While presenting at a conference a few years ago, I surveyed those in attendance to discover what they felt the purpose was for the companies for which they worked. 77% of the people who responded (243 of 315) chose money as the reason their companies existed (e.g., earnings, shareholder value, etc.).
The results were not really surprising since the financial side of the business often receives the most attention by senior leaders. Also, the actions taken in response to a decline in earnings tend to affect a greater number of employees than when the other parts of the business suffer.
Why it Matters
A company's purpose drives its business strategies, including direction, investment related to products and services, marketing, people development, and processes. On the highest level, the purpose drives the decisions regarding whether the company will compete on the basis of innovation, low costs, or product and service features.
A clear purpose also helps to motivate people by giving meaning to the work they do and build teamwork by providing a common focus. Without clarity, people will define the purpose in their own terms, resulting in internal battles and a breakdown in teamwork because of conflicting ideas regarding what the company is trying to achieve.
Is it Money?
Those who have read my book or other posts on this blog know that I believe a company's purpose should be focused on serving a need in society (in other words, providing something that potential customers value). Although it is important for any company to be financially successful, this is the effect - not the cause - of serving customers well.
For example, suppose a privately-held manufacturer of relief valves defines its purpose as, to help protect homes and lives by providing high-quality and reliable temperature & pressure relief protection. Further, suppose that the company's focus on offering highly reliable, easy-to-install valves at a reasonable price lead to dramatic success and growth. To grow further, though, the decision is made to take the company public.
Now that it has become a publicly traded company, does it make sense for management to change its purpose from protecting homes and lives to increasing shareholder value? In other words, should the focus now shift from customers to shareholders? Obviously not, but this is, in effect, what many companies have done over the years.
What Others Have Said
Peter Drucker wrote that the purpose of a business is to create a customer. In his book, The Practice of Management, Drucker wrote, "the profit motive and its offspring, maximization of profits, are just as irrelevant to the function of a business, the purpose of a business, and the job of managing. In fact, the concept is worse than irrelevant. It does harm. It is the major cause for the misunderstanding of the nature of profit in our society and for the deep-seated hostility to profit which are among the most dangerous diseases of an industrial society."
Many people may be surprised to learn that, during a March 2009 interview with the Financial Times, Jack Welch [link] referred to focusing on shareholder value as a dumb idea. Often considered as the creator of the shareholder value movement in business (a fact disputed by Welch), he added that, "shareholder value is a result, not a strategy," and that the main focus should be on employees, customers, and products.
Serve First, Collect Later
The point of all this is to emphasize the importance of developing (and sticking with) a clear purpose - and that it is not related to making money. Focusing on financial gain leads to short-term decisions and cost cutting that, although well-intended, tend to damage the organization's future. A focus on shareholder value may lead to satisfied stockholders (at least in the short-term), but dissatisfied customers and employees. A focus on the customer, on the other hand, can lead to happy customers, employees, and shareholders.