Will purpose trump profit in the new normal?

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Kiddy & Partners

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In a recent workshop for one of our insurance clients, we asked the participants to tell us which intrinsic motivator – autonomy, mastery or purpose – was missing most from their day-to-day. An overwhelming majority responded with ‘purpose’.

This means that although they feel they have control (autonomy) over the work they’re doing, and they’re confident in the skills (mastery) they possess, they want to feel that their profession has meaning and that their organisation has a mission.

COVID-19 has certainly changed the way we work but it has also changed the way we feel about the work that we do.

Purpose is being accelerated 

Through our recent research on the ‘Future of Leadership’ we have conducted interviews, a survey and a roundtable, bringing in perspectives from HR and talent professionals as well as current leaders. One key theme that has consistently arisen across industries and geographies is the purpose imperative. The challenge for leaders is to create the conditions for profit and purpose to exist in harmony so that companies can continue being prosperous while also operating in an altruistic way for greater good. 

We’ve heard from people in the banking, fashion, oil and gas, defence and packaging industries and while each said that purpose was certainly on the radar in their organisations pre-COVID, the overall feeling was that the pandemic had certainly accelerated its importance and elevated its priority. 

Internal versus external purpose

An interesting theme to come out of the roundtable discussions was the difference between an organisation’s internal purpose versus its external purpose. 

We often hear certain sectors report that they are focused on aligning their internal and external purpose narratives, where one is perhaps clearer to employees and less straightforward externally. For example in the defence sector, where there is a clear and deeply held internal purpose around defending the nation and protecting the end user out in the field, but roles in controversial conflicts have muddied the waters in terms of how this purpose translates in the external market. Similarly, in financial services, negative public perceptions of financial institutions following the GFC have made it harder to connect employees to a purpose that drives broader social goods. Many banks are recognising that they’re only as strong as the communities in which they operate and are now refocusing their purpose narrative and relationships with customers to be more supportive and reciprocal.

Likewise, those in the oil and gas sectors, once driven by energy prices, have had to take a step back and create a purpose that is more holistic because their stakeholders, consumers and the planet demand change. 

For others, like some government institutions, their external purpose has always been clear. Their internal purpose, or their workplace culture has been forced to change due to COVID. The ‘Old Guard’, for whom working from home was a completely foreign concept have had to change their views almost overnight and readjust not only how they work but how they manage and lead and measure the work being done by their reports and this has affected relationships. 

Living the purpose

No longer can organisations and leaders that espouse a certain purpose fail to act on it. Leaders saying one thing and then doing the opposite, as one roundtable attendee said “won’t fly anymore” internally, but especially externally. We’ve seen this recently with KPMG’s UK chair, Bill Michael resigning following backlash over his comments about COVID working conditions and unconscious bias.  This was also the case for Yoshiro Mori, the now ex-President of the Tokyo Olympic organising committee whose sexist comments were derided by many as running “counter to the spirit of Olympics that denounces discrimination and calls for friendship, solidarity and fairness”. 

Indeed, COVID-19 has impacted our ways of working and has reignited the drive for meaning and for purpose, the questions is: do your leaders have the ability to create both purpose and profit?

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