Lessons from Spirituality, Nature and Business on the Meaning of Purpose and How to Activate It

The purpose of business is changing. While historically, business students have been taught that the purpose of business solely is to increase investors’ profits — known as the Friedman Doctrine — the most successful brands are searching for a deeper meaning. Defining and activating purpose in business was the key theme of Tuesday evening’s plenaries at Sustainable Brands 2016.

While Millennials often receive credit for compelling companies to embrace higher ideals, this actually is something all generations of demanded, said Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose Officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). However, because Millennials are such a large demographic and constantly communicate via technology, their voices are being heard.

A survey conducted by PwC found that most CEOs define purpose as being about growth and innovation. But employees said it’s simply about having a north star that will create meaning in their job. Companies interested in finding a higher purpose ought to start by asking their employees what they think about it.

“If we truly believe in the value of purpose, we have to activate it,” said Schuyler.

Whether it’s activating purpose internally with employees or externally with customers, engaging Millennials will be important to success.

“Young people care about everything, but because of that you can’t use cause as your differentiator,” said Aria Finger, CEO at DoSomething.org.

Studies show that Millennials care about fairness, transparency and honesty, but they also are likely to get behind any traditionally “worthy” cause, Finger said. It’s more about how you engage to activate purpose.

“Start with mobile because that’s where Millennials are,” Finger said.

Infusing Sustainability With Spirituality

“Everything begins with a moment of deep conversion,” said Dr. John Izzo, bestselling author of the book, Awakening Corporate Soul.

To activate purpose in leadership, executives should think about writing legacy statements rather than purpose statements, Izzo said.

Activating Purpose in Employees

“I don’t care if you’re 8 or 80, there’s no better feeling than feeling connected to something bigger,” said Kevin Cleary, CEO of Clif Bar. “Activating purpose is all about harnessing the energy of the people inside your company.”

Employees don’t really care about corporate profits — what they care about is the quality of their life and doing meaningful things at work.

Americans spend an average of 75 percent of their time working, but 70 percent hate what they do.

“We are working harder and caring less… that just doesn’t add up,” Cleary said.

Giving employees the chance to live their whole lives through the company can serve the dual purpose of increasing employee morale and productivity that benefit the business. This goes beyond just thinking about work-life balance and creating “whole” people.

“We owe ourselves the opportunity that every time we go to work, it’s a chance to hit a homerun,” Cleary said.

Sustainability Gets Lost in Translation

While most investors are asking (90 percent) about sustainability, just over half of companies are listening. That’s because investors and companies are using different languages to talk about the same thing.

“Businesses tend to communicate sustainability in PowerPoint, in big trends. But investors want data they can put into models,” said Gregory Unruh, sustainability editor at MIT Sloan Management Review.

Investors care about sustainability because they appreciate efficiency, risk and growth. They recognize that if you can produce a product that meets customer demands and has a social component, there is a growth opportunity. But they tend to think in terms of data, while companies focus on words. Learning how to translate between the two will allow both to activate purpose and sustainability in their organizations.

Activating Purpose From Nature

“A sustainable world already exists, and we need to access that wisdom,” Janine Benyus, founder of Biomimicry 3.8, said in one of the most inspiring talks of the week. “It’s not about harvesting organisms, it’s valuing what we can learn from them.”

While humans only have been around for a short while, nature has existed for billions of years. Life on earth has evolved and adapted to solve an endless array of challenges. Biomimicry is the concept of tapping into the natural knowledge to solve design problems.

This concept also can be applied to designs of leadership. Looking at herds, for example, we can learn that many leaders may help guide the group. Meanwhile, we might look at nature to reverse (not mitigate, she stressed) climate change — using carbon dioxide as an ingredient in products and a feedstock for our soils.

After Benyus concluded, Bemporad followed the crowd's standing ovation by pointing out

Firms Embracing the Net Positive Movement

“It’s now time for business to put more back into nature and into society than it takes out,” said Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future.

Over the past couple of decades there has been a big shift from companies complying with regulations, to where they are being proactive about sustainability. With today’s endless list of social and environmental challenges, companies must go a step further to rebuild natural and societal assets.

A host of companies, including Target, AT&T, Dell and HP, all have committed to being net positive. To that end, Uren announced the launch of the Net Positive Project, a joint venture with BSR aimed at helping companies meet that goal and engage more to do the same. Widespread adoption of Net Positive — versus merely "do less bad" strategies — will play a big part in helping the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Impossible isn’t a fact, it’s an opinion,” Uren said. “We can turn the SDGs from bold ambition to bold action.”

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