What Does Your Business Believe? (Discover: Part One)
What’s the meaning of life?
As hard as this question is for a single person to answer, how can an entire company? (I really wish the answer was 42)
Actually it’s easier for a business since each one was created for a reason. Some businesses are visionary and world-changing. Others are simply providing the market something it needed or wanted. All can create a positive impact.
In my last story, are you ready to believe in business, I outlined our process for lighting inspiration and driving action within an organization. Believe, Discover, Ignite, Engage and Impact. I’ve written about Believe. Now I’m focused on Discover, which I’ll cover in two parts.
If you’re already committed to saying and doing what you believe, fantastic. Then you’re ready to learn how to discover your purpose. If you still haven’t figured out what you believe, read on.
The next generations will ask what you believe
Our world is dying. Climate change is real, we can’t sustain consumer culture with our limited resources and war continues to decimate regions in age-old conflicts. We’re running out of time any way you slice it. We need better solutions and we need them now.
Chin up, sunshine. All’s not lost. Gen Y (affectionately known as The Millennials) is coming of age professionally just in the nick of time. They will lead the next wave of innovation that will reimagine the world to focus on collaboration for the good of all rather than individual greed.
We will use “Gen Y” to describe this curious bunch. A generalization that we find true in our own experience is that the Y generation is constantly asking the question, “Why?” Why is society organized the way it is? Why do things work the way they do? Why do companies treat people the way they do?
Historically people generally had good (or at least practical) reasons for their answers to these questions, but times have changed and it’s time to move on and shake loose the antiquated ideas and modes of operating that no longer point us toward a healthy future.
Businesses who successfully discover what they believe can express stories that will attract future generations. Those that don’t will not see the change coming and won’t know what hit them.
Businesses can and must have a positive impact on the world
Nearly everyone in the world interacts with a business every day. Businesses not only have an opportunity to be a force for good in the world, but a responsibility. This moral imperative goes far beyond being a more successful business, since that achievement doesn’t traditionally demand that a business takes care of all its stakeholders. Of course businesses alone can’t save the world (we’ll leave that to James Bond), but they can sure make an enormous impact if they work on it together for the people they reach.
What motivates a company to care about people? What if a basic sense of morality isn’t enough and an individual’s interests seems hopelessly diluted inside a large corporation? Companies have tremendous capability to do good for the people who support them, who increasingly won’t tolerate a gluttonous disposition. There won’t be anywhere to hide from people who prefer purpose.
And yes, companies can do their part to save the world while also making great products and making money. In fact if a business can demonstrate that it genuinely stands for something bigger than itself, it will likely attract more business and profit as a result.
Although Gen Y is loudly asking these types of questions, people have been wondering about these things for thousands of years. Gen Y’s advantage is a perspective gained from growing up in the digital age during the longest stretch of global peace the world has known, leaving most of them unfettered from direct memory of war and scarcity with hearts and minds open to any possibility.
In mindful pursuit of virtue
Aristotle understood that we are social creatures (yep, nobody has said it better). This is as true now as it was then. We play together, we work together, we love together, we cry together. We fight wars together, we starve together, we share stories together. We are who we really are together.
He believed that happiness is achieved by living an active life with steady attention to virtuous behavior (he meant lifelong well-being, not a Krispy Kreme). You can’t realize your own happiness alone, so your well-being depends largely on your relationships with people. Aristotle says, paradoxically, that one can’t specifically seek happiness; it’s just what we do as a matter of course, and comes as a by-product of all the things we do.
What separates us from other animals is our ability to reason and believe in the long-term benefit of seeking virtue over instant gratification. Each person’s set of virtues is distinct, but it has the same relationship to the purpose of the individual. Most actions that support an individual person’s purpose are considered virtuous and actions that don’t support this purpose are not.
To measure individual growth, we must have context. Interactions with others through stories provide context for virtue. Mindful pursuit of virtue does not focus on judgement and punishing bad behavior, but rather lifelong learning and improving — simply recognizing what happened and continuing to live.
How do we apply virtue to business?
There is a healthy (and warranted) skepticism toward corporations’ concern for people vs. their well-known focus on profit. If we apply Aristotle’s view of personal well-being to a corporation, we recognize a similarity between the impact of a person’s actions on the people around them and a company’s impact on all its stakeholders. These impacts can survive both the person or the company and continue to affect people for years to come.
One thing that’s different now from Aristotle’s time is the sophistication of our organizational structures. But for all the ways we are able to put people in the same place or connect them with modern technology, many companies aren’t nurturing the inherent social characteristics and virtues of their workers. This invites frustration and squanders potential.
Businesses that are committed to a steady pursuit of virtue can help create well-being for all stakeholders by guiding behavior that elevates shared prosperity. It is more challenging to define virtue for a company than for an individual. Any organization has numerous influences outside the control of any single person or group. To consider virtue in business, we must first understand Why the company belongs in our world. Only then can we begin to measure the impact it has in accordance with what its people believe.
Discover your company’s Why, the context for all stories to come
One of my greatest joys in this project is helping people begin the journey to discover their company’s Why. After more than 200 interviews with businesses over the past several months between the three of us, we’ve gotten much better about clarifying what we hear in stories. We believe that most businesses already have a core purpose within them that they are reluctant to express because the market doesn’t readily offer permission for a business to stand up for what it believes.
It takes courage to say and do what you truly believe. This is at the crux of defining the purpose, or Why, of a business.
Once you understand the importance of applying virtue to business, we can define the three essential characteristics of the Why for a business. It should be aspirational, simple and genuine.
Aspirational means that your Why may always be out of reach, or at least something that could not be perfectly sustained 100% of the time. Simon Sinek calls this the north star. It’s always pointing you in the right direction when you get lost, but you’ll never quite reach that place and therefore never get too comfortable and complacent. This reminds me of how Aristotle viewed well-being as a lifelong journey, not a destination (or was that Aerosmith, who apparently also predicted the Oculus Rift?) Aiming for something unattainable may sound counterproductive, but it fosters a sense of humility and appreciation that can lead us to our greatest potential.
In addition to being aspirational, we believe a Why should be simple, using only two to five words in most cases. If you find the ideal small handful of words, exciting things happen because they have more staying power. First, it’s easier for people to remember. This is more important than it sounds. How many people can recite the full mission statement of your company? If none or few, what’s the point? Second, there is something about the process of clarifying and distilling that forces to you to cut out anything generic and make it more meaningful for you. Consider the United States Constitution, which runs the whole country with 4,543 words including signatures, and an easily memorized preamble stating Why!
Finally (and hopefully obviously) your Why must be genuine. Your leaders must actually believe it. Chances are that your company already has a sense of purpose. You just may not have put that purpose into words. The Why in a business can iterate over time for a variety of good reasons. But each Why must be genuine for that group of people at that time. Thankfully, Gen Y demands that companies pay attention to purpose more than previous generations.
Here’s a simple test that will help you know if you’ve dug deep enough in discovering your purpose. When you tell people in your tribe about your purpose, do they feel something? If they don’t, you probably need to keep looking for those right words. Ask yourself this question: what is the greatest impact your business could have on the world? Think WAY beyond volunteer day or writing a donation check at the end of the year and consider your true motives even for these good deeds (hint: it can’t be just to get nice media coverage).
We have met people who have developed a wide variety of methodologies for discovering purpose in business. I’ll talk more about these methodologies in Part Two of this story.
Let’s talk about three organizations with clearly defined Why’s
Chicago’s Lyric Opera is one of the most prestigious opera companies in the world, if not the absolute greatest of all time (hey, I’m biased). While a not-for-profit arts organization is a bit of an anomaly in our research to learn how purpose-driven businesses tell their stories, we were immediately enchanted since Lyric is in the business of telling stories with the highest caliber production values.
Lyric has an enormous positive impact on the community through its stage productions and numerous educational programs. But their timeless story isn’t always told effectively, especially to people unfamiliar with the brand. Lyric needed to redevelop their own story from the inside out by first discovering their Why.
About halfway through hearing stories from our new friends, Adam suggested that Lyric Opera’s Why is igniting transformation through art. The energy in the room immediately changed. We all felt it. That’s what happens when you find your Why. It was there all along.
A few blocks away from Lyric Opera is BenchPrep, which believes in bridging the achievement gap to help students gain more access to higher education. I spoke with Co-founder and COO Ujjwal Gupta, a recovering nanotechnologist, who said that people from lower income families don’t achieve at the same level in life as those hailing from higher income families. It’s a worldwide problem.
BenchPrep’s software platform makes it easier for lower income students to access best-in-class standardized test prep tools, which levels the playing field with students who have access to more opportunity. Providing more education to more people should be on everyone’s agenda.
Just north of Chicago, BCDVideo is in the business of preserving justice. After CEO Jeff Burgess first met with Adam, he left and wrote a post on LinkedIn about his new Why of passionately evolving video performance. Among many other things, he and his team innovate purpose-built servers for video surveillance. There are none faster.
I followed up with Jeff a few weeks later to hear his story for myself. After chatting for awhile, it became clear to me that BCDVideo’s product served a much higher purpose of preserving justice. After all, sharper video without breaks is some of the clearest evidence we have to reveal the truth of what happened. The clearer the footage and the longer it’s stored, the easier it is for justice to be served. Jeff loved it. He’s now in the process of rallying his tribe around this new Why and building a community with people who also believe in preserving justice.
The Science of Story grows stronger with each voice we add. What matters to you?
Kevin Bugielski is the Marketing Manager for Victory Lap, a purpose-driven startup changing the sales game. Avid Snapchatter, SoulCycle lover, newfound runner, but ultimately, a foodie.