A few years ago, I was in the lobby of a global pharma company waiting for my appointment. I sat in front of several big flashing screens of the type one sees in the reception area of many companies. I was curious to see what was displayed. The content was constantly moving, pretty fast, with smiling pictures of people and other things like buildings that looked like scientific labs and manufacturing plants.
The gentle bombardment was constant and very rich in data. There you had the names of the medicines they sold, market share, number of countries in which they operated, number of people dedicated to R&D, so many nationalities of people in the workforce, an award for employee engagement, and a few lines of what it seemed to me to be their mission statement.
My curiosity grew when I felt something was missing. Since I was looking from some distance, it might be, I thought, that I was not looking properly. I got closer to the panels but the panorama only changed a bit. Now I could see a Stock Market ticker showing the stock price of the company, proudly exhibiting an arrow point upwards and a plus sign followed by the number 0.5.
There was no mention of number of people treated (which is not the same as number of medicine units sold) or how the medicines were affecting people’s lives. One of the medicines in their portfolio is simply lifesaving. For a lifesaving drug, you would have thought that it would be just natural to say how many lives have been saved. Nope.
I felt embarrassed. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. We see far more display, whether in LCD screens or in a less digitalised world, of operational performance than of purpose. By purpose I don’t even mean ‘high purpose’. There may be other not so dramatic purposes in many industries, but there is always one. But for a pharma company to forget the number of lives they have saved is pretty bad.
The very few times I have discussed this kind of thing with other people, I find myself in a strange minority. What? – I am told – you don’t like seeing that people are making money? Or do you have a problem with profits? Or what’s wrong with making money? Which are kind of strange reactions because last time I checked, I was not going around dressed like, or posing as, Saint Francis of Assisi.
The purpose of a company is to make money, people say. More people than you think. Is that it? The following human activities make money: arms traders, a casino, an insurance company, a supermarket, illegal human trafficking, the mafia, a bank. Should I carry on? This commonality does not make them equal.
It seems that we are still apologetic or embarrassed, with the word purpose. Perhaps we have grown so sceptical of ‘mission and vision statements’ that anything that smells slightly ‘soft’ (as some people still say) is simply suspicious.
What a shame that we sometimes cannot articulate, clearly and loudly, the purpose of the organization, its space in the social world.
Incidentally, the real pharma example that I have shared is still stuck in my mind, but anybody can extrapolate the argument to any other company and sector. High purpose, purpose, small purpose. Please tell us, clearly, not whispering, why you exist.
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