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Reconciling Purpose and Performance

October 11, 2021 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Companies that have defined their purpose say they want to do well by doing good: they want to contribute to a better world and make money at the same time. This is the corporate translation of the fantastic book The meaning of human existence by biologist Edmund O. Wilson. Professor Wilson writes that the meaning of human existence is characterized by the way we humans deal with our permanent internal conflict of conscience between selfishness and altruism. Human beings are amongst the rare species which have both drives: they want to take care of themselves and look after others. That is exactly what companies want to achieve that are both purpose-led and performance-driven.

I think that purpose and performance don’t necessarily reinforce each other, but that trade-offs have to be made. Examples are trade-offs between healthy profits and healthy wages or between saving costs on supplies and purchasing materials that minimize the ecological footprint. Unilever for example wants to deliver 4G growth: topline, bottomline, responsible, sustainable. Those arrows will not by definition point to the same direction.

As a company you have to make a profit to stay alive. But is that profit a primary goal or a result of serving others? You cannot surive if you don’t make a profit, but neither can you be successful in a world that fails. How do you reconcile purpose and performance?