Simon Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’ TED talk went viral over eight years ago, and the concept has become so mainstream that I don’t need to expand on it here. But, as business leaders, we’re still trying to work out the application of the theory.

Purpose – personal, professional and business – was the topic of October’s Like Minds conference –  an annual two-day festival of ideas held in Exeter. Now into its eleventh year, the conference is loosely focused on business, marketing and technology.

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2018’s edition began with consultant and ex-banker, Quinton Milligan, tearing apart economist Milton Friedman’s theory that maximising shareholder returns is the best way to run a business. This line of thinking took hold in the 80’s and has led corporate strategy ever since. Well, the evidence is now in and it turns out that purpose-led businesses (those that focus on their customers, staff and communities rather than shareholders) actually create more shareholder value anyway.

Businesses, Quinton claims, only have two real obligations…

  1. Strong financial performance (so they can stay in business, pay good salaries and innovate).
  2. A positive impact on society

From then on ‘purpose’ or ‘why’, was present in every talk, no matter the subject.

IBM Watsons’ Chief Strategy Officer, Jeremy Waite’s purpose was to get the little guy excited about AI. His message, that AI is the next ‘great leveller’ and a ‘massive opportunity’ for small businesses was a new one on me. You can have a play with Watson for free here.

Twitter’s Bruce Daisley won talk of the conference. His purpose – to get more science into the workplace – is clear, neat and genuine and I, for one, was sold hook line and sinker. If you’re interested in organisational psychology (or just working better) I highly recommend you check out his podcast Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat.

Tiffany St James is passionate about improving the UK’s digital skills. And it’s just as well someone’s banging that drum as more than three-quarters of businesses struggle to find recruits with the requisite digital skills (which can be as basic as creating a word doc). Tiffany runs a digital transformation consultancy. Her purpose and her business are beautifully aligned. She sells herself by selling her purpose and we all lapped it up.

In Guy Arnolds ‘slow selling’ workshop, we learned how purpose (or customer focused mission, to borrow his language) combines with existing client marketing and sales. Create a mission, Guy said, that is about your customers (but closely tied to your services), and you have a reason to get in touch, occupy a space in their minds and look forward to many more referrals.

However you want to coin it, leading your business with a purpose makes marketing your business a hell of a lot easier.

But, is purpose enough?

Branding expert, Matt Desmier, subjected us to 20 different high-res images of Donald Trump to really hammer home the point that purpose is nothing without principles. ‘Make America Great Again’ is a customer-focused purpose. Doing so by destroying the rules-based world order, alienating allies, all while harassing women destroys the likelihood that he’ll achieve that goal. Even if he did, who’d want to be a part of it?

Matt Desmier talk, Like Minds October 2018

Mr Desmier then pointed us to Nike’s recent Colin Kaepernick campaign – ‘Believe in Something’Calculated marketing campaign or principle-led business in action? It doesn’t matter and it might be a false distinction. The point is, they’ve increased revenue, brand awareness, engagement and shareholder value by promoting their principles.

The event finished on a sombre note, with entrepreneur Chris Ward showing the effect the wrong purpose can have. To himself and the outside world, he’d ‘achieved’ everything – made loads of money, fame, broke records, written books. But while doing all of that he was destroying his marriage and his relationship with his kids. The presentation – showing his success as a silent showreel while we listened to his wife explaining the terrible effect this success had on him, her and their kids – had the audience, and your correspondent, close to tears.

Have a purpose, but make sure its the right one.

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