Exclusive: Laszlo Bock Told Us This About Running a Business

Friday 10 August 2018
Former Google SVP Laszlo Bock has this view on company purpose
Laszlo Bock

In the wake of the launch of the CMI white paper The What, The Why and The How of Purpose, we asked HR expert Laszlo Bock for his view on business purpose. The founder of tech behavioural insights firm Humu has made it his mission to make work better for all, using software and his renowned knowledge of HR. As Google’s former SVP of people operations he is widely credited with having made Google ‘Google-y’ and implementing its celebrated ways of working. Here, he tells us that organisational purpose is still a cornerstone of culture.

Laszlo Bock, how do you define organisational purpose?

To me, a company’s organisational purpose is the cornerstone of culture. At [my tech start-up] Humu the purpose is ‘making work better for everyone, everywhere’. At my old employer, Google, it’s ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ A good purpose gives individuals’ work meaning.

How can an organisation design and shape its purpose? 

Think hard about why you do what you do. What is the greater good being served? Focus on impact, as opposed to business jargon.

What is behind the increase in prominence of a sense of purpose within an organisation?

Fact-based evidence! The power of purpose doesn’t just increase a sense of meaning and happiness in employees; it’s well-documented in the field of organisational psychology that a connection to a mission improves productivity as well. The fact that the most thoughtful organisations are waking up to this truth is a great thing for anyone who’s ever had a job.

Everyone can relate to the experience of working a 10- or 11-hour day where you never stop cranking out work, and you go home exhausted – but satisfied – because you made a difference. And most of us have also sat through hours of meetings where the most energising thing is watching the clock tick down. Our team at Humu is helping organisations of all sizes to double down on missions that matter in our efforts to make working life better.

Are you aware of any misunderstandings about what a company’s purpose should be?

One trap to fall into is to confuse a corporate mission with your business objectives – no one is inspired by responsibility to shareholders!

Another trap is to have a purpose that you can achieve. For example, once you’ve become ‘the market leader’, there’s not much more to be done. Instead you want a purpose that will always drive you. That creates motivation to constantly innovate and try new things in pursuit of a goal.

How is ‘purpose’ different from CSR? 

CSR is a belief about a corporation’s obligations. CSR is important. But a company’s purpose is its identity.

In your experience, do board members understand the role of corporate purpose? 

In my capacity as CEO of Humu I have the opportunity to talk to folks across industries and regions, and I continue to be inspired by the interest boards and executives are taking in issues of mission, purpose, and culture.

Where do you think purpose ranks on a list of factors that influence staff retention? 

Purpose easily in the top three factors that influence retention, based both on the science and on what we’ve seen since launching Humu. It’s also one of the most under-utilised assets in improving organisational performance, including retention, for companies of any size.

Are there any companies that you think have a very strong, authentic purpose that contributes to staff happiness?

Wegman’s is a Northeastern American grocery chain. They are a remarkable example of how it’s not just big companies with fat margins that can lead with authentic purpose, but organisations of all sizes and industries.

Wegman’s CEO Danny Wegman has a phrase he uses when he talks about purpose: he says that ‘leading with your heart can make a successful business.’ Wegman’s employees are empowered by this mission to give their best and let no customer leave unhappy, and they have absolute freedom to do so.

Laszlo Bock is author of Work Rules and former SVP of people operations at Google. He is now co-founder and CEO of behavioural change tech firm Humu

More information about the CMI white paper ‘The What, The Why and The How of Purpose’ is available here.