In Search of Impact

The research keeps piling up to show how much corporate culture and values matter to people at work.

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Jonathan Dahl is editor-in-chief of Briefings.

"I was looking for a job and then I found a job/

And heaven knows I’m miserable now…" — THE SMITHS

In all candor, you didn’t hear the word “purpose” much back in my prior life as an editor at The Wall Street Journal. You definitely heard the word “profit” a lot more. And the skeptic in me still struggles with the concept that companies will put good causes and diversity ahead of the next quarterly statement.

But while I sincerely doubt The Smiths had any of this in mind, their ’80s pop classic “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” has a few lines that any purpose-driven leader might relate to. There’s a great irony, for example, in how we devote such efforts into finding and keeping work but ignore whether it drives and fulfills us. And who among us hasn’t asked, as this song does, Why do I give valuable time/To people who don’t care if I live or die? Quite accidentally, it strikes, well, a chord on what purpose is about.

Clearly, the research keeps piling up to show how much corporate culture and values matter to people at work. Our own study found that 145,000 workers in 50 countries rank “interesting job” as the most important job characteristic—defined as the ability to work independently in a “job that can help other people,” and in a “job that is useful to society.” Years ago, of course, money would have mattered the most.

Now comes the surprising push and pull between activists and many stockholders insisting on short-term, bottom-line results, and some heavy-hitting investment firms on Wall Street demanding that companies consider longer-term and social causes. It’s great to see the big guns stepping up, but you could argue that Wall Street firms have simply caught up with where employees have been for a while—and realized that profit and purpose can work hand in hand.

Will this sentiment continue if the market takes a huge tumble? Here, I turn to a different source, with words a little less lyrical but definitely on point: A recent Korn Ferry Institute report says employees “have a genuine need for having impact, and approach their work as a means to express that value.” At long last, I believe they are being heard.

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