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Scaling the heights with a purpose

By 3p Contributor

by Adam Woodhall - The Crowd event, held monthly in central London, always offers thought-provoking themes, and the June edition didn't disappoint. Held at the impressive HQ of the ICAEW, we considered the importance of Purposeand were also challenged to consider how the organisations represented, Patagonia Clothing and Grant Thornton UK LLP, could be connected.

What initially connects these contrasting organisations is what, at first view, appears to be very different people who represented their organisations for the evening. Rick Ridgewayis an American man in his 60s who is the Public Engagement VP of a clothes manufacturer, and Sascha Romanovitcha British woman in her 40s who is the leader of an accountancy firm.  An inspiring connection is they have both scaled the heights: for example, Rick having climbed Mount Everest and Sascha serving the first female to be elected as CEO of a major accountants.

Furthermore, they both shared a passion for their organisations’ mission and purpose; and sitting at the front of the auditorium, I could tangibly feel this emotion.

Patagonia mission:

"Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."

Grant Thornton mission:

"Shaping a vibrant economy"

Where does this purpose come from?  Whilst it has plenty of logical, head-based rationalisations, what was clear is that for these two leaders, it also comes from the heart.  Throughout the engaging discussion, facilitated with a smooth and steady hand by Axel Threlfall, Editor-at-Large of Reuters, the speakers authentically kept returning to these purpose statements.

An example of how these organisations are representing their purpose is not only with what they are doing, but what they are not doing.  In addition to reducing their environmental harm, Patagonia also famously ran an advert that stated “Don’t buy this jacket”.  Rick stressed this wasn't a marketing trick; they genuinely want people to buy less stuff, including their own. 

The financial services industry has had its challenges in the past decade, and, as Sacha admitted, no business is "whiter than snow”. However, she believes past inaction shouldn't put organisations off aligning to their purpose.  An example is that her business will not work with clients who want to pay no tax.

What are the rational reasons for a purpose, then?  An online poll run by The Crowd asking where attendees thought the business case for purpose is the strongest, produced a clear majority: 56% believed it was more engaged employees.  Again, both companies showed similarities: for example, Patagonia receives between 300 and 1200 applications for all jobs, and Grant Thornton's employee turnover is down over 25%.  The second most popular reason for purpose, with 28% voting for it, was innovation; that idea also came across clearly from both organisations, with numerous illustrations given demonstrating a fresh approach to business. 

Talking from the heart again, both speakers gave inspiring examples. Sascha invoked Michelangelo's exultation that "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it" and suggested it is the role of the CEO to find the purpose in an organisation.  Rick delighted us with the policy that Patagonia workers can go surfing whenever they want, as long as they don't let their co-workers down.

In conclusion, the discussion demonstrated that purpose could bind companies on a mission and connect two seemingly very different organisations and people.  I'll leave the last words to Sascha: "Our people ask themselves: 'What do I care about? What does my business care about?' If you get those two aligned, you're pretty much there."

Photo: Elina Yumasheva

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