Do You Have a Purpose?

Add negative press to the list of data points underscoring the growing value of purpose.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry and author of "The Leadership Journey: How to Master the Four Critical Areas of Being a Great Leader."

A business journalist friend of mine once said of his paper’s power, “one negative story could undo a hundred positive ones.” It turns out his math was only a little off. According to recent survey, 71 percent of U.S. workers said they would not apply to a company that has had negative publicity.

That might seem a little extreme—especially in the age of “fake news” when maybe some of that bad publicity was, well, fake. But it only highlights a concept that’s not easy to get your arms around but crucial to organizations: “purpose.” Our own studies have found that companies that are doing it best are having some phenomenal success.

Purpose is the “why” behind every great organization, the reason for its existence, far beyond making money or winning the game. On its face, I can understand a desire to scoff at the notion—no company ever got big because of a mission statement. But trust me, the difference between a company with a mission statement and a company with a purpose, is the difference between the 31 other quarterbacks in the NFL and Tom Brady.

This isn’t just talk: We already know from our own studies that consumer companies that focus employees around a company’s purpose boast annual growth rates nearly triple beyond the norm. We also know that 90 percent of employees in what we consider “purpose-driven companies” say they're engaged in their work. The other companies? Only 32 percent.

Purpose establishes the organization’s place in the world with a well-defined and widely understood public image. Every member of the team, from the newest entry-level employee to senior leaders, must see themselves in the context of the whole, and how customers experience the company, its products and its brand are closely linked with how the organization defines and refines its purpose.

As you might expect, this rings well with one very important group: millennials, who as we know will soon make up more than half of the global workforce. So purpose is only going to become more important to both retain and find customers. Indeed, culture, which is how an organization’s purpose manifests itself, now ranks as the number one consideration of employees surveyed by Korn Ferry for joining a company—five years ago it was compensation and benefits package.

And now, if the latest survey means anything, purpose is even going to help with bad publicity. It makes sense—often, it’s employees who generate bad news and bad buzz about their own companies that the media, and ultimately, customers pick up on. Companies that get purpose right may be doing some advance damage control. Problem is, most don’t: our own surveys find that only half of workers agreed that organizations currently engage them with purpose. The other half, I suspect, may be a part of any bad press you’re getting.