What drives business leaders to place a clearly-defined sense of purpose at the heart of their enterprises?
It’s a question at the centre of my recent book: The Power of Purpose and the answers are illuminating.
Some of the leaders I interviewed are driven by personal convictions. These may be religious, as in the case of Pat Gelsinger, chief executive of VMware. They might be environmental as in the case of Ryan Gellert, Patagonia’s general manager for Europe. Or they could be social, such as the vision of B Lab co-founder Jay Coen Gilbert of a global movement of people using business as a force for good.
Purpose may be part of an organisational turnaround strategy, as it is for Brad Smith, chief executive of accountancy software group Intuit. And it can be at the heart of a corporate manoeuvres, such as the way the Graham Kerr has chosen to run South32, the global mining group spun out of BHP Billiton.
Yet there is another group that is fascinating too: that of business leaders whose commitment to a purpose-led agenda is driven by personal experience.
Iqbal Wahhab, the restaurateur who created London’s Cinnamon Club and Roast eateries, offers jobs to ex-offenders, remembering his tough upbringing in gangs on London council estates.
Annabel Karmel, who has published 42 books in 29 languages on feeding babies, toddlers and families, . only started writing after the personal tragedy of her first daughter Natasha dying at 30 weeks old from a virus infection.
“It’s a life-changer losing a child and I knew then that I wanted to do something to help children’s lives, to kind of make some meaning come from her death and to give something back,” she says.
Will Butler-Adams, managing director of the UK’s iconic folding bikes group Brompton Bicycle, meanwhile says he experienced a “values eureka moment” aged 19 when he nearly died on a trek through the Amazon where he got lost and wandered aimlessly for days. Convinced he was going to die there, he wrote his final words to his parents.
“When you think you’re about to die, you reflect on things and know whether they are right or wrong,” he says.
Butler-Adams did not die in the Amazon, surviving by killing and eating a Bushmaster snake that attacked him. However, he says he is still driven by a decision he made back then to be fair and reasonable in all he does.
Dame Julia Cleverdon, former chief executive of the UK not-for-profit organisation Business In The Community, also knows exactly when she decided she wanted her business activities to be purpose-led.
It was when she started her career in management at UK car-maker British Leyland in the 1970s and her bosses torpedoed her plan to take to the Birmingham Motor Show assembly workers who had never seen the car they were producing.
“I was taken aside and told they had never heard of such a fatuous idea,” she recalls. “That so entered my soul at that point that I have always believed that business has a noble purpose.”
As the purpose movement grows, there may be more leaders who take this path for reasons based on business theory and teaching. Yet these eureka moments have a special ability to inspire.
If you want to lead with purpose, ask yourself where you acquired that drive. Did you have a eureka moment that can be used to inspire others? I would love to hear your views and experiences.