Lucy Kellaway: Why does every company claim a ‘higher purpose’?

Firms should remember there is a glory and a skill in doing any job well

Most companies aren’t building cathedrals. They are doing less glorious things like giving tax advice. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Most companies aren’t building cathedrals. They are doing less glorious things like giving tax advice. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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In writing these words, I am not trying to improve your life. I’m not trying to change the lot of humanity. All I am trying to do is to hold your attention for the three minutes it will take you to read this.

I take my goal seriously. Readers are mostly clever people with other things they could be doing so, if I can persuade enough of you to forget all those things and read the 850 words I am writing, I will consider myself to have done my job.

To me, this aim is ambitious, yet I realise that in clinging on to it I’m an oddity. My account of what I do is devoid of what almost everyone now demands from a job: a higher purpose.

Take Asana, a company that sells instant messaging software. Last week I looked at its website, where in big type it says it exists “to help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly”. If my colleagues who use Asana are anything to go by, it is not succeeding in its aim. They are moaning about having yet another way of communicating thrust upon them.

Possibly Asana can be excused for having such a grandiose goal as it is based in Silicon Valley. Since Facebook vowed “to make the world more open and transparent” and since Microsoft promised to “empower every person and every organisation on the planet to do more and achieve more”, self-importance has been rampant.

In one way, these IT companies really have changed the world. They have made almost every other company profess to want to change it too.

Saatchi & Saatchi is an eager adherent of the we-change-the-world-for-the-better craze but, when I scanned its website for evidence of such change, I stumbled on its new Pampers Pooface advertisement. This shows the expressions of 10 babies as they defecate in slow motion to the sound of Richard Strauss. It’s quite funny. It’s nicely shot. But it surely only changes the world in that it may shift some extra packs of Pampers wipes – and it puts online more cute pictures of babies having bowel movements than were there previously.

As advertisers exist to puff up their clients, it is no surprise if they are puffing up their own role too. More bothersome is the way in which traditional companies are following the trend. 3M’s newish goal is “Advancing Every Company. Enhancing Every Home. Improving Every Life”, which is a sad, long and windy way down for the company that once improved the world’s stationery cupboard with the brilliant invention of the Post-it note.

Powerfully depressing

Yet for me the low point was discovering last week that Cummins, a solid manufacturer of engines, is at it too. “Making people’s lives better by unleashing the Power of Cummins”, reads its woeful mission.

Even the banks, which have not noticeably made the world a better place this past decade, still insist that they do. Citibank’s goals include to “enable growth and economic progress”, while Barclays’ purpose is “to help people achieve their ambitions – in the right way”.

Yet the company that is pursuing higher purpose more than any other is KPMG. It has paid an agency to design posters that ask: “What do you do at KPMG?” along with answers that include “We champion democracy” and “I combat terrorism”. The only answer no one seems to have given is “I examine company accounts and financial control systems”.

Three bricklayers

According to a recent article by the company’s HR chief, this higher purpose mission has done wonders for morale. To prove his point, he tells the hackneyed story about the three bricklayers who are asked what they are doing. The first says he is laying bricks, the second says he is building a wall, while the third says he is building a cathedral. The moral of the tale is that the third man is the visionary and the hero, and every humble worker must be encouraged to think like him.

I object to this story on three grounds. For a start, to emphasise the cathedral underplays the worth of the job itself. There is a glory and a skill in placing one brick perfectly on another. Ditto in writing a good column, and doing a good audit.

Second, most companies aren’t building cathedrals. They are doing less glorious things like giving tax advice or selling software and so have to resort to vague banalities about democracy and humanity, which are too general to be terribly motivating to anyone.

Third, the cathedral is unnecessary. If companies want a higher purpose all they need do is say they produce things people want to buy, provide jobs for people and treat them nicely.

Now I think of it, there is another thing I have against corporate higher purpose, beyond the fact that it is self-important, bogus and unnecessary. It is dreary. If I had started this column saying: “I am going to help humanity thrive”, I bet you would have stopped reading at once.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)

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