purpose. "The Innovators Dilemma" impulse to vest primary responsibility for achieving the Purpose in a smaller elite group outside of the corporate body politic won't work.

For us, at NRG, bringing everyone on board meant bringing our core coal-fired operations into our decarbonizing effort. We pursued the largest post-combustion carbon capture project in the world attached to one of our coal-fired plants; we transferred shift workers from a retiring coal plant in New York to a newly opened solar thermal project in California; we redeployed our utility scale thermal expertise into commercial scale cogeneration. Everyone had a role to play in pursuing our Purpose; every expertise we possessed was needed to work the problem. And it worked, some stakeholder groups may have wanted to split the company green from brown, but the employees never did.

And that may be because, at the end of the day, we made it personal. We weren't just going to "save the planet"; we were "saving the planet for the sake of our children and grandchildren". Those kids we tuck in every night; they sealed the deal.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Sustainable Brands on the power of purpose in driving business success. The Huffington Post is a media partner for SB'16 San Diego, Sustainable Brands' flagship conference in San Diego June 6th-9th.