Robin Mellon

This week I attended the inaugural Purpose conference and learnt more, experienced more and was challenged more than at any other event I’ve recently attended.

The line-up of speakers included Powershop chief executive Ben Burge, Circular Economy Australia founder Candice Quartermain, Sendle chief executive and founder James Moody, EY managing partner of climate change and sustainability services Matt Bell and Bank Australia managing director Damien Walsh, among a multitude of stellar presenters, dreamers and visionaries. The all-inspiring, all-singing, all-quoting sustainability expert Matt Wicking acted as facilitator, and kept things on-time, on-point and on-message.

Many decades ago, the American industrialist Henry Ford noted that a business should be “an instrument of service rather than a machine for making money”, and the conference dialogue stayed around this theme – how best to manage a business with purpose, that looks after both its shareholders and its stakeholders, and that stays true to its values and objectives.

So what key points did I take home?

1. It’s all about the “why” – businesses must be clear about who they are, what they do and why

It may seem obvious, but many organisations are clear about what they do then struggle to communicate why they do it. So strengthening the “why”, from which can flow the “what” and the “how”, is imperative. Matt Perry from Conscious Capitalism Australia was clear that “business success needs higher purpose, strong leadership, authentic culture and stakeholder engagement”, but speaker after speaker confirmed that people everywhere are crying out for a different way of doing business, and the future success of business is going to come from humans, not technology alone.

That different way is not just purpose-driven, but sets out a vision of how we want things to be. Perry clarified, “As taxpayers, where do we want our money invested to create a better future? Subsidies shouldn’t be given to things that have no future.” Designer Suzanne Boccalatte went on to explain that organisations should “put the purpose first and do the design and branding later, when the ‘why’ is totally clear”. Only then can your strategic directions be communicated.

2. Stay true to your purpose, even as things change around you

Organisations start, grow and evolve, but many forget about or overlook their purpose in their attempts to chase dollars, or simply get distracted by an ambitious strategic plan and lose sight of core values. Try to remember why the organisation exists. As Eleanor Glenn from Common Cause Australia said: “Lead with your purpose – the money is just an enabler – and strengthen your intrinsic values (and those of your customers) along the way.”

And don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes (instead of just covering them up). As StartSomeGood’s chief executive and founder Tom Dawkins pointed out, “Success gives false learnings; you think you know why you succeeded but often you don’t. Failure can teach you so much.” Social Traders’ head of market Mark Daniels pointed out that, while working in a socially disadvantaged area of Melbourne, he’d learned that “procurement is the greatest untapped tool for social change” and that management behaviours should learn to change with the business and the market.

3. Keep things personal – make sure your organisation’s values are truly in line with your own

This message was exciting to hear. Adara Group’s Audette Excel reminded us that “you get to carve your own path if you decide you want to have a life with purpose”. As she put it, confirming your organisation’s purpose often starts with “that scary moment when you step outside your own tribe and come face-to-face with your own prejudice”. Frightening but enlightening.

Hello Sunday Morning’s chief executive Chris Raine said, “If you’re at an organisation where you’re not inspired by the purpose, you need to leave and find one where you are”, and this theme was echoed by many speakers and audience members alike; people want to be inspired by their work, not tolerate it. The “wealth” aspect might seem daunting, but the “health” benefits of an organisation with purpose and values in line with your own are clear.

By the end of the first day, #Purpose2015 was trending at number one for Australia on Twitter, and the conversations around the gender-balanced audience and panels (a long time since I’ve seen both of those!) continued to reflect those bursts of inspiration that the speakers had stimulated.

From the beautifully laser-cut name tags to the elegantly lit fluffy white clouds hanging around the Eternity Playhouse venue, the whole event was professionally curated and run not just with intent but with the determination to rub together the best minds in the business.

I will be there next year, KeepCup and values at the ready.

(N.B. Please do not confuse “Purpose 2015” with the new Justin Bieber album. While I’m sure the latter is just great, I did not spend two days listening to it, but found my inspiration in the former.)

Robin Mellon is a consultant on green buildings and sustainable communities, the former chief operating officer at the Green Building Council of Australia, an advisory board member for both the Supply Chain Sustainability School and Smart Urban Villages, and principal of sustainability consultancy Better Sydney.

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