What’s the purpose of a secret purpose?

Midnight. Outside it’s dark, but in the neon-bright office, Joshua, a junior consultant, runs his hand across his two-day-old beard. “Remind me,” he says to Sophie, slumped opposite him, “what I’m doing here.”

“Because we have to finish this report before 9am tomorrow,” she mumbles, while what little remains of her social life flashes in front of her eyes. “It’s why I delayed my wedding.”

“No, no, that’s not it”—Joshua scans the room for inspiration—“I’m sure there was something else.”

“Because we want to sell more work?”

“No… Ah.” Joshua scrabbles in his laptop bag, and triumphantly pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. “It’s here, our purpose as a consulting firm. We’re here to make a difference. We should say that tomorrow.”

Sophie looks horrified. “Shh, that’s a secret we’re not supposed to talk about outside the office.” She points to the large red lettering: FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY. “If we tell people about it they might start holding us to it.”

Some of my articles on this blog have been met with what I like to think is silent appreciation, but others seem to be magnets for comments, good and bad. So it was with this piece on EY’s purpose. Words cannot describe how quickly my mailbox filled up with firms keen to point out that they, too, have a purpose. Indeed, I can no longer enter my office for the weight of material I’ve been sent on the subject. Delightful reading though this has all been, I fear it still misses the point. The key is not in having a purpose, it’s in telling other people about it, it’s in nailing it to the front of your office, not to an internal wall. It’s in shouting about it so loudly that you positively invite the outside world to hold you to it. And what I’ve discovered from my now extensive reading is that almost every consulting firm has a purpose, but just not one they choose to tell people about.

What’s the purpose of a secret purpose? Why keep something so very important in a back room, a dank basement, or a laptop bag? Modesty plays a role: some firms think that to talk about their purpose would be to sound arrogant: Who are junior consultants such as Joshua and Sophie to claim they’re adding value? Clients would either be offended, or fall around laughing. Fear is another factor: Because some of the purposes firms have are aspirational, there’s a danger that future ambition stumbles over current practice. It sets what might be an unrealistic expectation and the failure to achieve it today damages, rather than enhances, a firm’s reputation. There’s also the possibility that purpose is actually designed for an internal audience: it’s there to act as a north star for a consulting firm’s employees—to let them know what they’re there for, and to keep them there. But I think all of those points are dwarfed by a bigger issue. Most purpose statements are derived internally: If there’s to be any chance of them being authentic, then the process by which they’re arrived at must rely on digging into the collective values of an organisation. Only very rarely does it appear to involve speaking to clients about what they see as the firm’s purpose, and whether they think that having a purpose is important. In the absence of that data, doubts creep in. Are clients secretly laughing at them? Do clients care about purpose?

Having this data might just be the key to unlocking the real potential of purpose in the consulting industry. Without it, I suspect, purpose will remain the industry’s best-kept secret.