SHRM Perspective: Is Appealing To A Higher Purpose Really That Important?

From the HR blog at TLNT.
From the HR blog at TLNT.

All three SHRM annual conference keynotes so far (you can read VP of Editorial John Hollon’s recaps of Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington and Tony Hsieh here on TLNT) have all appealed to a greater sense of purpose in their work. While we may think of these entrepreneurs as being subject to the almighty dollar, much of what they talk about, at least in public, is about finding meaning in their work.

That’s great and that’s an appealing message to the public. I don’t think many people admire the capitalists, especially the ones who robbed their companies and shareholders of billions of dollars of value.

But let’s say I doubt that simply having a higher sense of purpose is the only thing driving success and, at least in some cases, it may not even be the most important thing.

Branson, Huffington and Hsieh as case studies

All of these folks have seen some great success in their core areas of business. Branson and the Virgin brand are nearly inseparable. While some of his dealings have struggled, his music and airline business is not something to cough at. And I mentioned briefly on Twitter during his presentation, I sat next to a flight attendant for Virgin America the last time I came down to Las Vegas and she couldn’t stop talking about how great it was to work there. It was one person, but it was also completely unprompted.

Huffington built a media empire using the Huffington Post and not only leveraged that into a multi-million dollar sale to AOL, but also got herself a job as the chief editor for all AOL properties. And certainly she hasn’t always followed the rules that the media had established for itself. Her success is tough to discount even as a rule breaker.

Lastly, Hsieh used a Microsoft purchase of his former company to get into his current one: Zappos. And even for a guy like me, Zappos has made a name for itself by delivering great customer service. And from a northwesterner who is a Nordstrom devotee because of their service, I definitely get it. Having a hassle-free shopping experience is extremely important to both people who hate shopping and people who like shopping alike.

Other factors more important

What you may notice is that there is very little higher purpose involved in all of these. Sure, Branson is a philanthropist, Huffington appeals to a sense of expression in all of us, and Hsieh talks about unlocking happiness, but all of them have taken (often to the extreme) core business principles.

Branson has made a name for taking on conventional business practices and focusing on the customer experience. He even mentioned that it makes everyone’s job a lot easier when the customer has a great experience. And Huffington has leveraged an army of paid and (largely) unpaid writers, turning all of that content into a large advertising revenue base.

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Keeping the cost of the content to the minimum while maximizing the page views they get? That’s simple business. As Hsieh talked about customer service and how much of a focus they put into it (they did virtually no advertising early and instead invested it in customer service), it seems to be a fairly simple play for simply being the best company to go to whenever you purchase clothing and footwear online.

Honestly, Branson’s innovations, Huffington’s cost control, and Hsieh’s single-minded execution are probably more important in the bigger picture. Without it, they may have been ordinary, average business leaders who may have been moderately successful.

Why then the focus on other issues?

Obviously, part of the reason is for making an interesting speech and being appealing to the broader audience. But what I’m afraid of is that the takeaways are all focused on this higher purpose. Poor business execution is still a real problem, and focusing on those fundamentals is sometimes the more important message to deliver.

That being said, it is often hard to deliver something compelling on that subject. It is admittedly dry. So we get the practical lessons through little asides or stories interspersed in the stump speech for this higher purpose.

That’s fine as long as people are picking up the other lessons. Those practical lessons to me are the most valuable of them all, especially from visionaries like Branson, Huffington, and Hsieh.

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