Just over a decade ago, I was flying high. I was 29 years old. I ran what I believed was one of the most exciting companies in existence - a blend of ad agency, design studio, anthropology department and strategy house that was working with some of the world's biggest and best companies to drive human insight and creative thinking into the heart of their business strategy through innovation.
I was also a multi-millionaire on paper; had serious VC sniffing around; about 50 staff ready to make awesome create projects happen in an instant; a fabulous hipster office in London, complete with vintage air hockey table shipped in from Texas; had been featured in the FT and Advertising Age amongst many others; had three Gold frequent flyer cards in my wallet; and had just been invited to No.10 Downing Street to give some of my ideas on innovation in a digital age to the Prime Minster's team.
Yet something was wrong. Something was missing. And it brought me to my knees.
After five years in the fast lane of New Economy entrepreneurship, I was emotionally frazzled and physically exhausted. Yet even with all the challenges of running a fast-moving company, with much reflection, my experience of burn-out was less about the stress of running a rapidly-growing business and more about the realization, deep within, that I had built a company that was not aligned with my purpose.
I embarked on intensive leadership development. In a moment of inconvenient truth, I grokked that I was using the most powerful tools for change known to our species - the majesty of human science, philosophy and creativity wrapped up in what I have since called "Breakthrough Biodynamics" - to help rich companies get richer by inventing stuff with little thought to the social or environmental consequences. There is nothing wrong with making lots of money. Growth is great. But it must contribute to the world and not come at the expense of it. Eating my own caviar, I sought to clarify and embody, fully, my purpose in all that I do. I have been unpacking that breakthrough ever since.
After deep diving into all of my past and potential, I came to the realization that my purpose included harnessing those same tools and talents to solve problems that really matter to the world by bringing more consciousness, creativity and collaboration into our lives and businesses. Within weeks, I had exited my wildly successful business to set up WECREATE Worldwide, a company that sits (often challengingly) at the intersection between sustainability, innovation and leadership development. At the same time, I also set up a social enterprise to provide people outside of the corporate world, with the amazing transformative power of coaching, leadership wisdom and creativity tools, so they can ensure they, and their communities, can thrive.
The journey has been, and is still, insanely challenging. Every day, I attempt to get innovation-friendly but impact-averse corporations to find and express their purpose; do sustainable innovation (and even social enterprise); and unleash the true potential of their people to make changes that deliver on both profit and purpose. I concurrently attempt to get impact-friendly but innovation-averse governments and development agencies to understand the possibilities for empowerment on offer with collaboration and coaching; and how they could solve some of society's toughest problems if they used the disruptive innovation processes and design tools that the corporate world has been using for years. In all sectors, this means helping HR, strategy, innovation, sustainability and marketing leaders to work together to come up with breakthrough ideas that can ensure their organizations, and the world they rely on for resources, staff, sales and investment, all thrive.
Yet no matter how hard it gets being ahead of the curve, the challenges fall away into insignificance as soon as I return to my purpose.
As a leader, your purpose is not a big, hairy, or audacious goal (which are brilliant and exciting but not purpose). Instead, purpose is the way you can be in each and every moment, of each and every day, that brings the most of your potential to make a difference into the world. It is the glue that connects your brilliance with what your world need most. As I detail in my book, Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity & Thrive With the New Science & Spirit of Breakthrough, purpose is a conversation between your heart and the heartaches of the world. It is a bridge between your unique gifts and what the world wants most from you so both you and it can be more free. It may not be convenient, moneymaking, or safe. Many of your peers may not understand it. Some may resist it. Yet it does not matter who thinks what about it. It is your truth. It is your path to the unmitigated joy of full-tilt creativity and optimal thriving. One study has shown that purpose is more important than money, ambition, or any other factor in predicting how creative we are.
An organization's purpose is the core reason it exists. It is not simply what it does; or what it sells or makes in return. It is why anyone should care about it, invest in it, work for it or buy from it. It is not separate from the mission and vision; it drives them. When a company has a strong, heartfelt purpose - that really lives and breaths in the culture - it galvanizes the full potential of the organization to deliver at every level. It impacts supply chain management, distribution, branding, org design, CSR and everything else. CSR is not needed to mitigate the impact of the company; so is free to amplify its purpose. Above all, it guides the organization where and what to innovate; and how to design the flows of resources and revenues of the operating model so that negativity is mitigated and positivity amplified. Purpose works by connecting the organizations to its communities, so more decisions are made that balance the needs of all stakeholders. Conflicts fade away as people's energy and ideas are brought together to deliver on what purpose makes possible. People put that extra bit of time or energy in, which shifts them, and the products and services they deliver, from good to great. This is why purpose can save a business from bankruptcy, unwanted acquisition, talent drain and mediocrity.
In a book entitled Venture Capitalists At Work: How VCs Identify and Build Billion Dollar Successes, the author, Silicon Valley veteran Tarang Shah, states that: "Entrepreneurs who are committed to a mission beyond profits are more likely to succeed." Little wonder that in IBM's 2012 study of hundreds of CEOs, purpose came out as one of their top 3 most important things to focus on (the other two were ethics and values, which underly purpose; and building a collaborative environment, which is how purpose is expressed). Yet, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, the authors estimate that less that 20% of leaders know their purpose. Is it any wonder, then, that our world has so much suffering; our employees so little engagement; and our organizations so much untapped creative capacity to thrive?
However, having a purpose is not like having a mission statement. It has no value when simply plastered around the company lobby or trumpeted in documents. It has to play out in what people say and do, day to day, meeting to meeting. It has to shape decisions about what, where and how to innovate; and who to recruit and promote. If it doesn't, it is just more management consulting piffle (and the benefits will, of course, not materialize).
Purpose lives as much in our guts and hearts as it does our heads. We can feel it, burning away, once we know what it is and have committed to it. That is why, contrary to what most consultants preach, I believe that it matters less whether you have the right words as long as you feel purpose inside; embody it; and know when what you are doing feels on purpose or off it. They you can course-adjust until what you say, do and think is back on purpose. Purpose ensures our morale and morals remain vibrant. Purpose is, dare I say it, love in action (even if you don't call it that). It is heartfelt caring for the world, for something bigger than oneself, made tangible in sense, thought and deed.
People who are on purpose are not like others. They are more committed, energized, passionate and resilient; and it shows. They flourish not just despite their challenges, but even because of them. Some incredible studies in the last couple of years suggest that purpose can also save our lives. It can prevent Alzheimer's, cancer and heart attacks. One study has shown that people who score in the top 10% in terms of 'living with purpose' are about 250% times less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's when compared with those in the bottom 10%. In a second study, those who enjoyed a lot of meaning in their lives had healthier cells than those who did not. When we are purposeful, our immune system is geared away from inflammation. This happens whether we feel ourselves to be 'happy' or not. Chronic inflammation is a known driver of killers like heart disease and cancer.
So purpose works wonders on our businesses, our bodies and our world. Yet remember: Purpose isn't a career choice, brand vision, or business goal. It is why you are in business in the first place; and how you act in the line at the canteen as much as in the boardroom. It may involve joining the Fortune Top 50 or winning a Pulitzer Prize, yet it's just as likely to involve looking out for the communities you are part of and the staff who give 8 or 10 hours a day to your goals. We can recalibrate capitalism with purpose balancing out profit.
When lived in the heart as much as the head, it is what helps us turn our natural creative brilliance into innovations in products, services and business models that can help the whole world, and not just the 1%, flourish.