With great purpose comes great responsibility

Do not expect the whole truth. Entrepreneurs bluff all the time. Andrew Hill is on typically excellent form in his recent piece on whether start-ups deserve leeway for stretching the facts to succeed and realise their visions.

Reading the article, a single line from one of the entrepreneurs quoted jumped out at me: “I think there’s a big distinction between actually lying versus communicating your vision about how the world is going to be a better place if you succeed.”

The ethics of lying to get ahead aside, it was the language used that struck a chord: “your vision about how the world is going to be a better place if you succeed.”

The world will be a better place if your company does well.

I appreciate it’s likely a throwaway comment but that’s also my point. It’s this kind of language that’s bandied around so much today. And language matters – phrases like this have contributed to a growing expectation that a business’s ambition should be about more than its own success, that companies today should have the aspiration to change society, to make the world ‘a better place’.

Born out of this, we’ve seen ‘purpose’ become the buzzword of the moment; toxic marketing fluff to some, a positive step-change in organisations wanting to do good for others. Those like Mark Ritson have weighed in on this far more eloquently than I ever could.

What is hard to deny is that, in recent years, we’ve seen a very public examination over whether good for business can in fact be good for society. Of course there’s Facebook and, whatever your view on the company and its original ambition, it has become the poster child of an organisation exposed to the expectations, scrutiny and perceived responsibility to impact society in a profound way. Its purpose has come under interrogation as the company has grown.

Tech innovators in particular have been thrust under the ‘purpose’ spotlight, with passionately argued articles like this calling out them out  as “societal leaders.” It acknowledges the different type of power and influence these business people now have; how, in a world where “software run(s) almost every part of our lives…Silicon Valley chief executives are no longer merely start-up founders, product creators, and business executives…they’re oligarchs shaping the very nature of our identities, communications, and relationships.” There’s the need to acknowledge this shift and embrace it in the right way. Hill’s article hints at a similar imperative to realign responsibilities with evolving roles; classing Facebook and Uber as “overgrown start-ups” dominating our world. These companies have been able to grow at such a pace that their sense of purpose has become blurred.

So, with great purpose comes great responsibility…if you’re Facebook, if you’re creating a community, you need to take an active role in leading and policing that community. If you’re a disruptive start-up, leveraging the latest tech to transform the ‘accepted way’ of how an industry works, you need to think about the implications of your new model succeeding. But if you’re any business, you have a responsibility to continually monitor, evaluate and realign your purpose in line with your growth and development. Think of it as a maturity pill – something organisations need to swallow so their responsibility doesn’t suffer as they grow, develop and diversify.

How can organisations make this a reality? Many already are. But for those looking for help, my colleague Claire has offered some advice on how to position, engage, articulate and measure around purpose as it evolves.

In addition to this, there could be the need for a ‘discovery’ element, to ensure your organisation’s purpose isn’t just marketing fluff or a goal to be hit. Not worthy for the sake of worthy. Taking a step back, to (re)discover and define your purpose based on where you are today, will help deliver something naturally aligned to your business values and deep-rooted within the organisation.

We see your purpose as your business’s core reason for being; the foundation for driving business strategy, engaging employees and doing good business. If it’s this intrinsic, then it’ll be that much easier to develop and grow along with your successes.

Written by Dan Bond, Corporate & Business Associate Director

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