Purpose is at the center of the conversation about the way we work and live. Science has now validated that a sense of purpose is essential to every aspect of our well-being. And on a collective level, purpose-driven companies are more resilient, better able to navigate an ever-changing business climate, and grow in a sustainable way. We talked to leaders about the role that purpose plays — both personally and professionally — in the world today.
Thrive Global: How did you first discover purpose in your work?
Badr Jafar: As far back as I can remember, I was always fascinated with invention and the process of creating something useful for others. As a child I would spend hours piecing objects together to build new tools or machines. As you would expect the vast majority of my designs did not function the way I had planned, however I distinctly remember taking inspiration from Edison’s lightbulb quote I came across in a schoolbook where he famously proclaimed, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” which to me underscored the value of perseverance and iterative creativity.
The experimentation didn’t stop there. Fresh out of the university, I went on to explore the world of business with a series of jobs in various industries including energy, transport, aviation and retail. My frustration at being unable to find definitive meaning in the work I was pursuing compelled me to take on the challenge of creating start-ups with a difference. With a venture trail of failures and a couple of notable successes and exits, I took my newfound passion for ‘business with a soul’ and joined my family business 17 years ago with a view to applying this business philosophy to affect positive change within geographies we operate in.
The convergence of these seemingly disconnected experiences is now a passion that I espouse for harnessing the power of business innovation to create solutions to our greatest challenges, whether social, environmental or economic in nature. In simple terms, there is a common theme in the businesses I choose to get involved with today, which is a deep sense of purpose.
TG: How does purpose show up for you in your work now?
BJ: I believe wholeheartedly in the saying that poverty is not only a lack of money, but a lack of a sense of purpose. By extension, a business without purpose is a poor one, regardless of how much profit it might be raking in.
At Crescent Enterprises, we have taken this priority very seriously by embedding corporate citizenship and sustainability into the core of our operations in order to create systems of shared value. Our roadmap for achieving this vision is actioned through the promotion of good governance, socioeconomic development, talent empowerment, and environmental conservation through our activities. To this end, we have partnered with a number of institutions in the public and private sectors that share our values and principles, which include the World Economic Forum, Education for Employment, Ashoka, Endeavor, the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa), among several others.
One of our priority interventions is to unlock opportunities and corresponding needed skills for youth amid the current wave of technological disruption, and by doing so help to address the MENA region’s acute unemployment crisis. For example, as part of our work with the World Economic Forum, we are on track to deliver on our pledge to equip 1,000 young people with essential skills by the end of 2017.
Our work through the Pearl Initiative, a non-profit private-sector-led organisation that was established in cooperation with UN agencies, also supports our sustainability goals. The organisation endorses the importance of corporate governance and accountability to the long-term success of businesses across the Gulf region of the Middle East.
TG: Do you have a clear sense of your life’s purpose? How has that evolved? Do you expect it to keep evolving?
BJ: If there is anything that keeps me awake at night, it is the possibility of being limited. Specifically, I fear being limited as a father, as an entrepreneur, and more generally, as someone who can affect positive change for those I connect with. In effect, overcoming these limitations head-on becomes a constant challenge, but one that gives me a great sense of purpose.
I have always thrived on diversity and can’t imagine a world where I would wake up doing the same thing each day. I believe that the convergence of knowledge and experience across different disciplines and sectors gives us a more holistic understanding of the issues that we face as a society, and therefore presents an enhanced view of how to address these challenges.
In fact, my role models are some of the great polymaths of our time and individuals who I believe have mastered this practice of specialized diversification, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Omar Khayyam, and as it happens my grandfather. True innovation has always occurred at the intersection of the humanities and sciences. The Islamic ‘golden age’ of the 8th and 9th centuries, which openly embraced ideas across a wide variety of disciplines and cultures, including from Chinese, Greek and Persian scholars and practitioners, is a prime example. If anything, this is a reminder of how crucial it is for science, culture, technology and effective policymaking to converge if we are to sustainably scale meaningful opportunities for our youth and future generations.
TG: What do you think are some ways businesses today can ‘live’ purpose? How do you think about instilling purpose in others?
BJ: Businesses are at the forefront of engaging with individuals and communities across the world on a daily basis, and therefore possess inherent potential to serve as catalysts and positive incubators of change. Businesses of all shapes and sizes have an unparalleled opportunity to create opportunities for all members of society, not just to earn a living, but to invest their own energy into a purpose that uplifts them as well as others around them.
It is encouraging to see more companies gradually embrace the belief that a socially-centered purpose is ultimately a competitive advantage in today’s rapidly changing environment, and that such a purpose is wholly compatible with commercial and financial success. This renewed social contract between business and society requires an uncompromising and resilient determination to keep operating models dynamic with existing market challenges and opportunities in order that companies can contribute to shaping a stable macro-economic environment.
TG: It’s said that ‘we measure what matters and what matters gets measured.’ If your business has metrics of meaning and well-being in addition to financial metrics, what are they? If not, what could they be?
BJ: A socially relevant purpose is increasingly transcending profit as a company’s end goal, because the business community is recognising that profit is fundamentally a symptom of success, not its cause. That said, in order to achieve growth that is sustainable and responsible, it is important to have clear and measurable objectives in order to assess and communicate impact in a transparent manner to one’s stakeholders. This is not transparency for transparency’s sake; reporting results in this manner inevitably creates a sense of accountability within the business and its management, which in turn enhances trust with internal and external stakeholders. And with trust increasingly being recognized as the most important commodity within the workplace, measurement and reporting impact is also an extremely important business tool.
At Crescent Enterprises, we evaluate our progress and performance through annual sustainability reports. These reports examine a wide variety of sustainability indicators that are aligned with the UN’s sustainable development goals (SGDs) and are incorporated into our vision of enabling sustainable growth. This vision defines our sustainability performance under four pillars: enabling ethical business, enabling a stronger society, enabling talent, and enabling stewardship of the planet.
In addition to economic value and employment opportunities that we generate, we also assess our contribution to the wider communities in which we operate. For example, in 2016, our corporate citizenship programmes, many of which are imbedded in our business activities, directly impacted over 134,000 individuals from different walks of life. We also measure the extent to which we minimise our ecological footprint, through metrics such as the reduction of energy or water consumption per employee.
Whilst our sustainability reports have traditionally been issued separately to our annual reports, we plan to integrate all our results into a single report from 2018 onwards, which we believe will help validate the inextricable links behind commercial and societal gains within our operating landscape.
The underlying objective behind these all these metrics should be to demonstrate how businesses can consciously and actively integrate the needs of society into their operations, and in doing so embrace the business case behind adopting these measures. Viewed from this perspective, there clearly doesn’t have to be a trade-off between purpose and profit. With the ‘zero-sum-game’ myth between the two duly busted, this should help foster a new generation of highly successful business leaders with deep social commitment.