Antony Jenkins has got it.
Shutting down Barclays’ (hugely profitable) SCM unit because it was ‘incompatible with our purpose’ is a brave move and the right move. Let’s hope he succeeds in turning round the culture despite the sneering of US bankers yearning for Cap’n Bob.
But here’s the thing – whilst ‘purpose’ is great at helping business work out what it shouldn’t be doing, it could and should be even more powerful pointing the way to bigger, better growth.
Most people in brand world have crafted ‘purpose’ statements for clients that either are empty aspirational rhetoric (but look fantastic, especially when laminated) or are highly favourable and selective descriptions of what the business currently does. It’s great to see one that hasn’t been beautifully crafted (“helping people achieve their ambitions – in the right way” is clear but hardly “fight them on the beaches”) but much more importantly that’s being deployed with intent.
Business has tended to be a bit namby-pamby with this purpose stuff. Charities and NGOs have always been much clearer and bolder with ‘purpose’ – they need to be to raise funds and to recruit volunteers – whereas business has always seemed a little hesitant, has always shunted it over to HR for a ‘values’ exercise or marketing for some uplifting communication. (Bit harsh but I really am speaking from experience).
It’s because many people in business still think – tacitly – that there’s a trade off between profit and purpose. That ‘purpose’ is a defensive CSR-type exercise designed to protect the licence to operate and to win over sceptical graduates.
I think they are wrong and that purpose is critical to the new formula for business growth.
The danger in what Antony Jenkins is doing with ‘purpose’ is that he plays into this prejudice. That all he is doing is removing morally dubious yet highly profitable units as a kind of mea culpa to restore the bank’s reputation. There’s a load more mess to clean up and it must be tempting to see the purpose and values exercise primarily as the vehicle for deciding who stays and who goes (which is how this letter is interpreted).
But what he and whoever is now going to be on the exco of Barclays should next do – and fast – is use it as the platform for new, better growth. Not just to remove, but to add some new things – products, services, businesses – that deliver on the “helping people achieve their ambitions – in the right way” aim as well as generate growth for Barclays.
Can you imagine how great it would be if we could all trust Barclays enough to share our deepest ambitions with them; and that Barclays were so interested in helping us achieve those ambitions that they could use their vast resources to make magical things happen?
Help us get that degree, start that family, buy that house, climb that mountain, set up that business, grow that business and make an appropriate contribution back into society….
I used to think that business wasn’t quite ready to grapple with the purpose question – that it was too big and too difficult, too much of a taboo, too hard for the old guard to handle.
But now I think that if we can reconceive of ‘purpose’ as a platform for growth as well as an ethical lens we’ll have somethng that every business can benefit from.
So here’s a simple formula:
1 – work out the purpose. Make it not too inward looking; it has to be rooted in what the world needs not what we need. So Google’s “organising the world’s information, make it univesrally accessible and useful” is a whole lot better than “return to pre-crisis levels of profitability” (you know who you are)
2 – get rid of the practices, processes, products and people that don’t fit whilst at the same time…
3 – taking the purpose as the brief to devise rapidly some new products, services, collaborations, whole new businesses and get them into market fast (in beta form is fine)
This last bit is critical and requires creativity, business smarts and the ability and appetite to think outside the box. It’s the hardest bit to do, but also the most fun and the most impactful – for everyone.
Let’s hope Barclays are getting to it right now.