Can you discover your business’ purpose from behind a desk?

Can you discover your business’ purpose from behind a desk?
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Sometimes, the last thing a new CEO should do is settle into the corner office. When the organization faces challenging times ahead, it may be better to hit the road.

That’s where EY’s Global Chairman and CEO Mark Weinberger found himself in the 18-month transition period before he took his post in July 2013—in dozens of countries, meeting thousands of people.

“In these conversations, I saw one unifying thread: the world was changing, and EY needed to change too,” Weinberger explains. “If we wanted to unite our people around our new strategy, it wasn’t enough to just clarify what we wanted to do. We had to clarify why it was important to get there.”

This imperative and resulting global journey highlight the importance of defining purpose in an organization and of communicating the “why,” as well as the “how” of what companies do.

In a global survey among 474 executives conducted by the Harvard Business Review, 90% said that purpose matters and their company is aware of its significance, yet only 46% believe it meaningfully informs their decisions.

Even more strikingly, the EY-sponsored study found that companies with a clear purpose were more likely to see revenue growth of 10% over three years and avoid flat or declining revenue over the same period. Half of these companies had also seen purpose drive a shift in strategy over the past three years, illustrating its effect on a company’s ability to transform.

But back to the CEO on the road, trying to distill a fresh purpose for his company.

“We asked ourselves how we fit into the world—what we contribute,” Weinberger remembers. “And we realized all of our work was united by a clear mission: building a better working world. That’s been our purpose ever since.”

Because EY consists of over 230,000 people globally, the road trip never really ends.

“I personally spend a lot of time visiting our offices around the world. I see how our purpose drives so much of what we do,” explains Weinberger.

“How we’re guiding governments through cash-flow crises; helping digital pioneers fight data piracy; unlocking new medical treatments with data analytics; and providing high-quality audits to restore trust in financial markets and business.”

Weinberger emphasizes that embedding purpose into both the organization’s culture and strategy is important to driving engagement internally. “Purpose has to be built into your business,” he says. “It can’t just be an add-on.”

One initiative that demonstrates how purpose can take hold is EY’s global award program Better Begins with You, which asks EY people to nominate those whose work exemplifies EY’s purpose. Among the winners were a team that helped the German Federal Employment Agency revamp its IT processes, and an EY Charitable foundation in Poland supporting orphans and disadvantaged children.

Another is EY’s investment in the Beacon Institute, a community of executives, entrepreneurs and luminaries that exchanges leading practices, deepens research and recognizes those on the leading edge of purposeful transformation and innovation.

But how do you know that purpose actually makes a difference to an organization?

“You have to look at your people—they’re the ones who live and breathe it every day,” says Weinberger. “Since we laid out our purpose, the measures of our people’s engagement and pride in working at EY are at an all-time high. We’ve seen hugely positive results in hiring and retention. And we’ve been ranked by Universum as one of the top three preferred employers for business students for the last three years in a row.”

Three years on and Weinberger believes that being a purposeful organization is at the heart of being a sustainable organization. EY’s own performance has attested to this: in 2015, it reported double-digit growth to $28.7 billion.

“Building a better working world is our reason for being—it’s what drives us and enables us to make a positive impact,” concludes Weinberger. But a purpose needs nurturing if it is to continue to flourish. So Weinberger will keep on hitting the road in a perpetual global pursuit of a better working world.


EY’s Better Questions series asks some of the tough questions faced by today’s global businesses. Better questions. Better answers. Better working world. Discover more. #BetterQuestions 

This article was produced on behalf of EY by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.