The Importance of Purpose-Driven Businesses and Leadership

  • Solutions
  • Cybersecurity and Risk
  • 2022
  • Seb Fitzjohn
13 January 2022

Man sitting on bench with computer

The world seems to be going through more simultaneous transformation than ever before. Business, commerce, society, science, the environment – every aspect of our lives faces both opportunity and disruption.

It strikes me that technology will increasingly present solutions to the world’s biggest challenges and unlock boundless new opportunities, whether that be food production, healthcare, education, employment, equality, or climate change. Just one obvious example is the speed at which the COVID-19 vaccination was developed and distributed.

But technology needs to be harnessed with a purpose and a keen sense of the ‘greater good’. Take the debate around AI, machine learning or social media; all are examples of where purpose and societal dimensions are becoming as important as the technology innovation itself.

This sense of corporate purpose is also (starting to) play out in the ESG agenda, but it must go a whole lot further into the DNA of an organisation.

I’d go so far as to say that, to be a successful organisation today, you have to not only embrace disruption – and innovate at light speed – but invest in a truly purpose-driven approach. At the end of the day, purpose is what will truly define the world’s best 21st century companies, driving culture, performance, and, ultimately, results.

But getting there will require a paradigm shift in leadership at all levels within organisations.

So what does this purpose really look like – and how can leaders drive it?

What does it mean to be purpose-driven?

The way I think about purpose continues to be informed by a range of experiences. Many come from my personal life – like having children, for example – but purpose is also a big part of my professional life too.

For example, at ServiceNow, we had many in-depth conversations before settling on what our purpose truly is. We concluded that it’s to be the defining Enterprise Software company of the 21st Century.

Underpinning this purpose is a desire to dream big. But it’s also driven by our desire to think differently and be different. We want to be an organisation that is driven by sense of duty to our customers, partners, employees, community, and society, just as much as innovation and growth.

A template for success

In other words, we want to create a new template for success which has purpose right at the centre of every action we take. It’s not just about scaling to new heights, but also how we get there and what we look like when we do.

This may appear like common sense, it may also be common business sense, but experience shows us that without managing and developing your purpose with the same level of focus and intensity as your fiscal performance, purpose can quickly be diluted or lost.

Ultimately, as businesses, we may not be able to address the big issues of our day at the national or international level, but we can address them within our own organisations.

The way to do it is to ask the right questions and do to so on a regular basis. Purpose requires constant nurturing, cultivation, and reflection.

How do you create your “purpose”?

You might want to start by asking; how can our company contribute to societal change, for example? How do we impact our employees, customers, and the communities around us?

Then you can start to get specific: how do our products and services create a better world? What is the link between business performance and what we give back, or contribute for the greater good?

For us at ServiceNow, it might be: how does the ServiceNow platform lower carbon footprint, create a more inclusive workplace experience, accelerate new business models to create wider value, and make it easier for citizens to benefit from digital transformation?

Asking these questions is an essential part of figuring out what your purpose is and helping all the stakeholders in your business to understand the importance of purpose.

But actually, making purpose-driven business a reality will require leadership commitment and authenticity, too.

Let me explain.

New leadership muscle

To be a purpose-driven leader, you must first buy into and feel a sense of ownership over your organisation’s purpose.

Driving financial performance, and growth is more familiar territory to business leaders, whilst nurturing and building purpose and culture is often outsourced to HR.

Ironically, the stronger your culture and sense of purpose the better your outcomes are likely to be, but all too often our focus is heavily weighted on one side of this equation. Subconsciously, many leaders fall into the trap of assuming high performance environment and a purpose driven culture are mutually exclusive when the inverse is true.

What is required, therefore, is a different kind of leadership. We are all familiar with what purpose-driven leaders look like, but we see them more often in sports, the armed forces, education, healthcare, and the like.

In today’s setting, being a one-dimensional ‘command and control’ leader is no longer enough (if it ever was). Measuring your success on short term financial performance alone will not build the sustainable success that society, customers, and employees will value.

Instead, we need to challenge ourselves to unlearn much of how we have led in the past to acquire new skills on how we lead and connect in today’s setting. Being authentic, being vulnerable, driving inclusivity for people of all demographics, will accelerate this journey, as will a purpose-driven North star.

Nothing wagered, nothing gained

Technology disruption and innovation represents unlimited growth opportunity, when married and aligned to a deep, authentic sense of greater purpose and good. Combining technology innovation and a commitment purpose is the defining opportunity for companies and new leaders in the 21st century.

But we cannot get there without doing the work. Establishing purpose-driven businesses and leadership will require an insatiable growth mindset and continuous reflection on the art and impact of leadership. It is about dreaming big, creating followership, and even changing the world.

The benefits more than outweigh the effort: a better, more sustainable world; happier, more valued workers; and businesses that create the maximum possible benefit for their customers.

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