What Gets Lost On The Path To Purpose

cheering woman hiker open arms at mountain peak cliff
cheering woman hiker open arms at mountain peak cliff

To put purpose first, you have to be prepared to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. I believe the world needs more business leaders with the stomach for that.

Right now I have a personal view of what happens when someone loses the resolve to make sacrifices: One of my close family members thousands of miles away isn't confronting a chronic health issue. This person believes change is needed, but is not making tough life decisions. Sadly, belief without the courage to act gets you nowhere.

This personal example echoes questions I'm exploring in my professional life, driving engagement and stewardship for REI (the outdoor co-op).

There is no doubt that we need to commission a wholesale remodel of how business views its role in civic society. We are lucky at REI to be a member-owned co-op. We can think differently about how to spark engagement. We have no shareholders. We can prioritize long-term Stewardship and support co-operation between groups who may not hold the same view of the world.

Just this weekend our CEO launched United Outside in Washington, D.C., encouraging decision makers to consider the role the outdoors can play as a place for people to decompress and connect across party lines amid all this political animosity. It's expressed in a lighthearted way but the subtext reflects something that needs to happen more often.

The co-operative is just one model of business. Collectively we should be working to imagine other models and anyone with the courage to tackle that challenge should be celebrated.

Purpose-led business has become such a popular concept that everyone wants a piece of it. That breakthrough is great to witness. But to make dreams of new ways of doing business actually happen, we need the discipline to balance imagining what we could create, with asking what we can (and should) stop doing. If we don't, the momentum behind purpose-led business will suffer from reputation erosion.

That is where those who believe in a reframed role for business in society (myself included), risk falling short.

We don't talk enough about sacrifices.

Last November REI took a big risk. Our business leaders and board shut down 143 stores and diverted customers from our website on Black Friday. Seventy-seven years of getting people outside gave us permission to encourage millions of Americans to #OptOutside. The co-op paid 12,000+ employees to do what they love most, so it was simpler for REI than for most businesses to pull-off. But the sacrifice was very real at an organizational level.

It was a business decision, not a campaign. REI walked away from millions of dollars of sales on that day - from the predictability of the final quarter for a $2.4bn outdoor co-op that relies on increasingly unpredictable winters in an equally volatile retail environment. Our leaders chose not to do what they had always done before, buoyed by deep belief in the co-op's values. It is a very different experience to work with people like that.

One of the things that I learned from others through #OptOutside (in particular our CEO and Chief Creative Officer) was the importance of grit. They believed in the purity of the idea, embraced the liberty that came with saying no to Black Friday and trusted others to keep us steady after we set off.

It helped that this was about much more than REI. #OptOutside had a crystal-clear purpose (life outside). And sacrifice (shutting down) was baked into its core. But sacrifice needn't be depressing. We offered a simple choice. Either brave the crush of Black Friday for a short-lived transactional rush that leaves you feeling empty, or embrace reconnecting in the outdoors for a deeper, long-lived reward.

We were blown away by the response. More than 170 organizations supported #OptOutside, hundreds of state and national parks opened for free and at least 1.4 million people took part.

Those big moments inspire us, but one of the frustrations I hear about the dialogue on purpose-led business is that too often it lacks sharp edges. Drawn by the allure of big impact, we flock to the luster of impossibly big goals. That can frustrate.

In my worst moments, I do exactly that, (sorry to patient colleagues here). But it's the best part of this work - seeing people come alive imagining the positive, collective impact we could have on society. Should we apologize for thinking big?

No. Society needs that thinking badly, but if you're lucky enough to be in a job that asks you to think ahead, I think you have the responsibility to stop and ask "how", just as often. Otherwise we will fail to have honest discussions about tough choices.

The alternative is letting ourselves believe that we can just keep "adding", while taking nothing away. We are kidding ourselves if we think that's an option (as with life). Purpose-led, sustainable business, by definition, strikes a delicate balance between good business and societal good. One cannot exist without the other.

That's not an easy conversation for many business people to embrace, but I have no doubt that organizations and society will be healthier and happier if we successfully create the conditions for our leaders to be courageous and to think beyond profit.

#OptOutside

Pathway To Purpose is a new blog series geared towards exploring why employees are putting a greater value on purpose in the workplace, and how employers are responding. How are you taking purpose to the next level in your workplace? Let us know at PurposePlusProfit@huffingtonpost.com or by tweeting with #PathwayToPurpose.