“Purpose is not an add-on. It’s not something you do on the side. Purpose has to be a core part of your business model and your long-term strategy.”
Carmine Di Siblo, EY Global Chairman and CEO

Before March 2020 it had become increasingly clear that Generation Z were driven more by purpose and impact than any other demographic. The 2019 Lovell Corporation report found that, 76% of millennials considered a company’s social and environmental commitment before deciding where to work and 93% wanted to shop brands with a ‘purpose beyond product’. These trends were having significant implications for organisations who could no longer rely on being a big brand and/or large salaries to attract top talent.

While this had been an emerging picture for millennials onwards, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the conversation about “purpose” to the fore amongst all generations. In the US, Just Capital, found that 89% of Americans agreed that the pandemic “is an opportunity for large companies to hit ‘reset’ and focus on doing the right thing by their workers, customers, communities and the environment.”

So, what does this mean for organisations and leaders trying to recruit, retain and develop top talent? And, specifically for you as an L&D professional, what does this emphasis on purpose mean for your organisation’s leadership, managers and employees? How do businesses create an environment for both corporate and personal purpose to flourish?”

In our experience, those organisations who are most successful in bringing the two together embrace the following:

“Servant” leadership

They have leaders who are more likely to adopt a “servant” leadership approach focusing on employee growth, both professional and personal, including wellbeing, rather than a traditional approach focusing on business position and financial success.

Those following this model believe that this shift of focus produces more skilled, knowledgeable and motivated employees who ultimately improve the management, operations and results for their businesses. Google is a good example, where taking good care of employees and the development of employee-friendly policies has led to well-documented increases in productivity and revenues.

Key components of good “servant” leadership include:

  • Being a good listener
  • Having empathy and trying hard to resolve issues
  • Helping people to create a healthy and peaceful working environment.
  • Committing to a main focus on people, analysing needs and meeting them?
  • Building a community – the leader should be able to walk with and among their people, so that they serve and build a community.

This approach was adopted successfully by former CEO Starbucks, Howard Schulz who asked the question “How can I ask my partners [employees] to support Starbucks, if I don’t support them?”

Exploration of Individual Purpose – for everyone

Leaders succeed in inspiring authentic commitment to purpose, only if they believe in the purpose themselves (they can’t simply pay lip service to it) and if they have a deep understanding of what they themselves believe in and stand for. Both are essential before they attempt to communicate about purpose to their teams.

This belief in the organisation’s purpose and self-awareness about one’s own purpose must be demonstrated at all levels of the organisation. Individuals therefore need to identify what is most meaningful to them and to find a link that connects the overarching company purpose to their own.

Best-selling author Dan Pink describes this as the challenge of linking Capital P purpose with small p purpose. “Capital P is purpose in the way we traditionally think about it,” he explains. “For example, I work for a pharmaceutical company because I want to save lives. The evidence shows that this is a powerful performance enhancer, but it’s very difficult to access every day.” Small p purpose is something simpler. It answers: How am I making a contribution? In the pharmaceutical company, I may serve the business by helping out a team mate, even if I’m not one of the scientists creating a break-through drug.

As both leaders and employees explore their small p purpose, they need a safe environment to ask:

  • What am I passionate about and what do I care about?
  • What am I skilled at?
  • How do I serve the business in what I am doing every day?
  • How does that fit with my deeper enduring sense of purpose?

Providing tools and structure

We have found that organisations who succeed at being truly purpose-driven, proactively support employees in defining their purpose and establishing its link to the organisation’s purpose. One example is the global professional services firm, EY, which offers employees a series of purpose learning experiences including:

  • eLearning modules
  • Quarterly discussions within established “counselling” groups
  • A dedicated programme focusing on discovering personal purpose and creating the link to organisational purpose
  • Bringing purpose to life through authentic storytelling

Conclusion – anything is possible

Research by Harvard Business Review suggested that when people have a sense of meaning about the work they do, not only does performance improve but they also report better health and wellbeing, being better team members and they demonstrate greater resilience.

The correlation between “purpose-led” businesses and positive employee engagement and reduced attrition is clear.

And the rise in the significance of purpose, driven both by Gen Z and the pandemic, means that all organisations now need to be give it the focus that companies such as Google, Starbucks and EY have already given to it. To quote Howard Schulz of Starbucks once more…

“When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.”
Howard Schultz, Starbucks