Navigating Purpose – provocations for CEOs

By 17/10/2019Blog

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Charles Wookey, CEO, A Blueprint for Better Business

This introduction was given to an audience of FTSE 100 leaders at a recent Blueprint CEO Forum.

Ahead of this evening’s discussion, I wanted to offer this illustration as an opening framing, and from there draw out three provocations. In doing this, I’m conscious that we represent a charity working with business leaders – one offering insights and questions – but we are not the people on the bridge of the ship. You are.

You are all leaders of major companies, and collectively have powerful agency in the system. You hold your roles at a time of extraordinary upheaval. Navigating the ships you each command can rarely have been more challenging. Wherever you look there is uncertainty, fragility and rapid change: the economy, politics, the climate crisis, social fragmentation, and technological innovation. All these at once, and alongside that rising social expectations and the constant invigilation of social media, and that is before we even think about investors and the demands of capital markets.

So my first provocation to you is that in navigating the shoals of uncertainty your course needs the guidance of a deep belief about what you think makes for a successful business that serves society in the long term. Navigating by purpose, rather than by simply maximising profit, means avoiding two rocks on either side of the channel. One is marked “frictionless win/win” – the idea that with “added purpose”, everything else carries on as before and we simply get a purpose dividend. The other is marked “purpose always means accepting lower performance” – the idea that there is always some kind of enduring trade-off. In our view, both assumptions should be avoided. But it is not easy, it means setting the direction of travel fundamentally by reference to the better society that arises from our success. Profit is a vital fuel that powers the ship, but is not the goal.

So, my first provocation is: What are your beliefs about the role of business in society and the purpose of your business, which set the direction and help you navigate? What guides you?

Secondly, Blueprint’s point of view is that beyond the distortion in business caused by a narrow focus on maximising shareholder value there has been a second distortion created by assuming that as people at work we are purely self-interested and motivated by money, status and power.

Our behaviour is shaped by the culture around us and the behaviour of others. We know from many sources that people are in fact fundamentally social. Evidence from wisdom traditions and empirical sciences point to three things most people want: meaning and to make a positive contribution through work; to care and be cared for – to belong; and to grow as people – seeking autonomy, mastery and development. At Blueprint, our belief is that understanding this and shaping the processes and structures within business accordingly, has the power to unlock the latent potential of people to commit to a shared worthwhile endeavour.

This is why in our work we bring together a provocation about purpose with a second provocation about people. The power of purpose to inspire and motivate people can only be realised if the business sees itself as a social organisation, a series of relationships in which each person matters. The benefits that then flow help create a better business – in terms of performance, engagement, and better quality relationships with customers, suppliers and communities.

So, my second provocation is: What assumptions do you have – or do you think your business has – about what motivates people, and how does that show up in practice in the business? What motivates you?

Finally, I want to draw our attention to collective action. People are searching for a new and better narrative about the role of business:

  • 2020-30 is the decade of decision, and huge transitions need to be made if the SDGs are to be met. We all know the vital role business has to play and that now is the time to step up
  • With continuing political turbulence business has a stabilising role to play by leading for positive societal impact, and holding itself more accountable
  • There is a lot of anger and frustration out there, but also a yearning for hope and for institutions that can carry and enhance a wider common good

Business as a social institution can help hugely if it sees itself as part of society, a healthy human system contributing to the common good. It is a big shift and no one company acting alone can change this. It needs courage and collective action. However, a number of leading businesses acting together can help shape the evolution of expectations of business in society. And do it without resorting to law and regulation.

So, my third provocation is: What can you do together to redefine what a better business looks like and does in meeting the challenge of the decade ahead? What will you do to put this into practice?

In summary – the three provocations:

  1. What beliefs do you have about the role of business, and of your business in society, which set the direction and help you navigate? What guides you?
  2. What assumptions do you have – and does your business have – about what motivates people? What motivates you?
  3. What can you do together to redefine what a better business looks like to help reset societal expectations about how business can best meet the challenge of the decade ahead? What will you do to put this into practice?

We are interested to hear your experiences in leading through a period of change and having a robust discussion about what guides decision taking in practice. If you would get in touch with Blueprint about this or any other topic, please contact: enquiries@blueprintforbusiness.org