The Corporate Stampede To Purpose

purpose within


The Race Is On


Organisations are clamouring to join the race to proclaim their higher purpose, raison d’être, new principles and supporting values and programmes. And imbed sustainability consciousness into their culture. It seems that business has awakened to the need to heal, sustain and nurture the environment, society and the economy; to adopt people, planet and profit bottom lines. There has been an accompanying proliferation of sustainability consultancies, service providers, academic papers and conferences. 

Why Did the Race Start? What is Fueling This Frenetic Activity? 
There has been a growing realisation and acceptance by stakeholders across all walks of life of the imperative to tackle the huge inter-linked challenges facing our planet, its inhabitants and resources.

“What is needed, then, is a renewed, profound and broadened sense of responsibility on the part of all. Business is in fact a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life. I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it”.1    ~Pope Francis

A significant portion of the corporate world is shifting its focus away from short-term selfish gain and towards sustainability of the longer-term common good. Examples are:

  • Sounds true                 to disseminate spiritual wisdom
  • Southwest Airlines     we exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives
  • Pirch, Atlanta              to create inspired moments in people’s lives – Jeffery Sears, CEO

The shift has been well documented and some of the factors promoting it have been:

  • Insight into the “Converging paths and interlinked destinies” and interests of corporates and societies – for example, is clear in an article by Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and SVP of Sustainability Kathleen McLaughlin, posted by consulting firm McKinsey.2
  • Fear of legislated and other penalties for non-compliance being imposed by all levels of government
  • Pressure from citizens/ customers/ potential employees (the new activists) who have adopted sustainability thinking
  • Me-too-ism and fear of becoming uncompetitive in the marketplace
  • Genuine desire to be culturally attuned to environmental and societal needs and to make a difference
  • The economic possibilities inherent in being seen to be a sustainability champion

runners3_GWThis latter motive has been fed by a plethora of sustainability networking conferences calling upon businesses to activate their purpose; opinion-leader, early-adopter and role-model talks; articles and publications:

  • More Corporations Turn to Sustainability for Competitive Edge and Profits – “31 percent of companies say sustainability is boosting their profits and 70 percent report that sustainability has a permanent place on their management agenda.”3
  • The title of an article about a Richard Branson’s book is a giveaway: Richard Branson: Screw Business As Usual, And Make Your (Huge Piles Of) Money By Doing Good.4
  • As is the subtitle of Grow—“how ideals power growth and profit at the World’s greatest companies.”5
  • And Green Giants: how smart companies turn sustainability into billion-dollar businesses.6

Powered by Regeneration
There is no doubt that a sustainability drive, supported by a clear purpose has bottom line and cultural development benefits. IBM has a Corporate Service Corps that travels the world. As part of leadership development, top employees are given a month to participate in Corporate Social Responsibility service abroad (on a project of their own choice).7 The programme fits with IBM’s aspirations to retain talent, build skills, improve market competitiveness, and promote Cultural Intelligence. And it fits IBM’s purpose of following a path of innovation, reinvention and a shift to higher value adding.

The stampede to purpose will gain even more traction by research findings that purpose-oriented employees are the most engaged and the highest performers.8 In addition to a new Workforce Purpose Index, a Certified Purpose Leader Program has been launched. It offers training in how to create a purpose statement, lead with purpose, harness the transforming power of purpose and develop the purpose-powered organization.

Sustainability is the dominant term, but Regeneration (although not new) is gaining ground, carries both biological and spiritual nuances, and suggests advancing beyond sustainability.We will see many more approaches, products and services in the months and years ahead.

Obstacles on the Journey
runners4_GWThe most perfect organisational culture imaginable may be when a critical mass of employees aligns with an organisation’s higher purpose, displays desired virtues consistently and intrinsic motivation (where there is a sense of belonging and meaning, realisation of a higher purpose, a chance or experience of succeeding in this endeavour) kicks in. ‘Engagement’ then takes care of itself. There is a collective of like-minds and behaviours in order to ensure the sustainability of people, planet and profit. It approaches an “… attraction which seems to transcend reality, which aspires to elevate men by an interest higher, deeper, wider than that of ordinary life.10 

It would be nice to believe that this purity of motive is what drives business leaders today. And many consumers would love that too. A consumer opinion study carried out in 23 countries showed that consumers support and trust the relatively few companies that they believe have an authentic purpose.11 They believe that these companies are making a significant contribution to society. But having seen the many disconnects between stated values and actual on the ground practices, and the deceitful use of ‘cause marketing’ in order to bolster reputation and take advantage of gullible buyers, I am somewhat cynical.12

Christopher Jamison points to the basic greed that drives consumerism and how that is manipulated by the big Brands. He speaks eloquently and scarily of how true intent is masked:

“..they give people a ‘higher purpose’ through their brand. The companies may congratulate themselves that they are serving a higher purpose but this is basically the commercial exploitation of spirituality”… and “… has a corrosive effect on our understanding of personal identity and on our sense of the sacred. Even our souls are now consumerised, and marketing is destroying people’s spiritual imagination … great corporations now inhabit our imagination, the place where greed is generated.”13 

This danger of consumers being manipulated by big corporations who latch onto the purpose effect is highly likely to increase. But inauthentic motives will inevitably lead to failure. Customers are wising up, and there has been a strong decline in their trust of big business.

Another obstacle is for organisations in service, education and care industries to assume that their road to authentic purpose will be any easier. Many of their employees are not purpose-oriented: “Our research showed that the majority of people working at non-profits aren’t primarily motivated by helping others and their own personal growth …”14

And getting caught up in the sustainability maze of processes, techniques, assessments, measures, stakeholders, systems, compliance reporting – and in so doing losing one’s way – is to be avoided at all costs.15 

Advice and Encouragement

For those leaders who seriously and genuinely wish to pursue a triple-bottom-line endeavour, rally their people around a meaningful purpose, supported by solid, virtuous behaviours, I would counsel:

  • Rigorously test purity of motive (yours and your advisers). Mindful caring, compassionate behaviours that properly and sustainably address poverty, environmental degradation, educational lacks and other human rights, ethical and economic-upliftment, must come from the inside out. They are not a function of a set of rules, polices, programmes …16
  • Involve as many employees as possible in the design of a clear (higher) purpose statement. Get them to deliberate on three dimensions – span, depth and time:
    • Span, or the scope of your stewardship (global, societal, country, region, community …)
    • The unique, chosen values that apply to your area of concern and successfully convert into character virtues
    • How far into the future you wish your impact to be felt 15
  • Become a contemplative in action as you pursue other-serving. “… contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.”18 
  • Remember that it’s not all uphill. There are marvelous interior rewards to be had on this journey.


Once in an old medieval city there were three bricklayers hard at work on the same building. A man walking past asked each of them what they were doing. The first man answered gruffly, “I’m laying bricks.” The second man replied, “I’m building a wall.” The third man looking up answered enthusiastically, “I’m building a Cathedral.” 

What are your plans to introduce a powerful purpose drive that is unique, distinct, owned by employees, is and is seen to be authentic, and consistently builds a reputation that attracts?


Illustrations by Tony Grogan

1. Pope Francis (January 2014). My message to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
2. McLaughlin, K. & McMillon, D. (April 2015). Business and Society in the Coming Decades.
3. Kho, J. (January 2012).Report: More Corporations Turn To Sustainability For Competitive Edge and Profits.
4. Ferenstein, G. Richard Branson:Screw Business As Usual, And Make Your (Huge Piles Of) Money By Doing Good. 
5. Stengel, J.Grow: how ideals power growth and profit at the world’s greatest companies. Crown Business NY 2011
6. Williams, E. F. (September 2015). Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion- Dollar Businesses. AMACOM
7. Chong, R. & Fleming, M. (November 2014). Why IBM Gives Top Employees A Month To Do Service Abroad. Harvard Business Review
8. Hurst, A. (CEO of Imperative Group, Inc.) & Tavis, Dr. A. (Adjunct Professor of School of Professional Studies, NYU) 2015 Workforce Purpose Index: predictive indicators of US Workforce performance and wellbeing.
9. Wood, Dr. R. L. (2015). A Leader’s Guide to Thrive Ability: A Multi-Capital Operating System for a Regenerative Inclusive Economy. Author-House
10. Bagehot, W. (February 2001). The English Constitution. (Oxford World’s Classics)Paperback–Oxford University Press
11. Morris, J. (Globescan) & Vlahov, D. (June 2016). The Public on Purpose Executive Summary: insights from a global study on corporate purpose. Conducted by Globescan in partnership with Sustainable Brands
12. Williams, G.; Haarhoff, D. & Fox, P. (2015).The Virtuosa Organisation: the importance of virtues for a successful business.Knowledge Resources
13. Jamison, A. C. (2009). Finding Happiness: monastic steps for a fulfilling life. Phoenix
14. Hurst, A. (March 2016). Why Non-profits Need to Give Workers a Sense of Purpose. The Chronicle of Philanthropy
15. Varey, W. Good for business: Transforming sustainability: An integral leader’s sustainability framework. Journal of Spirituality, Leadership and Management
16. Williams, G. Compassion essential for sustainability.
17. Williams, G. with Rosenstein, D.(2016). From the Inside Out: the human dynamics of sustainability.
18. Williams, R. (May 17, 2016). Address to the Roman Synod of Bishops in 2012, cited by Richard Rohr Action & Contemplation:The Contemplative Mind Is a Mind Liberated from Itself. Daily Meditation

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Graham Williams, CMC, B.Com Hons, B.A. is a certified management consultant, thought provoker, executive coach and author who has worked in over 40 countries around the World. An essential component of his ‘motivational fingerprint’is to overcome severe organisational blockages by installing creative, healing solutions – from concept to implementation. He focuses on the use of narrative, anecdote and metaphor as critical contributors to successful business interventions and has written or co-authored a number of business books.

For more thought-provoking articles by Graham, enjoy these selections, along with these exceptional co-written posts.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Tim Kuppler

    Excellent post Graham. I would add one point to your counsel: gain a deeper understanding of the underlying CURRENT CULTURE as a foundation for adjusting strategies / plans to have a more effective and meaningful impact.

    This trend toward purpose and values is often more about aspiration than reality. The key is often not the values or behaviors we are targeting but understanding why the current expectations / behavioral norms / “unwritten rules” are deeply entrenched. Superficial climate and values alignment approaches will often fall short and are unfortunately interpreted as culture change efforts when they have little or nothing to do with the current culture and true culture change. Thank you Graham for a great post. Tim

  • Graham Bruce Williams

    Wise comment Tim. Yes! More deeply understanding the current culture must be a start-point. This is so obvious and taken for granted that it can be easily overlooked (as I did in my article!)

  • Jackie Le Fevre

    Both timely and enjoyable post Graham – thank you. I would add that ‘purpose’ doesn’t have to be organisation wide in order to be meaningful. With one of my clients last year I was facilitating team based workshops essentially to support the people with the greatest insight into how things work to say what could/should be done in order to get where the company wanted to go. Now these people had been put through the mill a bit with change programmes and hiatus in their funding over several years so were, understandably, quite weary. I suggested to the HR Director who had commissioned me that I suggest to each team in turn that we could have a go at coming up with their own statement of purpose – he was skeptical but generous enough to let me ‘try’.

    Long story short – each team totally nailed the task. Each team now has its own ‘raison d’etre’ beyond the compliance required to do the job. From engineering tutors to finance, from IT to estates, every team arrived at a sentence about the essential difference they seek to make and the energy in the room transformed every time.

    I do understand why overarching purpose statements attract criticism and are often only lightly trusted and may be too large a next step for an organisation interested in this idea. So I would add to your ‘advice and encouragement’
    – if you want to start small and build up that’s fine too
    – do place your faith in your people as they sense and know more deeply than most of us realise.

  • Graham Bruce Williams

    Great story Jackie. Yes, the people who do the work do know what’s best in terms of process design, desired outcomes, raison detre for their role, team, department. I’ve found this to hold true for sustainability initiatives, and the anecdote circle and carbon circle methodologies have worked superbly. For me an important principle is that sub-purposes support and are aligned with the overarching purpose.

    • Jackie Le Fevre

      Spot on! Alignment really matters and often occurs organically; after all those people were attracted to that organisation to do that work in the first place. On the rare occasion that alignment is not naturally present it creates an opportunity to have a meaty conversation about where/how the disconnect has happened and what we can do to heal the rift.

      • Graham Bruce Williams

        Re your reference to ‘meaty conversations’ Jackie I’ve just posted ‘Conversations that Count’ on Culture University …

  • Patrick Trottier

    Hi Graham, I commend your thoughts, although I think that most of this ‘social responsibility’ and ‘higher purpose’ is simply a ‘nouveau image branding’ thing that seems like ‘the thing to do’ to sell more service, or product… or, just to look good…

    The only thing corporations are driven by is quarterlies and ‘margin of profit’ and will do anything to achieve and to expand such. Just watch how the pendulum will swing when resources become even more scarce and shareholders demand even more ROI. This is why the gap between the real actions of the 1% of those who control financial and resource allocation globally (since you have worked in 40 countries, you know this) and the naive who believe what corporations say, is ever expanding.

    I agree with Tim in regards to ‘the underlying current culture’ (of which, I believe Tim is making a different point about than myself), which I say is not the PR and ‘image branding’ that people read about, or is taught in naive schools, or what people here when they go to cute conferences… business is a tough sport… it is a survival mentality. In my experience, decision are made in the back rooms that effect everyone and the people that make them are not in magazines and books…

    Sure – find higher a pseudo purpose to sell to the naive, increase motivation, attract people, work faster, smarter… create technologies that have a consequence of even less jobs for the many… for what? … for trinkets of comfort and ego gratification for the few…

    Have a nice day… :o)