The Purpose-Driven CFO Part 1: Why Be Purpose-Driven?

By Andy Burrows

[First published 31st January 2017]

My Purpose

My intention is to start a series of articles that look at what it means to be “purpose-driven” in Finance. I’ve felt for a while that having a clear purpose is motivating. It helps teams to gel. It helps parts of the organisation to understand how they fit together with the other parts, and how together they contribute to an overarching higher objective. And it helps people to benchmark their decisions, testing the extent to which they are helping towards those objectives and goals.

In fact, if you’ve read much of what I’ve written previously, you’ll know that one of my favourite sayings is that we should be “intentional and analytical” in what we do. That basically means understanding why you want to do something, what you want to achieve by doing it, and then measuring to check how successful you were. The analysis will help you improve and learn from your mistakes, but you won’t know what success looks like and how to measure it until you’ve clarified what it is you want. For example, you could say, “my intention in kicking this football is to score a goal”. And then you could say how successful a kick is by seeing whether a goal is scored or not. Then you would analyse to find out what made the successful ones go in, and what was it that needed improvement in the unsuccessful kicks.

That gives you a new intention – to improve your kicking method for next time – and therefore a feedback loop. Know what you want, why you want it and how to measure your success, then make it into a loop.

Purpose-driven Problems

My perception is that sometimes in Finance we forget what we’re in the business for. We get so bogged down in the “month end” or whatever we’re doing, that we don’t keep a clear vision of why we’re doing things. And after a while we become numb, feeling like we’re just churning out an endless stream of “stuff”.

So, at those times, there’s a need to rediscover our purpose. 

Another Thing to Appease the Millennials?

One thing I have to clear up before embarking on a series like this is the extent to which these thoughts have come about because of thinking about Millennials. I’ve been reading a lot recently about how Millennials – as a generational generalisation – are looking for their work to have “purpose”. So, am I just another management thinker jumping on the bandwagon, trying to urge companies to appease the younger element of the workforce?

I can answer that on several levels.

First, I’ve been talking about being “intentional and analytical” since 2008, which is longer than anyone’s been analysing the views of the Millennial generation.

Second, the cynic in me doesn’t really believe that this current fashion for being “purposeful” will last, because some of the businesses that are being urged to find a purpose are only doing it to please a section of their workforce. They’re not doing business with genuinely deep rooted purpose. (I could be wrong, of course. Who am I to question people’s motives? And maybe I’m just proving my cynical Generation X credentials?! To be fair, there is already talk of Generation Z, who are only just coming to adulthood, being even more idealistic and purposeful than the Millennials. But who knows?)

But, third, what I mean by “purpose”, and what those who analyse Millennial thinking mean by “purpose”, are different things. They mean that business must have some noble higher purpose, such as to protect the environment, stop the melting of the ice caps, to break down cultural barriers, or to promote world peace and unity. Apparently, Millennials long to be connected to something bigger than themselves, and feel like they’re contributing to the higher good of humanity. And even though I would love to engage with that thinking philosophically, here I’ll just say that’s not what I mean.

What I am talking about is purpose in a very general sense, meaning just understanding why in anything. It doesn’t matter to me what the purpose is. My point is that understanding what the purpose is in any given context makes a significant difference – to the way we approach things, the way we do things, the way things motivate us and how we prioritise them.

A Wake-Up Call for Finance

I haven’t done all the thinking, the research or the analysis yet, but my expectation is that pinpointing the purpose in the various things that Finance does will give us some shocks. I expect that we’ll end up wondering why we’ve been approaching some things the wrong way, and perhaps why we’ve had unexpected success in other areas. That is to say, I think this will be a worthwhile exercise.

So please stick with me. And please give me comments and your own thoughts along the way, so that we end up with thinking that is really helpful for our Finance teams.

I’m not going to take an obviously logical order to tackle topics. But I think I’ve picked a fairly big one to start with next time: Budgeting.

Don’t miss it!

Related articles

To save you looking, here are the links to all the articles in this series:

Part 1 - Why be purpose-driven?

Part 2 - Is it time to bin the budget?

Part 3 - Purpose-driven strategy

Part 4 - Financial reporting for what?

Part 5 - Don't waste money on projects

Part 6 - Internal control is for Finance Business Partners too

Part 7 - The great alternative to analysis paralysis

Part 8 - What is a purpose-driven Finance function?

Part 9 - Developing Finance business partnering

Part 10 - Finding purpose in the boring bits of Finance

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