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We Need to Redefine Purpose

It sounds easy. The dictionary defines something "purposeful" simply as "full of meaning." Yet, expressing an organization's purpose, as popular as that seems to be today, is in reality not that simple. There are so many things we see as having meaning that maybe we can't define the most important one. Or maybe because we have never tried to define it in the hopes that it would just come to us suddenly.

Is purpose about corporate responsibility? Well....yes and no. We want our planet and communities to endure and thrive, but that cannot happen if the economic ecosystem is not thriving.

Is purpose about doing good in the world? Well...yes and no. We may not all share the same definition of what it means to do good, but most of us want to feel that our work makes a difference.

Is purpose about uniformity and consistency? Well...yes and no. We're most effective as organizations when our values, goals, and strategies align. But, diverse perspectives have proven to help us innovate, excel, and become more creative.

One thing we can be sure about: purpose can be powerful, palatable, and even tangible if we understand its true meaning on a multitude of levels - individual, collective, systemic - and how to activate it in a unified manner.

I attended my first Aspen Ideas Festival two weeks ago. The country's most powerful thinkers descended upon picturesque mountains for nearly a week of deep conversations around our country's seemingly insurmountable problems--racial inequality, the decline of the American Dream, and our failing education system--and how to apply our personal and professional resources to solve them. Yet, while the chasms only seem to get more pronounced, the undercurrent of the conversation remained optimistic--believing that we could resolve these issues if we shifted the pieces in this massive puzzle. After four days on the mountain, I came away with the following ideas around the meaning of purpose:

  • Purpose is about building trust -According to PwC's 17th Annual CEO Survey, 69 percent of CEOs globally say that the purpose of a business is to balance the interests of all stakeholders and 75 percent believe that business must satisfy wider societal needs. So what we do for our clients, customers and communities must incorporate more than profits--it must include purpose. And purpose is built upon trust. Unlike reputation, which is based on an aggregate of past experiences with a company or brand, trust is a forward facing metric of stakeholder expectation. It needs to be managed like any other asset and be seen as a building block of a long-term relationship.

  • Purpose is a pivotal point - Purpose is where and how individuals unite and embrace their personal goals and ideals in concert with corporate values and objectives across an organization. Purpose is about the power of collaboration, the pride--and prosperity--that result from making a mark together. Purpose is not a mission, vision or values, but rather a sense of existence - when you begin to discuss something so esoteric in a world focused on data driven results, the conversation comes to a screeching halt. Purpose is the trigger that restarts the engine.
  • Purpose drives smart decisions - Purpose is not about stamina, but about judgment--the ability to act quickly and definitively based on diverse perspectives. We frequently cite the "hard issues" as being part of a marathon to address and solve - it will take years, stages, training, and sacrifice. But I say let's not get hung up on the process. Let's start, iterate, and improve along the way.
  • Ambiguity is an inevitable part of global business, especially in light of rapidly changing trends and technologies and shifting demographics. For example, the 49 least developed countries will double in population over the next 25 years. The global marketplace will continue to evolve and to require business solutions we cannot always predict or even imagine. Business is increasingly expected to engage with such issues, and those that come up with innovative solutions to serious social issues will earn more trust - and more revenues.

    That brings us back to the meaning of "full of meaning." At PwC our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems. For me, that means asking myself and my firm every day if my plans and actions reflect these intentions. It means deepening connections with colleagues and finding opportunities to extend our collective efforts. And it means not underestimating--or over complicating--the power of purpose.

    For example, today (July 13), our US Chairman and Senior Partner Bob Moritz will sit down one-on-one with Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, to have a candid conversation about race. The goal isn't to figure it all out, but to start the dialogue around what the future could look like if we challenged conventional thinking, broadened our perspectives and asked the tough questions.

    To us, and many companies and organizations today, this is exactly the type of candid dialogue we need to have to better understand how to solve some of society's inextricable problems. We may not have all the answers, but that should not stop us from asking the tough questions.

    I welcome you to view the conversation here and share your thoughts with me. What does your organizational purpose look like? How do you embed it into your day-to-day work? How do we redefine the meaning of purpose for the business community?