In pursuit of the human ideal in business

At its best, corporate purpose presents an ideal currently outside our reach, writes Mike Robitaille of Deloitte:Isaac.

Corporate Purpose

By Mike Robitaille

The focus of the World Economic Forum in Davos this January was the renewal of capitalism in a form that creates value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

The significance of world leaders in government and commerce gathering in shared acknowledgment of the need for capitalism to become a more constructive, more conscientious force in shaping a better world for everyone cannot be overstated. The path to becoming that force, however, isn’t as clear or simple as the declaration; though most now seem to agree it will start with a different purpose for the corporation.

The subject of corporate purpose may be the most interesting and fatiguing conversation being had in business today. The relationship between a company’s philosophy – its vision, purpose, “why,” mission, values – and its bottom line is far from linear or logical. A philosophy is the great intangible; regarded as invaluable by those who possess one, but considered an odd abstraction by those who don’t.

The evidence of leaders adjusting to bring a “purpose beyond profit” philosophy into their companies grows every week. Some seek to elevate standards for business practices and reduce the harm inflicted on people and/or the planet. And that is, of course, enormous progress. Others align themselves with topical social issues that are in need of awareness and resources. These, too, must be regarded as welcome and admirable acts and certainly cast companies into more broadly meaningful roles in society. The investment of time and money in these subjects are powerful steps away from the pure profit motive playbook of the past.

A company that stands for something great, however, stands for something just a little bit more.

The pursuit of a human ideal is at the root of every significant movement in social and commercial history. We want our world to be better and we will throw every ounce of available energy behind those leaders, companies and organizations we believe can get us there and invite us to play a part.

The most valuable form of purpose invites people to share a belief in a good life or better world, something more ideal than the reality we occupy today. That idealism, when genuinely embodied in an organization’s leaders and demonstrated in every action and communication of the company, affirms a conscience, an organizing principle to inspire speech and action while discouraging the opposite. These leaders and entities create an irresistible gravitational pull on people. They move people to unite and contribute.

When a political campaign suggests “Yes we can” or a company challenges you to “Just do it” or “Think different,” it stirs something much deeper than a simple right or wrong. It presents us with an ideal, a notion of what we might one day accomplish should we apply ourselves. It gives us a goal that is likely never fully achieved but one we can rewardingly pursue throughout our time here. It gives us a star to help better navigate our way.

Great companies and leaders garner support because they play instrumental roles in helping people toward equality, family, freedom, self-respect or another human ideal. Companies who know clearly and proudly what they stand for are the ones people watch and follow. They are the ones with shops and stores that need to be experienced to be understood, the employees who just won’t stop talking about how they could never work anywhere else, the great ad campaigns and the investors who want to help fund a great future. Their very existence makes things better, and we love them for it.

Stand for something great.
Prove it in everything you say and do.
People will help you win.

That shared pursuit of a human ideal and the enthusiasm it yields is the greatest competitive advantage a company or any social movement can possibly have, and the keystone to a more conscientious capitalism.

Mike RobitailleMike Robitaille is a Partner in Deloitte:Isaac, Canada’s first and only Purpose & Momentum Group.