What is the purpose of having a purpose?

Written by
Helmut Schuster, group HR director, BP

01 Mar 2020

01 Mar 2020 • by Helmut Schuster, group HR director, BP

BP’s group HR director, Helmut Schuster, questions what organisational purpose can help us achieve.

Writing this piece, I began by asking myself “what is the purpose of having a purpose?”.This process made me realise that my thinking around purpose has evolved significantly over recent years.

Organisational purpose has gone from being a very theoretical concept – a nebular afterthought — to being essential to strategy. It’s now so important that the UK Corporate Governance Code requires company boards to engage closely with their organisations’ development and articulation of purpose. 

I firmly believe, and have seen plenty of evidence proving, that a purpose-led organisation enjoys three core benefits. 

Core benefits of purpose

Purpose brings people together from all works of life. By breaking down barriers and silos, purpose allows people to have real and and open conversations — sadly rare in today’s offices and extremely underrated. 

Purpose inspires people and allows us to pursue meaningful work. This is work that aligns with our own personal ambitions as well as the dreams of society. It’s powerful for existing employees and key to attracting bright new talent. 

Purpose provides a guiding north star and long-term direction for a company. This is vital in an ever-changing world. Being able to adapt quickly, while maintaining your central reason for existence, is critical. Having spent much of my career in the energy industry, I speak from experience as we deal with the current energy transition. 

BP's new purpose

BP announced its new purpose on 12 February this year, defining it as “reimagining energy for people and our planet”. 

Many people have been involved in developing the statement and deciding how we embed it deeply across the company. I’m obviously biased, but I love its simplicity and boldness. Over the past year I have already noted the three core benefits come to life within BP, resulting in ways of working that genuinely inspire me. 

Taking a step back, there are two wider questions for all of us to consider: as more companies embrace purpose, what possibilities will this create for businesses and society over the next 10 years? Following on from this, how do we assess whether purpose is truly impactful and does not just constitute polished words and slick presentations? 

Work gives us meaning

Albert Einstein allegedly once said, “work is the only thing that gives meaning to life”. When I was in my early twenties, this quote didn’t resonate with me at all. However, as I matured and mostly made career choices that led to meaningful jobs, I increasingly understood what he was saying. 

At the start of this new decade — the decade during which millennials will increasingly shape the world – purpose will be more than just an afterthought; it will become an expectation, an expectation that work will not feel like work, that companies will help to create a better world. We will be invited to dream together and to reinvent. Purpose will be measured over decades and it will be the actions, not the words, that will be counted. 


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