(An abridged version of this article first appeared online in The Fifth Estate on 10 December 2015)
This week I attended the inaugural ‘Purpose’ conference (7 & 8 December 2015, at and around the Eternity Playhouse in East Sydney www.purpose.do) – the creation of Wildwon’s Sally Hill and Yvonne Lee and their team – and learnt more, experienced more and was challenged more than at any other event I’ve attended recently.
The line-up of speakers included Powershop’s CEO Ben Burge, Adara’s CEO and Founder Audette Exel, KeepCup’s CEO and Founder Abigail Forsyth, Circular Economy Australia’s Founder Candice Quartermain, Etsy’s Managing Director Helen Souness, Sendle’s CEO and Founder James Moody, EY’s Managing Partner of Climate Change and Sustainability Services Matt Bell, and Bank Australia’s Managing Director Damien Walsh – amongst a multitude of stellar presenters, dreamers and visionaries. The all-inspiring, all-singing, all-quoting sustainability expert Matt Wicking acted as facilitator, and kept things on-time, on-point and on-message.
Many decades ago, the American industrialist Henry Ford noted that a business should be “an instrument of service rather than a machine for making money”, and the conference dialogue stayed around this theme; how best to manage a business with purpose, that looks after both its shareholders and its stakeholders, and that stays true to its values and objectives.
So what key points did I take home after two Purpose-ful days?
1. It’s all about the ‘why’ – businesses must be clear about who they are, what they do and, most importantly, why
It may seem obvious, but many organisations are clear about what they do then struggle to communicate why they do it. So strengthening the ‘why’, out of which can flow the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, is imperative. Matt Perry from Conscious Capitalism Australia was clear that “business success needs higher purpose, strong leadership, authentic culture and stakeholder engagement” and speaker after speaker confirmed that people everywhere are crying out for a different way of doing business; and the future success of business is going to come from humans, not technology alone.
That different way is not just purpose-driven, but sets out a vision of how we want things to be. Matt clarified that “As taxpayers, where do we want our money invested to create a better future? Subsidies shouldn’t be given to things that have no future.” Creativity expert Suzanne Boccalatte went on to explain that organisations should “put the purpose first and do the design and branding later, when the ‘why’ is totally clear”. Only then can your strategic directions be communicated.
2. Stay true to your purpose, even as things change around you
Organisations start, grow and evolve, but many forget about or overlook their purpose in their attempts to chase dollars, or simply get distracted by an ambitious strategic plan and lose sight of core values. Try to remember why the organisation exists. For example, Bank Australia exists to create mutual prosperity for their customers, not to ensure massive returns for shareholders; Managing Director Damien Walsh’s advice was to “be prepared for your purpose to change over time”, noting theirs altered considerably during their evolution. As Eleanor Glenn from Common Cause Australia added, “Lead with your purpose – the money is just an enabler – and strengthen your intrinsic values (and those of your customers) along the way.”
And don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes (instead of just covering them up). As StartSomeGood’s CEO and Founder Tom Dawkins pointed out, “Success gives false learnings; you think you know why you succeeded but often you don’t. Failure can teach you so much.” Social Traders’ Head of Market Mark Daniels pointed out that, while working in a socially disadvantaged area of Melbourne, he’d learned “procurement is the greatest untapped tool for social change” and that management behaviours should learn to change with the business and the market.
3. Keep things personal – make sure your organisation’s values are truly in line with your own
This message was exciting to hear. Audette Excel reminded us that “you get to carve your own path if you decide you want to have a life with purpose” and to “be one hundred per cent yourself – stand in your own power and shine”. As she put it, confirming your organisation’s purpose often starts with “that scary moment when you step outside your own tribe and come face-to-face with your own prejudice”. Frightening but enlightening.
Hello Sunday Morning’s CEO Chris Raine said, “If you're at an organisation where you're not inspired by the purpose, you need to leave and find one where you are”, and this theme was echoed by many speakers and audience members alike; people want to be inspired by their work, not tolerate it. The ‘wealth’ aspect might seem daunting, but the ‘health’ benefits of an organisation with purpose and values in line with your own are clear.
As the Wildwon team pointed out, “business doesn’t have to be bullish, ‘blah’ and blue-suited … it can be hopeful and inspiring”. All of the “explorers and adventurers of this brave new world of business” who attended were reminded that they are “the future of business … surrounded by people breathing life back into the culture of companies, the character of ‘business’ and into our economy”. And that was, indeed, something to feel good about.
By the end of the first day, ‘#Purpose2015’ was trending at number one for Australia on Twitter, and the conversations around the gender-balanced audience and panels (a long time since I’ve seen both of those!) continued to reflect those bursts of inspiration that the speakers had stimulated.
From the beautifully laser-cut name tags to the elegantly lit fluffy white clouds hanging around the Eternity Playhouse, and from the stylish coffee cart right outside the venue to the signposts helping you find each location, the whole event was professionally curated and run not just with intent but with the determination to rub together the best minds in the business. Mission accomplished.
I will be there next year, KeepCup and values at the ready.
(N.B. If you're searching online for more information about the conference, please try not to confuse ‘Purpose 2015’ with the new Justin Bieber album. Whilst I’m sure the latter is just great, I did not spend two days listening to it but instead found my inspiration in the former.)
So tell me about YOUR purpose - are you clear why your business exists?
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.