It was hard to watch your face as the stinging criticism hit home. The words were shrill and unkind, and they were from senior leaders whose opinion you valued.
You and your team thought it was reasonable to propose how the firm’s stated purpose and vision might be further implemented—to take seriously what was written and publicized as the foundational tenets of the firm, and to endeavour to make them come alive. Moreover, you and the other young leaders had been specifically invited to push the envelope— to apply what you were learning as the high potentials to help innovate and shape the future of the firm. With such intentions, you might have been met with a little encouragement.
Perhaps naively, you thought your efforts would be welcomed. Instead, you and your colleagues found yourselves on the defense against criticism for what seemed like secondary issues. It was as if these leaders had completely missed the point that you had taken the company mandate seriously and overlooked the fact that this would be a good thing.
Long before it occurred to you to expect your employer to live up to the promises it made in public, its statements of intent had been dutifully intoned and inscribed on various types of media, even granite blocks and sheets of marble. Yet somehow, it seems like no one actually expected those words to matter so long as revenue and the margins grew.
Charlie, you may not recognize it—especially on days when you are weary, have seen too many inconsistencies, and been stymied yet again in your career ambitions—but you and your colleagues are changing history, one company at a time.
Just recently, a global company was preparing to hire tens of thousands of new professionals, all with critical quantitative skills. This company came to understand that the single most important thing to the prospective recruits was that they be hired to engage in meaningful work that made a difference in the world. Upon reflection, it became quite obvious that selling such a story, in an age of transparency, was impossible—unless, of course, it was true. And so began an elaborate corporate journey of discovery for this company to define its reason for existence.
The challenge of growth is now far more daunting than it was in the post-war years and late 1900’s. The same instincts that led you and your colleagues to take your firm’s purpose seriously are also challenging the basic precepts of wholesale consumption that has fuelled so much economic expansion. In the west, at least, we have thrown out many of the old answers to fundamental existential questions. Most of us may not have the same sense of moral outrage and frustration as them, but at the same time we are asking our businesses questions like:
“What good are you doing?”
“What problems are you solving?” Or, conversely,
“What harm are you causing while you sell me your stuff?”
Charlie, you might not have had the sympathetic and encouraging audience you expected that day, but please don’t give up. So while your project team ran into c-suite intransigence, please remember this: you are winning the war.
Businesses are being held to a higher standard by both customers and employees. Your willingness to not only ask but to demand that your employer do something important and necessary in the world is changing the face of business. Purpose matters.
Thank you, as always, for your kind and uplifting words. The moment you described that took place in front of my peers and superiors was indeed a difficult one. That is to say, it hurt. Perhaps one day, as time passes and my recollection of the event fades, I will remember it fondly, but for now I remain disillusioned by what took place that day.
My teammates and I presented an idea to the leadership that would help the company live by the very purpose it had established for itself. This was (and still is) critical. Everything we shared was from the heart, from our strong desire to do good, and it seemed so plainly obvious to us that change was necessary.
What did we expect of the leadership? Nothing they didn’t already expect of us:
Openness and dialogue.
Egos parked firmly at the door.
Evaluation of ideas, not just executions.
Willingness to challenge established beliefs and practices.
Desire to put the good of the whole before the good of a few.
Boy, what a naïve bunch we were! As the feedback (or lack thereof) from the leaders was delivered, our hearts sunk and the gap between our expectations and reality widened like a glacial crevasse. There was little openness and virtually no dialogue. Egos parked front and center. The idea was lost amidst a thorny appraisal of its potential for execution. Established beliefs and practices were unchallengeable.
For our team, astonishment and outrage quickly replaced ambition.
In the hours and days after our rejection, I considered everything from writing a personal plea to the Chairman (which I completed but never sent), to packing up and finding another caravan from which to continue my journey. Thankfully I did not decamp, which would have been a mistake and in many ways cowardly. I’ve only quit one job in my life, which involved sticking nutrition labels on imported food products under the eagle-eyed watch of a sweaty, hirsute manager who insisted that I refrain from speaking with other employees or even mildly enjoying life while he was around. Finally, when I could take it no longer, I described to him, in great detail, precisely where he could stick his nutrition labels. It was a quitting for the ages.
Reminisces aside, I unwaveringly agree that we must demand our companies to find their Purpose and live every moment of their existence by them. It is far too important a cause to ignore and I believe that organizations can be both purposeful and profitable simultaneously. In fact, in the future that I imagine, companies will not be profitable without purpose. Quite simply, they will neither attract the employees to manage their enterprises nor the consumers to purchase their wares and services. As Nietzsche philosophized, in one of his few passages that ever made any sense to me, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
In your letter, you offered me an encouraging reminder that the future of business is in our hands. I want to contribute to that future. I need to contribute to that future. And I know that future needs me as much as I need it.
We thank “Charlie” for sharing his experience with us all.