The rise of the 'purpose curious'

Leaders at the crossroads of change

If you work in the purpose space, it can be tempting to see the world in black and white. There are the ‘good guys’ (Patagonia, OLIO, Good Energy) who’ve gone all in on purpose, and the ‘bad guys’ (any oil, tobacco or firearms company) who are blazing a trail of destruction wherever they go.

But purpose has shades of grey, and a closer look at the word of SMEs in particular paints a more nuanced picture. Over the past few years, we’ve come to the realisation there are three purpose ‘types’ when it comes to leaders and their organisations:

  • Purpose Laggards – slow to catch on; not sure what all the fuss is about
  • Purpose Curious – making moves, but not yet ready to go all in
  • Purpose Converts – the fully committed; the flag-wavers

From our experience (and a bit of research), we’re pretty confident the Purpose Curious represents where the majority of business leaders find themselves today. They’re no longer Purpose Laggards, but they’re not yet Purpose Converts.

How to spot the Purpose Curious

These leaders find themselves at the crossroads – no longer convinced the ‘old’ way of doing business has the answers (profit first, everything else second), but not yet ready to fully embrace the ‘new’ way (stakeholder-based, purpose-led).

Put another way, they’ve put their swimming costume on and have dipped their toes in the water. But they’re not yet ready to dive in.

Here’s how you can spot the Purpose Curious from the crowd…

1)  They see purpose as a way of solving specific business problems (as opposed to a new way of doing business)
These guys take a pragmatic approach to purpose. Instead of reimagining their business model or launching some new strategy, they tend to view purpose (uncovering it; expressing it; living it) as an effective way of tackling specific business issues – like reenergising the workforce, repositioning the brand, or getting to grips with sustainability.

In research undertaken by ABA at the end of 2020, only 47% of leaders who described their business as ‘purpose-led’ saw this purpose as ‘very important’ to the future success of the business. Yet this same group also saw specific purpose issues as ‘very important’ to their future – including staff health & wellbeing (76%), healthy workplace culture (66%), and reducing waste & energy use (58%).

In short, these leaders view purpose as a means to good ends – rather than an end in of itself.

2)  They’ve genuinely rejected ‘box ticking’ and ‘profit first’ thinking (as opposed to seeing purpose as a reputation silver bullet)
The Purpose Curious may be pragmatists, but they’re not cynical opportunists. On the contrary, they are often Millennial or Gen Z leaders (or have been heavily influenced by them) who sincerely care about employees, customers, and the goings on in our world. They are a far cry from their ‘greed is good’ predecessors – and are more likely to talk of things like care, compassion, and how business should be a ‘force for good’.

As one leader put it to me recently: “We’re not too worried about badges, awards or press coverage. If we see an opportunity to have a positive impact, we’ll get on and do it – because it’s the right thing to do.”

3)  They’re waking up to the reality of the climate crisis (but aren’t exactly driving the change)
Here are some statistics that highlight the crossroads leaders are at when it comes to the climate crisis. According to a recent YouGov survey, a sizeable 53% of SMEs have plans in place to meet 2050 climate targets (hoorah!) – but only 34% have achieved any of their goals/targets so far (ah-boo). The reality? These leaders may no longer have their head in the sand when it comes to sustainability, but most are still working out what exactly to do with this new awareness.

4)  They’re worried all this talk of purpose could be seen as ‘political’ (and turn some people off)
Many leaders – particularly owners and CEOs – are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, employees increasingly want their leaders to speak out on social issues. But the response from leaders (in private) is often an admission that, while they’d like to be more vocal, they’re nervous about what might happen if they do.

I’ve heard a few explanations for this hesitation: “I’m worried it could become a bit of a distraction”, “it might look like we’re taking sides”, or “will it all feel a bit ‘woke’ and political?” The Purpose Curious have a lot of love to give, but they’re worried about the optics (and unintended consequences) around where they give it.

5)  They’re responding more to what employees are looking for (and less to what the market is demanding)
When we ask leaders why they are focusing on purpose right now, more often than not the answer is something like this: “Our people really need this.” The Purpose Curious know employees are looking for their employers to give them a greater sense of purpose – not just in their day-to-day role but also in the bigger picture of what they are part of.

These leaders are also facing up to the harsh reality that there is a gap between what employees are asking for and what employers are delivering in this area. Whether it’s clarifying the company’s purpose, actively responding to the climate crisis, or giving employees ways to give back – Purpose Curious leaders know they need to act, or risk watching their best people walk out the door.

So, there you have it – the 'purpose curious'. A mix of the inspiring and infuriating; the caring and cautious.

For some, this picture might seem gloomy (“why aren’t more people getting it?”). But we take a different view. We see these leaders – and their organisations – as the future. Because wherever there’s curiosity and care, there’s always hope of better things to come.

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