BY HUBERT JOLY, Former Chairman,CEO of Best Buy & Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School

People have increasingly concluded that government will not, or cannot, do what it takes to address today’s major issues. Their hope — their expectation — is that business can not only do what it does well — employ people, serve customers and generate a profit — but also help address society’s biggest challenges.

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer surveyed 36,000 people around the world and found that business is the most trusted institution at 61 percent (ahead of NGOs at 59 percent, government at 52 percent and media at 50 percent), with 77 percent saying they trust “My Employer.”

For many business leaders this can feel daunting, as the problems the world is facing – from a health crisis, an economic crisis, stubborn societal issues, racial inequity, an environmental time bomb and geopolitical tensions – can appear to be beyond the reach of any individual business.

In the face of this, business leaders – any leader for that matter – have three options: They can choose to surrender and decide they are not equipped to respond to the expectation the public has of them, they can try and treat some of these issues the best they can at the margin or they can decide to make this time their “finest hour.”

Taking the higher road is not easy, and it is definitely not what has traditionally been expected from us in our business leadership roles. But pursuing a higher purpose, I believe, can not only help address some of the world’s most serious challenges, it can also expand a company’s growth opportunities and lift an organization’s energy as teams embrace the chance to make a meaningful difference. This is true when the higher purpose is defined in a way that it can help address some of the world’s pressing issues.

This view is based on more than just wishful thinking. I’ve personally observed this phenomenon, again and again, in my career.

First, the bigger a team makes its purpose, the higher the energy level among that team can rise. I witnessed this recently as I was spending time with the leadership team of a large insurance company. They were working on advancing a specific social impact business initiative. At some point, the discussion moved to considering a broader, more fundamental re-foundation of the company around the original purpose of their industry. Insurance, remember, was born as a way to provide society better protection against catastrophic losses. By enabling people to live a more worry-free life, it also allowed them to take more risk, which helped fuel economic growth.

What might a modern version of getting back to such a core mission entail? Imagine, when it comes to climate change, advising people and companies on actions to minimize their environmental risks and carbon footprint, using information to warn policy holders of extreme weather events ahead of time and helping them build back better by using more sustainable materials and solutions. Or consider creating a health strategy that would go beyond just paying claims by offering a range of health-related services aimed at keeping customers healthy. Would it be possible to serve more customers at the bottom of the pyramid, who have been excluded from the insurance market, by tailoring products and services based on their unique needs and eliminating superfluous elements of coverage? I felt the energy level go up 10 times as the team got excited about how such a potential re-foundation could potentially improve the lives of millions.

Similarly, when I was speaking with the CEO of a company that deals with global water and its challenges, I saw the same elevation of engagement, excitement and energy once we honed in on the company’s mission and ability to “save the world.” Even without changing the portfolio of activities, raising their sights changed the meaning and urgency of the work. Knowing your true purpose shines an essential and irreplaceable light that makes it easier to move forward with courage and confidence.

Pursuing a higher purpose is not only energizing, it can also create compelling growth opportunities. By defining its business around a noble purpose rather than merely selling products or services, a company can not only capture a bigger share of the pie – it can pursue a bigger pie. Here are a few examples:

  • By defining its potential market around all transactions, including cash, Mastercard has vastly expanded its market. For example, it can address the needs of poor unbanked individuals worldwide, not just serve high-net-worth credit card customers.
  • PayPal’s purpose of democratizing financial services aims to ensure that everyone, regardless of background or economic standing, can access affordable, convenient and secure products and services to take control of their finances. By helping the underserved and the unbanked, PayPal has opened new revenue streams while making it less “expensive to be poor.”
  • By pursuing its purpose to make the world cleaner, safer and healthier, Ecolab has unlocked vast opportunities to grow its business while helping protect people and preserve vital resources.
  • Because it declared its purpose was to enrich lives through technology – not simply to thrive as a retailer – Best Buy accelerated its growth strategy in part by finding new ways to help aging seniors retain their home-based independence.

Of course, there can sometimes be tensions between addressing an important societal need and confronting commercial realities. Specifically, business growth can be, and has too often been, a driver of negative externality. But the role of leaders is to identify the potential tensions between doing good and doing well and to lean into them to create win-win-win outcomes.

One example: I like how Best Buy’s recycling program, which we grew when I was CEO and helps customers get rid of old electronics, helped develop a market in the retrieval and recycling of key components, while bringing extra traffic to our stores. Another: I admire how Ralph Lauren has made its focus on timeless style environmentally friendly by design. The latest example is its investment in a revolutionary dyeing platform that could transform how the fashion industry colors cotton – more sustainably, more effectively and faster, with the aim of delivering a scalable zero wastewater cotton dyeing system.

None of this is easy. Getting purpose right requires leaders to develop new skills, such as the ability to embrace all stakeholders in the definition of their strategies, to innovate radically or to partner with public or private organizations with complementary capabilities.

People around the world are placing greater trust in business as a conduit to a better future. History will judge what we do and each of us has a choice to make. I believe now is a great leadership moment. Leaders can decide to help create a future that does not exist yet but needs to be better than what we have now.



More Content

Reviving International Cooperation in an Age of Distrust
The most important steps forward in global cooperation can happen even at moments when trust is difficult to come by.