On Purpose


Purpose is one of the most talked about business topics across the globe right now. As Hong Kong’s first Chief Purpose Officer, Karen Seymour helps companies build success by connecting their people to purpose and focusing on doing well as a business and doing good for society.  Karen is a recognized movement-maker and strategic thinker and her experience spans industries in the corporate world and as an entrepreneur which guides her work in helping leaders bring purpose to life. Human at work sat down with Karen to ask her everything you wanted to know about purpose.

What does purpose really mean?

Purpose sets out why we exist, where we fit in the world and why we matter. Purpose is always human-centred and aspirational, creating a connection of our hearts and minds to something bigger than ourselves. 

Why is purpose important?

Purpose gives us meaning and value, excites us, helps us focus on doing well and makes us feel like we are contributing to something important as a powerful “north star” - it guides the decisions of both individuals and organizations to bring value. 

It helps companies build short and long-term value, mitigate risk, enhance reputation and brand value, attract and retain the right employees, increase the fulfillment of employees, build bonds with customers and create positive PR and social media buzz. I’d go as far as saying purpose, and the related work we are doing to help unlock human potential at human at work, is revolutionary.  It’s a game-changer for businesses.

What are the most impactful ways that purpose can help a company move forward?

Purpose drives innovation, and purpose builds stronger collaborations.

When companies focus on purpose, they tap the ideas of their people. Innovations are born and opportunities for new products, new business lines and long-term growth develop. Focusing on solving societal needs using business strengths is one of the greatest innovations companies can focus on for long-term sustainable business and global growth. People in society who are winning when companies help them are future customers, employees and drivers of economic prosperity.

When purpose-driven companies reach out to customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders along the value chain, relationships strengthen and everybody wins.

What about CSR, philanthropy and shared value?

There is an evolution to purpose from “responsible business”, which solely focused on building reputation and mitigating risk. Purpose involves a much more strategic focus on building long-term, sustainable success versus strictly giving or spending (i.e. via philanthropic giving or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives). It is aligned to business, benefits multiple stakeholders and creates strong business value.

Philanthropy, CSR, cause marketing and shared value are all important ways that companies can deliver purpose. They are the “how”, and purpose is the “why”.

How do you help companies activate purpose?

I help leaders understand the power of purpose. It doesn’t have to be a major hurdle or a multi-year project, but it does require strong intention and leadership. There is a lot that companies can do to build upon the work, passion and focus that’s there within their business, leaders and employees already. Marks & Spencer is a great example. In 2006 the CEO gave a small team 3 months to launch a plan to be a global sustainability leader. The team recognized that plenty was being done already, but connections and strategy needed to be built to take it to the next level. Seventeen iterations and 3 months later, Plan A was born, and has brought almost US$1 billion in savings, plus countless other tangible and intangible benefits to the company and their stakeholders over 10 years. 

The most impactful examples of purpose are when they are CEO-led, embedded into the strategy and operations, aligned throughout the organization, people-centric, frequently and well communicated and scaled inside and outside of the organization through collaboration. 

My work also focuses on helping organizations to activate purpose once they are keen to move ahead, whether startup or corporate. I help leaders and practitioners to create strategies and systems for implementing purpose across an organization to enable, empower and inspire stakeholders for long-term success.

I also love to share what I’ve seen and learned about purpose widely so that more ideas and actions can be sparked to create a more purposeful world. 

How do employees get connected to their company’s purpose?

A company needs to empower its people to think about how they and the company can make life better. Making it easy for people and supporting them is key.  And, people need to be unleashed! Most people want to help and are wired for creating positive change, they just need to be asked, their ideas need to be heard, and they need to be harnessed for action.

Fostering the right culture is important for success, and this can be as simple as giving recognition for ideas and action in communities, providing powerful feedback loops through direct managers and peers, coaching and encouraging collaboration.

How does a company know that purpose is “working”

People love to use metrics to measure what’s working or not. When purpose works, and a company is thriving, people feel it, right from the moment the CEO sets the intention to be purpose-driven. Most people have the capacity to value things that are unmeasurable. That is powerful. And those are the people you want with you, helping to build a successful, sustainable, great company. 

Beyond that, in a purpose-driven company, we know that employees are more fulfilled and productivity rises, as much as three times. Prospective employees feel the energy of a company asking its own people to help around important causes. We see higher talent attraction at work - college graduates often ask companies about their purpose beyond profits and millennials, who make up 35% of our global workforce, want meaningful work. Customers and consumers align with organizations around purpose, so stickiness increases and revenues and customer retention follows. Suppliers and other key players along the value chain want to be included in all this good work, and can reap long-term benefits winning more business. Communities appreciate that companies care and that value of goodwill is generated and powerful.

What is your purpose and how do you live that?

My purpose is to help energize people and companies around purpose, so that people, businesses and society can thrive. I live this purpose everyday by being mindful, empathetic and observant. This helps me to understand why and how people seek meaningful work and lives. Businesses can and are activating purpose. We need to learn what works well so that we can drive impact and success for people, companies and society. That’s how we all win and how we can thrive.

human at work is a global strategy lab.  We craft strategy for the human experience.  We help CEOs and their teams create awesome companies and build great businesses for humans by developing the breakthrough plans to win and grow. We work with multinationals, brands, retail and technology players, leaders facing disruption and leaders leading disruption. We help to make transformation stick, fast.  For more information on what we do and who we are, check us out at  www.human-at.work.

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