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Wall Street is Broken: Purpose Can Help

Making money is not purpose. Focusing on short-term profit is unhealthy, unsustainable and potentially damaging. There is another way. Text100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes explains how.

Making money is not purpose. Focusing on short-term profit is unhealthy, unsustainable and potentially damaging. There is another way. Text100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes explains how.

“Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential.” – Blackrock Founder, Chairman and CEO Larry Fink

Larry Fink shook boardrooms earlier this year with his now famous letter instructing companies to incorporate social purpose as part of their core business strategy or risk losing the support of his and other investment funds.

The echoes of that letter were still being heard at On Cue, a remarkable event hosted by my fellow MIT Media Lab Advisor, Tony Tjan, and his venture capital firm Cue Ball.

On Cue brings together socially conscious companies and investors to discuss the roles of purpose, business and investing in helping to reach our human potential.

Purpose means people

We often talk about purpose through the lens of altruism. This is noble, but also undersells the benefits of purpose. To view it from that narrow perspective is a mistake.

Purpose is about people. It’s about humanity. Critically, it’s about business. Good business.

Taking the longer view – a view shaped by purpose – shapes better outcomes.

There are increasing calls from the likes of Apple’s Tim Cook, Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet and CitiGroup’s Jamie Dimon to stop focusing on short-term results. This model, which has driven Wall Street for decades, is broken. The quarterly reporting cycle leads to “an unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term strategy, growth and sustainability,” they argue.

There’s another school of thought that takes things a step further. It can help fix what’s ailing Wall Street.

What if purpose itself helps to create not only long-term impact, but the short-term results that The Street craves?

Best of both worlds

One remarkable study at On Cue showed how purpose can drive immediate impact on a business. Author Daniel Pink talked about Adam Grant’s study of new employees at Michigan State University’s fundraising call center.

The study participants were divided into three groups, with each receiving the same core training. The groups spent the last five minutes before taking their first phone calls in different ways.

One group was able to prepare however they wanted.

A second group studied statements from previous call center employees talking about the benefits of their role.

The third group was given testimonies from the people who had benefited from their fund-raising efforts.

The results were extraordinary. The third group who spent their last five minutes understanding the purpose of their work generated more than twice the amount of money of their colleagues.

Just five minutes of focus on purpose created an immediate return for Michigan State.

Moving people

While this is just one example of connecting financial impact with a stronger sense of purpose, there are many others.

It makes complete sense. People are compelled to act when they can make an emotional connection with an outcome. Money alone simply does not drive that same emotional connection.

The move to get Wall Street to set aside quarterly earnings is gaining momentum.

Perhaps it’s time we measure if companies with a clear sense of purpose outperform those that don’t. Stop asking, each quarter, whether a company exceeded guidance by a penny per share.

Instead, ask what the company stands for and how that’s being communicated to its employees, customers, partners and, of course, investors.

The impact may not always be immediate, but over time, the gap between companies with a real sense of purpose and those without will grow.

We’ll have stronger businesses, in both the short and the long term. Cue Ball is on to something here.

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