Retrofitting purpose in professional services firms

  • Edward Haigh

Ever since Simon Sinek scribbled his “golden circle” on a flipchart at a TED talk in 2009, the business world has been infatuated with purpose. Most of us had been focused on the what and the how of our business, Sinek told us. We needed to focus on the why.

Sinek’s idea was perfectly timed: It helped to explain the success of Apple at a moment when Steve Jobs was starting to be talked about in almost messianic terms, and anticipated a decade in which the environment, the #metoo movement, the Covid pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement would catapult ESG issues to the very top of the corporate agenda.

There was, though, a problem with it. Or rather, there was a problem with the reaction to it. Early in his talk, Sinek brushed aside the idea of profit being synonymous with purpose, suggesting that instead, profit ought to be seen as the result of purpose. That kept his idea pure and provided a template for a perfect-world scenario: Get the why right (not forgetting the how and the what) and profit would be generated as a by-product of everything you did. But in the years since, the fevered scramble to find purpose (at least in long-established organisations) has had more than a feint whiff of profit-making about it and has, therefore, tended to lack authenticity.

Within the professional services industry, the search for purpose is further complicated by the fact that firms’ business activities are inextricably linked with those of their clients. This often results in statements about purpose that sound fluffy, superficial, contrived or confused. And, in some cases, all of those. Most fail to convince me that the firm really has an answer to how purpose and profit sit alongside each other, or, more fundamentally, how discussions about discovering and communicating purpose should even begin. On which basis, if somewhat unscientifically, I’d like to propose that there are three main purpose models, and that a firm should pick one.

Direct

Arguably the most meaningful of the three, this model sees purpose as a direct expression of a firm’s business activities, and vice-versa.

Examples of a direct purpose would be an accounting firm committing to bringing greater financial probity to the business world or a firm that specialises in supply chain consulting committing to building ethically-sound supply chains. The test here is whether an increase in business activity has a one-to-one relationship with an increase in what we might call purpose fulfilment. So, using the above example, the supply chain consulting firm would need to turn away any work that wasn’t directly concerned with the creation of a more ethically-sound supply chain, arguably, if only theoretically, including work for companies whose supply chains were already beyond reproach. It also stands to reason that a firm’s own track record in relation to its purpose needs to be spotless.

It’s a very hard thing for a large firm with diverse business activities to commit to, precisely because those activities are too diverse to find a common expression.

Most firms try to do it anyway and end up talking about being a positive force for change or making the world a better place; statements that, for all their nobility and even authenticity, probably lack the power they should have in terms of their ability to attract and galvanise talent and clients.

Indirect

Rather than trying to align profit and purpose, this model embraces duality and seeks to find a purpose outside of profit-generating business activities. Unencumbered by the need to find a link between purpose and business activities, an indirect purpose could be anything: A firm might, for example, decide to direct a share of its profits to alleviating poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, or it might decide to use its own organisation as an example of something that it cares particularly passionately about, like narrowing the pay gap between the most senior and most junior employees. For all the lack of direct connection to a firm’s business, this model can be every bit as powerful, and is probably more so than an ill-conceived and unconvincing attempt at the direct model.

The key here is focus: With this indirect model, purpose could quickly become seen as an umbrella under which a wide range of activities—like charity donations—are housed. But purpose, I think, implies something greater and more specific than that. It should be simple and powerful.

Hybrid

The hybrid model, as the name suggests, sits somewhere between the two. It’s used where direct purpose is a hard thing to achieve well, but some sort of link between purpose and business activities is desired.

From a professional services perspective, this might involve a law firm playing a part in promoting universal access to legal services, in part by providing equitable access to its own services. It doesn’t really fit the direct model because the one-to-one relationship between business activities and purpose fulfilment is unlikely to exist (there’s still going to be a lot of money-generating work for wealthy clients), but there’s power in the idea of using your existing capability to do something else or support someone else. After all, you’re presumably better placed than most other people or organisations in the world to do it.

Which of these models will work best is something that’s likely to vary from firm to firm; the key, I think, is firstly to find a way to approach discussions about purpose before they head off down routes that lead nowhere useful, and secondly, to be honest about your motivations and your limitations. What that would reveal is that for many large professional services firms the direct model, at least as a retrofit exercise, is often inauthentic, impotent, or both.

And the search for purpose deserves a better result than that.