How purpose can drive your company: 4 charts

Silhouettes in gray and red
The concept of purpose is red hot in sustainability circles.

You've probably heard the stereotypes about job-hopping, fickle millennials who are never quite satisfied at work. It's easy to paint so-called Generation Y with a broad stroke, but it's more interesting to find out what makes workers of all ages tick.

It turns out that a sense of meaning, which we're increasingly coming to know as "purpose," drives people of all ages. However, twentysomethings are more direct in demanding purpose in a career, says PwC in a report today:

"They are raising the expectations on business to deliver solutions to important societal and environmental problems through their offerings, and the table stakes are only expected to get higher with the entrance of Generation Z into the workforce."

 Is the rise of purpose a fad or a trend? It's likely got legs for people who work in sustainability; the desire to make a difference is core to such work. To get to the bottom of this, PwC surveyed U.S. businesses, nonprofits and government organizations across 39 industries, collecting responses from 1,410 employees and 502 business leaders.

1. Aligning talent strategies with purpose

Everyone seeking to do great things wants great people on their team. Rather than reading the high points on a resume at surface level, hiring managers should dig deeper to understand the key values a job candidate exhibits. That's what PwC suggests when it explains, for example, "if your purpose involves improving patient wellness, then an important value is compassion, making the act of listening, empathizing, and understanding others a critical behavior." Formal trainings, mentoring programs, formalized feedback may all help, but they're not in place among most of the survey respondents.

A majority of business leaders, 79 percent, told PwC that purpose is "central to an organization's existence," but slightly less than one-third have changed their recruitment or methods to evaluate employees accordingly. Slightly more, 35 percent, said they already reward employees whose "behaviors or values" align with purpose.

2. Leadership vs. action

Again, there's a disconnect between the belief that success hinges at least partly on purpose (79 percent of respondents) and building purpose into the power structures that drive a business. Just 34 percent of those surveyed told PwC they use purpose as "a guidepost for decision-making." Why not "walk the walk?"

The report urges: Purpose must be the bedrock, the "highest principle against which strategic decisions are evaluated, especially with regards to which activities the business pursues and doesn’t pursue based on alignment with purpose. Why was the strategic decision made to vertically integrate? Why was the decision made to not expand into emerging markets?"

3. Value of purpose in the workplace

If it wasn't already clear, many hold faith in the power of purpose.  Among employees, purpose seems to be valued mostly for the warmer, fuzzier emotional and social benefits that may make a commute tolerable. Eighty-three percent of employees named purpose among their top priorities for offering meaning in daily work. More than half said for building a "strong sense of community," purpose ranked among their top three priorities. Attracting top talent and brand "distinction and differentiation" were of less concern to the rank and file.

PwC urges organizations to communicate such “human interest” stories, which help people to "personally identify with the impact of their company’s products and services, see the difference their own work makes in people’s lives, and be more inspired at work."

A whopping 72 percent of business leaders polled, on the other hand, put purpose among the top three priorities for "reputation for growth and innovation," with "distinction and differentiation" named among 66 percent. Aha! So purpose is about competitive advantage, too. Slightly more than half also cited meaning in their work.

4. Where are purpose messages being told?

Again, don't forget the human element. Contrary to the reputation of millennials communicating in soundbytes and hashtags, they expressed a greater interest in others in hearing about purpose through team leadership.

Forty-seven percent of all surveyed said they prefer hearing about purpose through leadership overall, 35 percent through team leaders and one-third through company events. Personal engagement was preferred overall. The company website may be a favored way to hear about client stories among 31 percent of respondents, but it barely registered for telling employee stories or leadership messages.

Don't b.s. your organization about purpose; sincerity about underlying values is key. PwC recommends communicating not only how purpose is driving corporate actions, but "how purpose drives what the business won’t pursue due to ill alignment. What this communicates to employees is not only sound decision-making, but also a sincere commitment...by passing up potentially profitable opportunities that are irrelevant or in conflict with its purpose."