Sex, Lies and Purpose Statements
If you’re like me you lie awake at night wondering: What is the purpose of a corporate purpose statement? It’s a bit like asking: Why does a company need a ‘why’? Or where do butterflies go when it rains?
The question might be cynical if not for the fact that PwC’s purpose is “to build trust in society and solve important problems”. The Australian outpost has certainly done its bit in contributing to the breadth of important problems that need solving.
But how naive of me to believe purpose matters to partners making a living by luring a conga line of hapless executives to the waterhole and monetising their problems, real or perceived.
Mother warned me that professions charging by the hour may not be reputable, and you can liken senior consulting partners to mob bosses, skimming fees and wielding absolute power over terrified juniors, customers and baristas alike.
Imagine the rush of self-actualisation they feel upon entering the consulting kingdom and finding they can charge money by advising how to set the rules and then make more money helping clients work around them. It’s enough to restore my faith in Donald Trump’s innocence.
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Anyway, back to the question at hand, does a corporate purpose statement mean anything?
Here’s a challenge: walk into any organisation, pick a random employee and observe their level of panic when you ask them to recite their organisation’s purpose off the bat. Ie. No phoning a friend or frenzied intranet searching allowed.
Up until now, the only people who cared about corporate purpose statements were those in corporate affairs. For everyone else, it’s been a somewhat nebulous and mysterious phenomenon – a bit like the adult cousin you never knew you had until he turns up to Christmas lunch with your sheepish looking uncle.
The role of purpose has historically been a decorative (or deceptive) one. It’s a handsome piece of corporate expressionism adorning the wall near reception, next to the list of company values that are so foreign to people’s everyday experiences they resemble an alien life form.
This is not to say a company’s purpose statement hasn’t been made with as much love as a Masterchef dish. A flotilla of executives and hangers-on have spent hours shaping and baking it at their strategy offsite day, probably in a session facilitated by PwC, before returning to the office on Monday to carry on with their empire building, backstabbing, white-anting and more.
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To absolve the sins of my former career (where I was allowed to work in an office), I have pored over the purpose statements of the largest Australian and American companies.
Indeed, one company proudly “specialises in the production and distribution of petroleum fuels and chemical feedstocks”. Channelling Simon Sinek who is famous for his Golden Circle framework – not to be confused with Golden Circle Breakfast Juice – of ‘Why’, ‘How’ and ‘What’, we can see how this company has expertly sidestepped ‘Why’ altogether. Its purpose statement is devoid of purpose.
The project cured my insomnia and I formed the conclusion that one third of purpose statements are quite good, one third are average and one third are complete rubbish. If no one pays any attention to them then I guess there’s no harm done. However, there’s a growing band of ‘woke’ companies, investors and consumers who believe that doing good things instead of bad things is actually good for business. Where will this crazy thinking end?
Our friends at PwC have a reasonable purpose statement. Their sin was not being able to implement or control it across the vast plains they inhabit. I suspect the 8,000 odd staff who are doing the right thing (or doing the wrong thing and not getting caught) are feeling pretty low because they are dressing the wounds of a fight they didn’t start.
A cultural blindspot in an organisation is like a knitted top with a loose thread – pull it hard enough and the entire garment unravels.
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Yes, this is a tongue-in-cheek view of purpose statements that, I hope, exposes uncomfortable truths about corporate and human machinery. The reality is that from here on in, companies are under as much pressure as an arthritic contortionist, they’ll have to bend in ways that don’t feel natural without injuring themselves.
They must be able to make a net positive impact in the world and be commercially competitive at the same time. If a well crafted purpose statement helps their chances, bring it on. Here’s a Ninja level tip: take the next step of putting it into action, otherwise you run the risk of appearing in an article like this.
When I was young, the Christian Television Association ran a relentless ad campaign in favour of the ‘wise man’ who built his house on the rock instead of the sand. You have to admit it was effective given I remember it to this day.
Using their excellent framework for a heavily laboured analogy: the purpose of a company is like the ‘rock’ the house is built upon. It is there, it matters, but you still have to build a strong house, and that’s all about boring details like people, culture, strategy and operations.
The sex and lies will persist in the near term, but I’m optimistic that, some day soon, purpose statements will trade in their shady past for a much brighter future.
Phil Preston is a leading authority on purpose trends and their impacts on consumers, employees and businesses. He is a keynote speaker, facilitator and adviser who can be contacted via email@example.com
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Students of business history and the arts will notice that the title of this piece has two reference points:
- A play on the film Sex, Lies and Videotape, starring Andie McDowell and James Spader; and winner of best picture at the Cannes Film Festival 1989.
- Christopher K Bart’s article Sex, Lies and Mission Statements, published in New Horizons (1997).
However, for better or worse, this article is all my own doing! 😬