How Do You Create A Sense Of Purpose In A Giant Company?

PricewaterhouseCoopers is learning that its younger employees need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Just doing it isn’t enough.

Without a sense of professional purpose, going to work every day is a miserable slog. Granted, there are plenty of people who go about their jobs for decades without a purpose, but that’s not exactly a morale-booster for colleagues–and for a large firm, it could be deadly.


Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the largest privately-held organizations in the U.S., is on a mission to define and strengthen its purpose. First, the company rolled out a purpose statement last year:

At PwC, our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems. As a firm, we believe in fulfilling our corporate responsibilities and in giving back to the society and helping the community and environment at large. This is part and parcel of our endeavour to build trust in society in a broader sense. Looking after the communities and environments in which we work in isn’t just good manners, it’s good business.

Sounds genuine enough. But for a company’s purpose to really take hold, employees have to see how it goes beyond volunteer opportunities that skirt the edges of their professional lives. They need to carry that purpose with them throughout the day. PwC’s purpose statement is a start, but building trust in society and solving important problems can mean different things to different people. There needs to be more.

“We wanted to find ways that people can personally relate to it. We’re really looking at personal behavior, and how that might bridge the gap to understanding the firm’s purpose,” says Shannon Schuyler, principal at PwC, corporate responsibility leader, and president of the PwC Charitable Foundation.

On January 8, 500 PwC employees gathered in New York City for the company’s first summit on social purpose, featuring a series of short TED-style talks from employees and purpose-driven outsiders like Charles Best, from, Neil Blumenthal, the co-founder of Warby Parker; Jeffrey Hollender, the founder of Seventh Generation; and Shaun T, founder of the Insanity Workout.

“We had people who represent the corporate side, nonprofits, government agencies, to talk about what purpose means in different forms,” says Schuyler. “Purpose is interactive, not just words on a paper.”

PwC’s event also had speakers from within the company, including Brian Gaffney, a manager. For Gaffney, purpose is about bringing his real personality to work, not just a corporate version. “I’m a husband, father,a person passionate about jazz and coffee. I want to bring all of that into conversations with clients,” he says. “When I’m sitting across from a leader, I want to connect on a person to person level, not a consultant to client level.”


The summit is intended to inspire attendees, but it’s also an opportunity for the company to use employee feedback to clarify its purpose. PwC doesn’t have a formal process for that, but according to Schuyler, “We want to be able to track people who have those commonalities, those things they want to be a part of. It takes this type of exploration and hands-on experience.”

This drive to find a company purpose probably wouldn’t have occurred a decade ago. It’s the younger generation of employees, the so-called “millennials” that have sparked the trend of looking for a larger meaning in work. They need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Just doing it isn’t enough.

Schuyler freely admits that it’s this generation that inspired the purpose summit. “Purpose shouldn’t be something that you wait for until you’re a partner or close to retiring. That was the path. The millennial generation now, they know what their purpose is,” she says. “These folks are bringing it to us.” Younger employees want to know how their purpose can help shape the type of clients they work with and projects they work on.

PwC’s first step in moving the purpose conversation forward: pushing out all the tweets, pictures, and video from the purpose summit to its internal channels, and seeing what discussions arise. Ultimately, the company plans to bring similar summits to employees in other cities.

“The goal is to find our culture, find who we are,” says Schuyler.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more