Having a Purpose is Good for Business

This article was originally published on The Mark News for an ongoing series following three of Canada’s founding Benefit Corporations.

Companies thrive not only on what they do, but why they do it.

Certified B Corporations harness the power of business for social and environmental good. An initiative of the Pennsylvania-based non-profit B Lab, B Corp certification requires companies to meet rigorous and independent standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Last month, B Lab and the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing – the B Corp hub in Canada – announced the 39 Founding Canadian B Corps. In this special series, The Mark is excited to feature testimonials from three of these pioneering Canadian B Corps.

How did the Ian Martin Group decide to become a B Corp? We started by obsessively asking a single self-searching question about our business: Why?

Credit for getting us to ask that important question goes to a guy named Simon Sinek. He was one of five speakers at the Art of Management conference in Toronto on Nov. 15, 2010. Simon got up in a room housing 1,500 people, reached for an easel pad, and drew three concentric circles. No PowerPoint, no flashy videos, no slick graphics – just those three circles on a lonely pad in a huge auditorium. In the outer circle, he wrote “What,” in the middle one, “How,” and in the inner circle, “Why.”

Then Simon began his speech, recounting research into the biology of human decision-making (and numerous practical examples) to illustrate that, ultimately, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

After that, several of us at Ian Martin started looking for examples of successful companies that had been founded on a “why.” Google, for example, rose to dominance in record time by seeking to “organize the world’s information.”

And what about businesses that weren’t startups – especially those operating in commodity industries? How did clearly understanding the “why” help those companies? Examples started to emerge: Southwest Airlines, ING Direct, Zappos, and Whole Foods. These companies knew what the world would be missing if they suddenly disappeared. It wasn’t cheap airline seats, savings accounts, shoes, or groceries – and it definitely wasn’t just jobs or a positive blip in GDP. That vacuum could easily be filled by their competition. But an airline that believes in “fun,” a bank that actually seems to care about helping people “save their money,” a shoe store that “delivers happiness,” and a grocery store whose deepest principle is “love”? Those would be difficult to replace.

In April 2011, we had the opportunity to visit Campbell’s Soup Company to learn about its journey in this respect. In 2006, its executive group had wrestled with defining and articulating the purpose of the firm – an 80-year-old household name that needed revitalization. After much soul-searching, they landed on the simple statement, “We create extraordinary, authentic nourishment for all.”

I’m sure that seemed quite a stretch for a company best known for selling non-perishable cans of salty soup. You can imagine the cynicism of employees and consumers: “There’s a new mission statement hanging in the lobby. This should change everything … .”

But it appears the authors of that mission statement were serious. They created a “wall of achievements” leading down the hallway from the lobby, and began to mark off accomplishments each year. Over the course of five years, employee leadership training was transformed, sourcing and manufacturing practices improved, and consumer products evolved to the point that Campbell’s received the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s “Health Check” label.

At Ian Martin, all of this research was leading us to a new understanding of the place of the corporation, including our own business, in society. We came to believe that it’s the companies that know their “calling” – the ones that articulate their purpose clearly and follow it rigorously – that can have the most positive impact.

But what was our calling, our “why”?

We are a staffing company – at our roots, an engineering/technical staffing company – founded by Ian Martin and Mary Masson, a pair of entrepreneurs, in 1957. By the time Simon Sinek was giving his speech in November 2010, the company was transitioning to a newly selected executive team. For that team, the question, “What is our why?” would dominate conversations with each of our stakeholders until the summer of 2011.

The nine-month process of determining the answer to that question felt like walking a narrow path in a misty wood. But, finally, the answer emerged – and stuck. Ian Martin’s purpose is simply to connect people with meaningful work.

But we were still a long way from being able to claim genuinely and confidently that we were connecting each and every person we placed in a job with meaningful work. After 55 years in business, we had definitely established a lot of good practices, but we knew we needed some transparency, accountability, and plain old metrics to help us break a few ingrained habits.

That’s when we learned about B Corporations. We took the free B Impact Assessment (the results of which can be found here) and found it to be an excellent best-practices guide to help us put metrics around the idea of being a responsible company. It was then that we decided to join and encourage the movement.


While Ian Martin has only been a B Corp for three months, aligning our practices with B Corp standards has already helped us further clarify, define, and articulate our purpose. And we’re seeing the results. At the executive table, people now say things like, “Since we’re a B Corp, we have to consider xyz … .” Our sales reps are beginning to communicate the message to prospective and current customers. One customer responded, “I’m not sure if I even care about that, but it’s honestly the first time I’ve heard a real differentiator coming from a staffing company. It’s interesting.” Best of all, we’re definitely seeing a shift in the quality of applicants who want to come work with us.

As a new B Corp, we still feel like a humble member of the community. This is a work in progress for us, and we hope our new B Corp status will mean that we continue to learn from other B Corps, improve our impacts, measure our progress, and become more transparent and accountable to our purpose. Finding our “why” is, and will continue to be, a journey, not a destination.

Photo courtesy of Simon Sinek and www.startwithwhy.com.


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