It’s a story I’ve heard from many people throughout my working life; “when I started my career, I wanted a job that would make the world a better place, but I couldn’t afford to work for a charity – so I went into the private sector . . .”
The implication is that they ‘compromised’ their ideals and values in pursuit of decent work. But perhaps today that ‘compromise’ is not required, and it’s possible to find a great job in a successful company that also makes a contribution to the world’s social and environmental problems.
Interest in roles with ‘purpose’ seems to be growing for people at all stages of their career. At the Saïd Business School – where I am a social impact industry careers advisor – more and more MBA students are looking for a job with a social or environmental purpose, and many of them are finding those within the private sector, including with traditional post-MBA target companies in the financial services and consulting sectors.
Roles in companies that are obviously about making social impact – in a CSR or sustainability team – are in relatively short supply (although I’m trying to make more through my consulting work with companies). Positions at B Corps receive twice as many applicants as their private sector counterparts and realistically not everyone can do a job with “purpose” in the title – but they aren’t the only jobs which contribute to creating social value.
The key to finding these jobs is to recognise the role that companies are now playing in delivering social value. By working in a company with a genuine commitment to a clear purpose people can live their values through their work life without being in a specific social impact role.
The new middle ground
Some people still believe the most impactful way to ‘do good’ in the private sector is to earn as much money as possible then give it away, and for many this may well be the best thing to do. But others crave a closer relationship between what they do all day as a job, and the delivery of social value.
There’s widespread acceptance that private sector companies are a necessary part of the solution to the world’s social and environmental problems. Collectively, it seems that we’ve become increasingly agnostic about where positive change comes from and are looking to a middle ground where nonprofits, government and private sector businesses collaborate to create change.
This then has an effect on our views about our careers. It seems we are more willing to switch sectors in pursuit of making a social impact than in the past. Potential employees are often looking to find an organisation whose values match their own, not just one that needs their skills. Equally, they may be less willing to work for an organisation which pays highly but isn’t a values match.
Companies are increasingly aware of the importance of articulating a purpose beyond profit, and beyond their commercial objective, to attract employees. HR Directors I’ve spoken to recently all mention being asked more frequently by applicants about company values and the opportunity to be involved in the company’s social impact programmes – with candidates assessing whether the responses are authentic, or just lip service.
This may have started as a trend among millennials looking for their first job, but it also seems to be true of older employees – who are becoming more open about their wish to work for a values-based company – and across different sectors, including retail. One senior manager in a global public company told me recently, “we can’t hire the sales talent we need without having an authentic social purpose programme.”
The argument about the value of social purpose for businesses has been won: the challenge now is putting purpose into practice in a way that is attractive, authentic and delivers real social value.
Spot authenticity vs. ‘purpose-wash’
As Larry Fink said, “Purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a company’s fundamental reason for being.” Purpose that looks like an afterthought is not likely to fool, or attract, the talent a business is looking for.
One test of authenticity is to see how a company showcases social purpose on its website – is it represented as a siloed CSR function? Is it solely focused on employee volunteering? Or does the company have a clearly articulated overarching objective, with goals and metrics to show progress which are included in their Annual Report alongside financial results?
Another ‘test’ is to see how a company’s social purpose is aligned with the ‘company’s fundamental reason for being’ – does the social purpose make sense? Is it aligned with the commercial purpose and resources? Is it embedded throughout the business and its operations?
Establishing a material, embedded social purpose strategy has to be the place for a company to start, rather than adding the word ‘purpose’ to its job adverts.
Involve everyone in delivering your company’s purpose
This is the hard part – which some companies are starting to do well. Everyone from your junior sales associate through to your global head of customer success is keen to be involved in delivering the company’s social purpose objectives, so how do you enable that?
Companies who are doing this well are moving towards having a small strategic team who own, and are expert in, the area of chosen social or environmental impact. They report at a very high level in the company, and also need to work across all parts of the organisation.
To integrate social purpose into everyone’s roles, responsibility for delivering the vision should be devolved throughout the entire company, with all employees being empowered to act. It can be very difficult to implement from the top down, or sideways from a CSR team, as nobody is familiar with the minutiae of the day to day work done by each person in the company.
Cross-company engagement is needed to ensure all departments, teams and people understand the vision and goals, and their role in delivering them, and to get them to think through what resources or influence they can apply, what things they can do, or changes they can make to deliver the vision.
If everyone knows the purpose and the strategy, then everyone and anyone can identify and implement smaller opportunities to align with the purpose and values. By empowering every person, team and department to make adjustments to how they operate, a business can achieve large-scale change much more quickly.
Part of the struggle for authenticity with company purpose happens when the right hand and left hand don’t match up. There’s little point in having great external-facing CSR if the company has poor governance in other parts of the business.
Ensuring that everyone in the business knows its values – and feels they have a means of contributing to them – will unleash the potential of the whole business for positive impact. It will also help to show new candidates and employees the good that they can do through their day to day roles.
Follow your North Star
And a final thought for people looking for a career with purpose – think about setting your own ‘North Star’. What is the social or environmental change you would like to see in your lifetime? What are your values? Knowing these will help you find a place to work where you can start contributing.
It may take you your whole career, and many job and company changes, to feel you’ve made progress. But if you have a goal and you accept you can get there gradually, it will help you to decide at each step along the way whether a new role or company, is a good fit for you.
In the private sector, there are a growing number of opportunities for people with purpose to make a difference – and the companies that help them to do so will benefit both themselves and society.
To learn more about the work of Profit with Purpose, and see how we can help you develop your social purpose strategy, visit https://profitwithpurpose.co.uk/