How do customers, employees, and the market know if a company’s commitment to a higher purpose or a conscious culture is real? A few weeks ago, our article, Is the Purpose Movement a Fad, discussed the risk of pasting higher purpose language on marketing collateral simply to appease a growing demographic of consumers who are becoming more discerning about where they spend their money. In the way of helping people understand how to avoid this pitfall, we discuss this issue with Tom Matthesen, President of Thrive Farmers International, and his Head of Product Development, David Paparelli. They are a company that serves as an ideal case study of higher purpose done right.
Thrive Farmers sells coffee, and selling coffee is not new. In fact, the Dutch East India Company first started selling coffee in Europe in the 1700s. I’m relatively certain that a higher purpose was not a subject of their corporate conversations. Historically, coffee farmers have made only a few cents on every dollar of coffee sold, and Thrive Farmers was built around the sole purpose of changing that equation.
Elevating coffee farmers, giving them sustainable income, and building their communities is Thrive’s higher purpose. They are accomplishing this goal, in some cases quadrupling farmer’s income, and making great money doing it—achieving number 19 on the INC 500 this year. Tom and David are eager to use Thrive as an example of profit through purpose and shared with us how they generate the kind of authenticity that can’t be faked.
Infuse the Purpose into Everything
To establish a guideline for leaders wanting to adopt these principles in running their businesses, I asked Tom to quantify how much Thrive Farmers spends on activities related to their higher purpose versus regular company operations. Tom’s response is clear, “For us, you can’t separate that expense. It’s salary; it’s all of our SG&A; it’s cost of goods sold; it’s all of it.” The higher purpose is the company. This is a shift in thinking that many CEOs in the conscious capitalism or purpose movement stress as being critical to the authenticity factor.
Tom moves on to explain, “There is no separate designation for what we spend on — it’s the company. And so, every person that works there, that’s a spend because we’re investing in that employee. We’re investing in that supply chain, we’re investing in that farmer. Our nonprofit is funded by the company and I could draw a ring around some of those expenses, but it doesn’t matter because it’s who we are and what we do. So that’s just another SG&A line and salary. When you have a company that says, oh, we’re going to take X hundreds of thousands of dollars and we’re going to donate it to XYZ charities, I think that’s a great thing. How authentic is that, and what does that really say about the DNA of the company? I’m not sure. For us, there is no designation. And I think that’s what is unique about Thrive Farmers.”
While ingraining higher purpose mindset into business operations is more straightforward for some businesses (like hospitals or schools) than others, Thrive Farmers points to the initial impulse in leadership as the starting point. Leaders must have “courage and faith” to adopt this belief. Everything else comes from there.
Tell the Story to Everyone Who Will Listen
Once higher purpose is expressed throughout the business, telling people about it is the next step to authenticity. Thrive Farmers encourages storytelling as a critical tactic for connecting all their stakeholders to this purpose that is at their core. David says of maintaining authenticity of purpose, “If we’re talking about kind of a three-legged stool, I would say from a product level, there has to be an authentic story behind it for that stool to stand, and for us to be successful as a company.” He later continues, “But I think management [must take] intentional steps to engage with their employees on a daily, hourly, or whatever basis seems appropriate, to continue to tell the story. To continue to reinforce the mission. And, to connect them in projects that not only interest and engage the passion of the employee, but aid in the movement forward of the entire company.”
The importance of storytelling for reinforcing beliefs and transferring information is well documented. Fairy tales, parables, case studies. Human beings love stories. In Forbes’ article, The Science Of Storytelling, they write, “Storytelling is central to innovation, the critical performance dimension of 21st Century organizations: stories are a kind of cognitive play, a stimulus and training for a lively mind.” Thrive Farmers is making use of this tactic to drive their values into the hearts and minds of their stakeholders.
Write Your Own Story
Many CEOs embrace the ideas, but get stuck in thinking that their business has no access to a higher purpose. One common objection I’ve heard is: “I manufacture car parts, or my company sells insurance, or I have a management consulting firm—I’m not in a ‘save the children’ kind of business.” Thrive Farmers International isn’t necessarily in a “do-gooder” industry, either. Their leadership decided to adopt a higher purpose in coffee farming, and they figured out the rest of the equation.
Business leaders will need to write their own story of higher purpose. To be authentic, it needs to come from deep inside. David Wilke from World50 says,” My best advice on creating [higher purpose] is, spend your time. Clear your time and draw and scribble and talk to your colleagues. It’s one of those things that’s going to probably have to come through some iteration. You want something simple and something that everybody gets. But, just talk to your customers, talk to your associates and let — just soak it up and draw diagrams and words and stuff like that. Play with a thesaurus. All of those sorts of things. At the end of the day, in my case, the idea came to me in a conversation with a colleague.”
With Thrive Farmers, like so many instances of success, it looks easy once it’s done. On CEO Exclusive, after many shows on the subject, we’ve learned that implementing conscious principles and a higher purpose doesn’t only look one way. Take a look at some examples from previous shows–Fab’rik, Addo Worldwide, World50, American Global Logistics, Jackson Healthcare, Gas South, Jabian Consulting and Conscious Capitalism, are a few guests who are working hard on incorporating conscious ideals into their business operations.
Examples of higher purpose in business are becoming more and more common as this megatrend makes its way through companies across the country. Ensuring that the purpose is fully ingrained and adopted is a critical idea that the early leaders of this movement, like Thrive Farmers, are pushing and continue to reinforce. Once you’ve found that purpose, it will make difference for your employees, customers, and community. Sharing that difference through stories keeps it alive, drives it into operations, and makes it more real every time you open your doors for business.