We Have It Backwards: It’s Time To Start Making A Purpose Case For Business

purpose

Purpose is not the easiest thing to talk about in the context of business. It can appear intangible and traditional metrics can be uncomfortably absent.

Purpose for many may be perceived as a personal endeavor, not always professional, hampering the honest discussion that can help you understand where yours lies and its importance in creating a successful company and living a fulfilling life.

But let me give you somewhere to start: I believe, at its core, all purpose begins with a real and clear intention to serve. In business that translates to an intention to serve your employees, to serve your clients, to serve a cause, and dare I say a broader intention to serve humanity.

Accepting this idea is tough for the business leaders still clinging to a dated view that the singular purpose of a business is to “create shareholder wealth.” Long-term shareholder wealth creation is a result, not the driver, of building a business that adds real and tangible value to its ecosystem. The old myopic view has served some companies in the short term but that has hardly ever been the ticket for creating a long-term growth and building a market leading company.

It is my belief that if your company will thrive in the long run depends on whether you are building a company steeped in purpose and in your ability to communicate that purpose to your employees, your clients, your suppliers and frankly anyone else in your ecosystem willing to listen. Now, what then might be the single biggest hurdle to building a purpose driven company? It is us – the CEOs and founders of said companies. I believe that it is impossible to build a purpose driven company if we as business leaders haven’t done the work to figure out our life purpose.

“Adding real value and selfless service is in fact a tried and true long-term business strategy that will result in sustainable profitability and shareholder wealth creation.”

A company will always reflect its leadership so if we want to build true purpose driven companies we need to start by building purpose driven leaders. So, have you done the work? What is your ethos? How do you want to show up in this world? How will you contribute? How will your company reflect your views? It is practically impossible in today’s digital age to hide your intentions from the world – who you really are and what you believe will make a public appearance. Hence, no task more important for a business leader than to do this work to define who they are and what they believe and then to make a commitment to living those value.

People often misunderstand what being in the service of others means, thinking it leads to becoming a selfless martyr. Nothing could be farther from the truth, it is my experience that true and deep fulfillment can only come from being in service of others and business is an incredibly powerful platform to deliver that service. Adding real value and selfless service is in fact a tried and true long-term business strategy that will result in sustainable profitability and shareholder wealth creation.

I have put these ideas into practice at both the companies I run so what I share in this article is not theory but experiential knowledge. As a specific example, at ASGARD in the equivalent of our C-suite, each member has developed a written a document that explicitly state what they believe, who they are when the best version of them shows up, who they want to serve, and what impact they want to have in this world. Every Tuesday morning the team gets together and each member reads out loud their purpose document and commits to living that ethos. This simple practice has a profound effect in keeping our team focused on why we do what we do, not letting the pull of short term goals push us off course, and providing a real sense of purpose to the team. The way I look at it, if I can keep the leaders in my company living on purpose I have a much higher probability of building a company that is truly purpose driven which gives my company the best chance of long term and sustainable success.

Now I am not suggesting this is an easy path, especially if you are a public company CEO and the pressure of quarterly earnings are real or you are a private equity backed company CEO and your sponsor doesn’t buy into this thinking. But real leadership has always been about making the right decisions even if they are hard. The result of choosing to live on purpose is that I get to do something I love every day, I find my work rewarding and fulfilling and completely aligned with my personal values, and I get to participate in the economic success of my companies which are profitable and growing. I also get to experience this journey with my team, with companies in which we invest, and with entrepreneurs we advise. That is what the power of purpose has delivered for me.

It was not easy getting to this point. A traditional investment banking career path on wall street, followed by running a private company had left me conventionally successful but without much real fulfillment and joy. I came to realize the cumulative negative impact this was having on me via a literal hard landing. A series of extreme anxiety attacks, which first manifested when I was behind the controls of a light aircraft, put me in the hospital. That was the beginning of my realization that I wasn’t living on purpose and something needed to change. In hindsight, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, giving me the push to create a more fulfilling life, one that is more in harmony with who I am and who I want to become personally and professionally.

I’d urge you not to wait for your push. I’m not here to help you find your purpose, I’m here to tell you to start the journey. Personal experience suggests the rewards are worth it.

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Karan Rai
Karan Rai is Founder and CEO of ASGARD Partners & Co., an investment & advisory firm based in NYC. He loves working with and investing in companies led by inspired entrepreneurs and leaders who are building purpose driven organizations. Karan currently also serves as the CEO of TWI, a supply chain and logistics company based in Switzerland. Karan is a member of The WSJ CEO Council. He earned an MBA with a concentration in Finance and Strategy from Yale University’s School of Management. He is also an instrument rated pilot with over 500 hours of flight time. Karan resides in Manhattan with his wife and two sons.

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