News: Opinion

The power of purpose before profit: from Black Lives Matter to Covid-19

01 October 2020  
Posted by: Andrew Hough
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Thursday 1 October 2020

In this article, the third in a series busting the myths of sales leadership, Andrew Hough, chief executive of the Association of Professional Sales, challenges the common perception that the only purpose of business is profit.

Recently we have seen two remarkable examples of the power of shared purpose.

The death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer generated a spontaneous wave of support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Around the world the public rallied, taking to the streets despite the health risk to show their passion for the cause. Conversations about BLM exploded on social media. The movement proved so powerful it gained the attention of the corporate world. Company after company issued press statements, committing to re-examine their own practices. Publishers began to reassess how many black authors they publish. Healthcare employers reconsidered rotas to move Bame staff away from the frontline of the covid crisis. We will have to wait and see how deep-rooted the changes are, but there is little doubt that BLM has shifted how we think.

The early weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK provided an even more extraordinary example of shared purpose in action. Tens of millions of people consented to restrict their movements, even when they passionately wanted to see their family and loved ones. Millions volunteered to help others. Millions donated food. Support groups sprang up unprompted in every community. Fear of the virus, empathy for the victims, desire to do something helpful, plus a call to action by the government, resulted in an outpouring of altruism and a remarkable solidarity in obeying the lockdown, often at high personal cost.

Both the response to Covid-19 and the BLM movement demonstrate classic behaviours triggered by a sense of shared purpose.

Individuals showed:

  • significant rise in motivation
  • spontaneous changes in behaviour
  • efforts above and beyond what was required
  • ingenuity and creativity in overcoming obstacles
  • emotional as well as intellectual engagement, often passionate
  • empathy for others
  • a sense of community and joint enterprise.

Now, imagine: what would it be like if employees applied those powerful, positive behaviours at work? A fraction of the energy and sense of purpose poured into the BLM protests and responding to Covid-19 would be enough to galvanise any company’s fortunes. Customers would be delighted, revenues would increase, and at the end of the year shareholders would be looking at a healthier balance sheet.

Profit vs Purpose

Let’s keep in mind those examples of what is possible when people work with a shared purpose. Because when we look at the state of business before Covid-19, that energy and confidence were not much in evidence.


Productivity across Europe had shown very little increase for the past 20 years. The UK economy was one of the worst affected by this stagnation. Concerns about the wellbeing of workers were on the rise. The huge cost to business of days lost through absenteeism was continuing to grow.


There was no shortage of people trying to diagnose and fix what was going wrong. There were more leadership consultants, mentors, executive development programmes and MBAs than ever before. But few of the solutions they came up with seemed to make a difference to the way the workforce felt or acted. There was a sense that leadership was in a rut, unable to inspire or offer new direction. In too many sales teams, leadership had nothing to offer to motivate salespeople but the pursuit of their quota and the need to deliver shareholder returns.

The people in sales teams who felt the lowest sense of engagement with work were those in the millennial age group, born between 1981-96. This is the largest group in the workforce, and their efforts should have been the engine driving the business forward. Instead, they felt detached from their organisations and uninspired by the aims of their leaders. They moved jobs frequently.

Yet this is an age group which, as a whole, has a strong streak of idealism. They crave a cause to identify with. Many were, in fact, the very people who took to the streets to protest that Black Lives Matter.

The need for better leadership

It seems a long time ago now, the status quo before the protests, and the pandemic.

The huge disruption caused by Covid-19 has forced businesses to reassess their business models repeatedly. And with a steep rise in cases, and more regional lockdowns, there is uncertainty about what this winter will bring.

Meanwhile many of the millennial salespeople who felt disengaged from work are now fearful for their jobs. Hundreds of thousands are on furlough. Some have been laid off. The rest are getting used to new ways of working. Wellbeing is at a low ebb, and anxiety and depression are on the rise.


Times of great disturbance call for leadership. It is clear that the kind of leadership on offer will have to change. Addictive leadership, doing things the way that they have always been done, will not do. The simple pursuit of profit will not serve when customers are not buying, and their needs are changing. You cannot motivate salespeople by rewarding them for hitting quota when no one is hitting quota. It is a time for new thinking.


The way to a new normal

Sales leaders need to bring their teams together and communicate a sense of shared purpose. If sales leaders could harness a fraction of the energy poured into the BLM protests and the response to Covid-19, then their businesses would come roaring back from the downturn. In 2015, PR firm Burson-Marsteller and IMD Business School found that “strong, well-communicated purpose” can contribute up to a 17% improvement in financial performance.

Any leader who picks up the challenge will be pushing at an open door. Research has repeatedly shown that employees want purpose at work. In a recent survey, 63% of millennials said that the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” instead of “generating profit.”

“Millennials don’t just work for a paycheque — they want a purpose,” writes Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup. The polling company’s research paper How Millennials Want to Work and Live reveals that 63% of millennials believe the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” instead of “generating profit.”

Having a sense of purpose improves their wellbeing and sense of belonging at work. Purpose-driven employees will not only sell 37% more (Shawn Achor’s research) but have 66% less sick-leave and 51% lower job turnover (Forbes and Gallup), and show 300% more innovation according to Harvard Business Review.

The problem and the solution

So what are the obstacles to businesses changing to become more purposeful? The answer up till now, I regret to say, has been us - the junior and middle managers and directors. We are the ones who failed to understand the message and filter it down throughout the organisation. We are the ones who clung addictively to the past, making financial gain the beginning and end of the way we managed salespeople.

As Dee Hock, the inspirational founder of Visa International, put it:


“Money motivates neither the best people, nor the best in people. It can move the body and influence the mind, but it cannot touch the heart or move the spirit; that is reserved for belief, principle, and morality.”


There is no need for this to continue: indeed, the argument for change has become overwhelming, and it is down to us to do something about it. Business leaders can be the galvanising force for change.

Jeremy Moore, the founder of leadership experts, Zoomcow, told an Association of Professional Sales webinar that if you want to inspire loyalty and engagement, and promote the wellbeing of your team, you need to show them three important qualities: trust, empathy and respect.

These attributes do not merely improve working relationships, they demonstrate how customers too, need to be treated.

Defining purpose

So how can you inspire a sales team, give them purpose and help them identify with their business and be proud to serve it?

Right now, the best place to start is with professionalism and a strong ethic of serving the customer in their hour of need. Acquiring the skills to do the job despite difficult circumstances. Striving to be better, despite the obstacles.


From its founding six years ago the Association of Professional Sales (APS) has consistently spread the message that continuous professional development, qualifications and professionalism are the best way to give salespeople a sense of direction and purpose. The learning that started in lockdown can continue into the future. That will be good not just for individual salespeople, who want to improve their skills and polish their personal brand, but also good for their company, their customers, for wider society and the environment.


I’ll finish with the example of Royal Mail, a company that has been a close partner of the APS since its inception. Royal Mail has had plenty of business challenges over the past few years, but has faced them down, and is now enjoying excellent results and performing strongly in its retail markets.

Graham Davis, who as group sales director at Royal Mail oversaw the transformation of the sales team, said that the company used to be frightened of change but ultimately came to welcome it for the opportunities it brought.

First, managers were helped to transform their own leadership by becoming qualified coaches. In the course of two years they tripled the amount of time they spent coaching from 25% to 75%.

“Technology manages. People lead,” said Davis, who is now chairman of the APS board. “You establish values, attitudes, beliefs and customs. You encourage people to challenge themselves inside, and outside, work. At the end, you have a motivated sales team engaged in that vision of the future.”

The changes threw up some inspiring stories. One of Graham’s colleagues in sales was terrified of flying, but she challenged that fear. Six months later she was wing-walking. Graham was stunned: “She was on the wings of a plane – flying! She wouldn’t get on a plane, then she is strapped to the wings of one. Suddenly your team thinks anything is possible.”