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Breakfast with purpose

Will Ng reflects on a successful start to the day.

Imagine you are alone, in the forest. A bit like a dream in
Inception, you are not quite sure how you got here. The fog around you is rapidly thickening, obscuring your vision and reducing your visibility. Suddenly all you can see are bare tree trunks all around you in a cloud of fuzzy whiteness. As the dampness creeps in, you start to feel cold shivers down your spine, and no matter how loudly you shout, your voice just gets devoured. You try to find your way out, but uncertainty hits you after a couple of steps. “What if I go the wrong way?” But you are not panicking yet; you have plenty of resources and tools to hand. Sure, you cannot see very far, but you don’t feel particularly threatened right now. It’s not like there are beasts, monsters or other dangers lurking around, right? Right.

“Best get out of here soon, before things take a turn for the worse.” But how?

Living a largely materialistic, lightning-speed lifestyle in what is a densely populated metropolis where personal space is often an enormous luxury, we rarely have the time or opportunity to sit down quietly and reflect. When was the last time you sat down and seriously asked yourself, why are we in the business that we are in? Beyond the pay cheques that we bring home at the end of each month to pay the bills, why do we spend at least 8 hours a day doing the work that we do?

It has always been our firm belief that reflection and introspection are a vital part of any successful business, so what better time to do this than now, 18 months into the founding of The Purpose Business? To this end, we recently co-hosted a couple of Breakfast With Purpose reflective sessions with our friends Jeff and Laurie from Within People. We invited a number of our friends too – well-known brands in Hong Kong – and spent a whole morning reflecting on the purpose of our businesses, making sense of why we do what we do. It was refreshing to take this opportunity to speak freely and candidly, listen and learn about others. As one of the participants said, it was a “good platform and good to have interaction with others from different industries”.

So where do we begin? Whilst we framed our discussions with a business lens, we also recognise that the life and soul of any business is its people. One thing that became apparent quite early on was that each participant felt the importance of alignment between their own purpose and values on a personal level, with those of the businesses that they worked for. It was this alignment that energised them, gave meaning to their jobs and won them over other potentially more lucrative offers elsewhere. One of the participants recognised the practical value too, commenting that purpose is essential for motivating people to “think of how to work smarter and make life easier”.

Critically, the purpose of any business is not to maximise profits for its shareholders, a question that came up several times. We often hear that the success of a business is measured by its profits, but as Jeff neatly puts it, “profit is only an outcome; the result of a game well played.” The idea that of maximising profits for shareholders is narrow-minded and nonsensical – it only serves a minuscule portion of the business’s stakeholders.

Fundamentally, the purpose of any business is to serve people and society – creating or adding value for them, in whatever shape or form. If it were able to achieve or even excel at this, then profit would naturally follow. But in order to serve others well, the business would need to be highly cognisant of its purpose; it needs to know why it is doing X or selling Y. Just as with the employees, an alignment between the purpose of a business and its customers can have a powerful resonance and emotional appeal.

This idea is actually well-explained by Simon Sinek in his popular TED talk, where he uses the “Golden Circle” of why, how and what drawn as concentric circles, with why in the middle and what on the outside. He argues that businesses that start with the why are more successful than those that start with the what. When a company engages its customers with its beliefs and purpose, it directly speaks to the parts of their brains responsible for feelings and emotions. This, in turn, builds a (long-term) relationship rather than a transaction.

So what is the purpose of our businesses, other than “to serve society and its people”? As we reflected on this question with our coffees and muffins, many of us actually felt that we already knew the answer. It was in our gut instinct, yet somehow we couldn’t quite get the words out. Or when we did, we realised the words weren’t quite right. Working in groups and with colleagues where possible, participants focussed on three key questions that would help them frame and express their purpose clearly.

Firstly, what is the problem that our business is trying to solve? By definition every business, no matter what size or how diversified, is solving a problem, which needs to be the “right” size. “All human suffering in the world” is too big a problem to tackle, but “financial illiteracy at the bottom of the economic pyramid” is much more manageable and realistic. Understanding exactly what our problem is helps us clarify how we can serve others.

Next, so what if we can reduce or eliminate financial illiteracy? What impact would it have? What does it mean for the people, society and planet? What are the downstream effects?

Finally, what role is the business playing in the context of the problem and impact? How does it fit into the big picture? Perhaps the business is a financial educator; or an innovative credit rating agency; or a micro-finance lender. Being specific about our role enables us to focus our resources and capabilities, draw clear boundaries of responsibilities and accountabilities, as well as devise long-term strategies.

What was quite interesting to observe was the thought processes that went into the purpose-finding exercises, particularly as many of the participants came from different backgrounds with different perspectives. Some came alone and worked with people from other companies, whilst others came with colleagues and worked as a team. All of this cooked up fascinating dynamics and a great atmosphere!

So now we have a clearly articulated purpose statement, serving as the guide for important business decisions and the reference point for challenging times. But this is only the starting point for any purposeful business. We must also be clear about our values – this is our moral compass that sets out how we conduct business. What or who are we doing business at the expense of? Are there any adverse unintended consequences of our business decisions?

At The Purpose Business, we believe that understanding your purpose and values are part and parcel of great leadership; they are not only a strong sense of responsibility, but also a duty to all your stakeholders. Without purpose as the guide and values as the compass, we would all get lost in this foggy forest that is full of complexities and uncertainties. The purpose conversation shouldn’t be a one-off occurrence either; we must ensure our purpose remains relevant and has positive impact on the world.

So, see you at the next purposeful breakfast?

Apart from Jeff and Laurie from Within People, who facilitated the exercises, we would also like to extend our thanks to Vincent from Test Kitchen, for providing a fantastic venue, which itself has a purposeful story. As one of the participants noted, the session had “great people, great content and great venue – the perfect ingredients to inspirational insights.”


Original Post: October 28, 2016
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