Have you heard this question recently?
“So, tell me, why exactly are you doing this?”
There’s a variation from those who haven’t seen you since you disappeared down a rabbit-hole into startup-world:
“What? Are you still doing that? … goodness me … why?”
Having to explain yourself may feel a chore, but these are good questions. If you’ve been at the startup game for any time, you’ll know it is raised by potential investors, well-meaning friends, and frustrated spouses alike.
There are always plenty of reasons for not doing it: the hours are long, the risks are high, and the material rewards can be paltry. You may have spent a bunch of your savings and more hours than you care to count trying to bring your entrepreneurial business to where it is now. All for what?
You need to be able to answer seriously: why does your enterprise exist?
Having a succinct and articulate purpose will not only help keep doubters at bay, it will also keep you on the rocky mountain trail when things inevitably become tough.
A business purpose is desirable for your sanity and motivation, but it’s also fundamentally necessary for everyone else involved: your investors, your staff, your suppliers and – of course – your prospects and customers.
You need to be able to articulate a purpose that will engage all your stakeholders, from a temporary member of staff, to one of the decision-makers in a complex corporate client. You have to draw-in your product advocates and keep your investors onside. And if you have one, your better half.
And the answer you don’t want to give is: to make a profit. The 1980s fad for “maximising shareholder value” skewed a lot of business-folk into focusing primarily on profitability as the raison d’être of their enterprise. Milton Friedman famously said:
“There is one and only one responsibility of business … to increase its profits.”
But that is not going to engage anyone except your investors. And they will hold you uncomfortably tight to your promises. If you’re in this only for the money – especially your own financial benefit – you won’t bring along any of the other people who are fundamental to making your business a success.
Where can we turn for advice and inspiration to give us a purpose that will engage you and everyone else involved?
The British Buddhist society was founded by a well-known London barrister who rejoiced with mild irony in the name Christmas Humphries. In his 1968 book Concentration and Meditation, he said:
“For those alone in whom the white flame of compassion is alight past all extinguishing appreciate that to live to benefit mankind is the first step.”
Pure compassion might seem only relevant to adepts in a search for enlightenment, but neuroscience supports the idea that compassion is an important precursor to happiness and the evidence is that happiness binds people to common purpose. Which makes positivity a healthy leadership quality.
Healthcare is fundamentally about kin-ship and kin-dness to our fellow beings. Even on its own, making compassion your purpose will likely bring people along.
Recently, neuroscience has made links between purposeful motivation and alternations in brain activity, especially within established dopamine pathways, that form the basis of reward.
We are a long way from having an adequate neurological model that will join the dots at the level of business strategy, but the late Culadasa, a neuroscientist turned contemplative, summarised it well:
“Having a clear sense of purpose will fire up your motivation.”
The point here is that your motivation – your ability to bring yourself to do something in the teeth of adversity – is underpinned by purpose. Without clear purpose, motivation will wane.
Less scientifically, Simon Sinek – in his wildly popular TED talk and subsequent career as business guru – insists that enterprises should “Start with Why”:
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
This succinctly sums up the importance of purpose to customers of a business, although it’s hard to imagine that purpose excuses poor execution (your ‘what’ will also need to satisfy your customers).
Sinek’s rule of thumb also, to my mind, implies that culture is more important than strategy, which is famously reflected in the phrase ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. There are many examples where purpose and culture are closely linked.
John Lewis, a long-standing exemplar of staff engagement, says its purpose “puts the happiness of Partners at our core”. (employees are called ‘Partners’ and are capitalised). Richard Sheridan famously wrote the book Joy Inc. which laid out why his company, Menlo Innovations, has a single goal: Joy at work.
Does that help you? Perhaps not. As a struggling innovator working with not-enough-cash and not-enough-customers, Joy, Happiness and Compassion are all very well, but they don’t necessarily help practically to bind your various constituencies together.
For me, the most convincing outline of how to think about purpose is in the book published in 2020 by Alex Edmans, Professor of Finance at London Business School. Grow the Pie sets out to make a case for something more nuanced.
He understands that investors want the right returns for their risks, but also points out that employees, customers, governments, suppliers and the environment all benefit from the value created by businesses, and they suffer losses if businesses fail. For Professor Edmans, value is driven by purpose, but value may be different things to different people.
He maintains that any enterprise requires a complex balancing act involving compromises, trade-offs and collective responsibility.
A simple statement of purpose may help to gird the loins in the face of competition and setbacks, but you need to make sure it takes account of these complexities.
This is partly why pure focus on ‘shareholder value’ fails in the longer term; it puts investors ahead of all the other stakeholders in a business. Instead, the purpose must bind together all the ‘owners’ of the business – each of whom has a slice of the titular ‘pie’, the symbol of overall value created by the enterprise.
“Grow the Pie” is not for the faint-hearted. It is from a leading academic and is dense with evidence and is closely argued; small font, lots of pages. But making your way through this may be worthwhile in order to help you tease out what value you are adding in each of the parts of Edeman’s metaphorical pie.
Whichever way you articulate it, whether you use compassion, employee joyfulness, a Why, or a value-based company value-pie, you’re going to need clarity of purpose to bring people with you.
And just so you know that we practice what we preach, here at CAREFUL we say our purpose is: ‘to bring people together in a trusted digital space to achieve safer, better healthcare’. We think it’s hard to argue with the value of that.
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