The Purpose Movement Goes to School

Purpose-related courses are now showing up in MBA programs. Best-selling author Daniel Goleman says that more than just business school students should take notice.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

You might think more companies would be catching on by now: Purpose is a strategic lever. Over 80% of millennials report they would rather work for a company making a positive difference in the world than be lauded with recognition for their own professional accomplishments.

Take SAS Institute as an example. The world's largest privately held software business has a section on their website titled “What We Stand For.” The drop-down menu includes “Education Outreach,” “Diversity & Inclusion,” and “Data For Good.” The main page starts with an overview. 

“Connecting analytics and advocacy to create something new, better, purposeful and lasting.”

“We never shy away from the fact that our actions affect the world around us.”

Recently tweeted by one SAS employee: “#SAS has “The Power to Do Good.” Proud to be part of a company that shares my personal values of doing good.” Over the years, SAS has been recognized again and again as a top place to work by Forbes and Fortune. Meanwhile, their revenue has grown to top $3.2B. 

So, what’s the hold up? If purpose is a burgeoning predictor of success, why isn’t every business leader catching on?  One answer might be in the education American business leaders are getting.

Take Salesforce as evidence that making money and doing good aren’t mutually exclusive. Since becoming a public company in 2004, Salesforce has delivered a 3,500% return to their shareholders.  After proclaiming that “capitalism, as we know it, is dead,” Marc Benioff — CEO of Salesforce — reflected on the limits of his 1980’s business school education. “I didn’t take any classes on equality. Or on sustainability. Or on stakeholderism.... The classes I took were on accounting, marketing, organizational behavior, leadership. That’s what business was. Well, that’s not what leadership and business is today.”

Benioff isn’t alone in his dismay. MBA programs coast to coast are seeing fewer applicants this year. Even prominent programs like Harvard Business School and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business aren’t being spared. A handful of educators are looking to update their curriculum to move beyond a narrow definition of shareholder value.

In 2020, Duke Fuqua School of Business’ Daytime MBA will incorporate three new themes. The first two themes—Leading Technology Transformation and Entrepreneurial Mindset and Action—aren’t unusual. But then there’s the third theme, “creating common purpose in a world of differences.”

Harvard Business School is making similar changes. The course Leadership and Corporate Accountability examines corporate leadership in terms of legal, ethical, and economic responsibilities, and focuses on how personal values have a critical role in effective leadership. This course is now mandatory for all first-year students.

Purpose also seems to be important for many of the students who have already graduated from these programs. Casey Gerald received an MBA from Harvard Business School, a BA in Political Science from Yale, and was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship. After graduating, he and his friends got curious about what would happen if, instead of “marching off in pinstripe suits to slave away in a cubicle,” they travelled the country and put their ivy league MBAs to work helping entrepreneurs.

The group of friends went on to found MBAs Across America. Based one simple question—“What if we used our education not to make a buck, but to make a difference?”—the effort spawned into a national movement, attracting MBAs from more than 30 schools to help small enterprises, most of them doing work for the greater good, in some relatively unknown corners of America.

In his commencement speech at the 2014 Harvard Business School graduation, Casey Gerald, author of the business book, There Will Be No Miracles Here, shared this insight: “There’s no line item on a balance sheet for ‘give a damn,’ but it’s the most valuable thing you’ve got in the business.”

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