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The purpose paradigm: Fact or fiction?

As head of a recruitment company that strives to “make work mean more”, I’m no stranger to the ongoing debate on the authenticity of prioritising a purpose-driven approach in business. Is it a genuine commitment to societal good, or is it merely a strategic move to attract and retain talent in a competitive job market? These are questions I relish discussing with fellow business leaders.

To start unpacking this conundrum, let’s rewind a few years to the Covid-19 pandemic. You might remember that, as well as layoffs, the UK workforce experienced the ‘great resignation’. Buoyed by their experience of life beyond the nine-to-five, UK workers quit their jobs in record numbers from Q3 2021 to Q4 2022.

For many, a key factor was a sense that their work no longer aligned with their personal values. Time at home led to introspection and re-evaluation: what really matters in my life? How do I want to spend my time and use my energy? Is my current setup working for me?

The lockdowns proved there were ways of achieving a better work/life balance than many were used to. When people reassessed what they wanted, it turned out not to be limited to a steady job and a regular income, although that’s obviously still important. Instead, employees were attracted to and craved meaning and purpose in their professional lives. They longed to be part of something greater and more intentionally sought corporate purpose that resonated with their values and aspirations.

What really matters

Fast forward to 2024 and the desire for meaningful work has only intensified. Future-facing companies increasingly look beyond shareholder value to social initiatives because they know that they can be forces for good in the world – whether it’s Innocent Smoothies’ desire to keep people and the planet healthy, or the Timpson Group’s commitment to hiring ex-offenders.

Of course, there’s no doubt this focus creates a virtuous circle, whereby employees feel a sense of connection with what they’re doing and why, and therefore feel more motivated to innovate and overcome challenges. Devoid of purpose, work can feel like a grind. With a purpose you believe in, however, you and your teammates are united to a higher cause, creating a sense of pride and contribution.  

Embracing a purpose-driven approach may seem daunting for profit-centric companies, but the rewards are substantial. There’s no doubt that, when we’re facing talent shortages, what a company stands for has become a crucial factor in attracting and retaining staff. Adecco’s latest industry survey underscores the importance of this, revealing that nearly three-quarters of large employers recognise the significance of purpose in staff retention. Other research from Harvard Business Review confirms that organisations with a strong purpose not only grow faster but also outperform the market consistently.

Getting started

From accessing diverse talent pools to fostering loyalty and resilience, the benefits of purpose are undeniable. But employees are demanding more than just lip service – they want tangible action and genuine commitment. So how can you establish a corporate purpose that is aligned and authentic to what your organisation actually does?

From my experience, it requires careful planning and active engagement. On our own journey, we learnt the power of involving our colleagues in defining and shaping the company’s guiding principles from an early stage. We’re a company built on people, which gives us a responsibility to raise the bar.

As a result, we examined shared values and discovered socially-minded objectives, such as breaking down barriers to employment, that could unite teams across roles and hierarchies. We also leveraged our excellent HR, change management and internal communications teams to facilitate the transition to purpose-driven practices. By prioritising comms and engagement, and gathering feedback through surveys, we’re constantly addressing and adjusting any areas that need a little extra support or awareness.

A wider view

If you need a little further inspiration, I can recommend The Heart of Business by Best Buy’s CEO Hubert Joly. In this book, he talks about how your purpose should align with what the world needs, your team’s passions, your organisation’s strengths and your ability to create value. I lead by embodying every day what it means to put people at the centre of our business, so this is something that resonates with me.  

The other three pieces of practical advice I’d give are, first, regularly remind your team of their role in fulfilling the company’s purpose. This helps to foster accountability and drive colleague satisfaction. Second, set achievable goals aligned with your overarching purpose. This helps bring people with you on the journey. And, finally, celebrate small victories. This boosts morale and reinforces the collective commitment to your mission. Every step in the right direction counts.

One further thought based on my own experience: a purpose-led approach is easy to understand, but not always so easy to put into practice. As Joly puts it, it requires a radical rethink of how we define business, how we lead and motivate, and what role work plays in our lives. But the upside is that it isn’t just a catalyst for positive change or a magnet for top talent; it’s both. By embracing purpose wholeheartedly, you can unlock a new route to financial, cultural, and societal success.

Niki Turner-Harding is country head, UK and Ireland, at Adecco. Follow her on LinkedIn here

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