Ten Executives Get Personal on Purpose

Rory Finnegan (MBA ’24) dives into HBS Professor Ranjay Gulati’s new podcast, “Deep Purpose,” a series of conversations on the pursuit of purpose with top business leaders.

Rory Finnegan, Community Editor

Ranjay Gulati, Contributor

From our first days on campus, HBS students are asked to ponder big questions. Before even setting foot in the classroom, we are challenged by poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Framed posters dot the hallways and project rooms of Spangler, each with a personal anecdote—an answer to Oliver’s question—from students who came before us. Of course, we are asked to consider what our own responses would be. Not long after, we sit in Klarman and are introduced to the “MyTake” format, a 20-ish minute story presentation by a classmate on something that matters deeply to them. We are encouraged to share our own takes in the weeks and months that follow—an exercise in reflecting on what we believe in and what got us here.

At the heart of these explorations is a theme: purpose. What matters? What shaped us? Why do we care about the things we care about? These questions help us as individuals to identify a purpose, which in turn serves as a North Star for the career—and broader life—decisions we make. We are given the space to explore it here at HBS, but really, most of us were thinking about personal and organizational purposes long before we started business school. It is a feature of our generation. In an interview with the Harbus earlier this year, HBS Professor Ranjay Gulati said, “The rising generation of young leaders is more purposeful in their lives than prior generations and cares deeply not just about the bottom line, but fulfilling an organizational purpose.” A quick Google search reveals that insight-producing powerhouses—McKinsey, PwC, Deloitte, Korn Ferry, to name a few—agree. 

Purpose matters to employees, particularly younger ones, and it will continue to matter. In his book Deep Purpose: The Heart and Soul of High-Performance Companies, Gulati explores the revolutionary impact deep purpose can have on company performance. Recently, he has illuminated a more personal side to purpose—by sitting down with top, purpose-driven CEOs to learn more about the courage and commitment that drives them. These conversations, captured in Gulati’s new podcast series, Deep Purpose, played through my headphones most November mornings as I crossed the footbridge to class. Each day at 9:30, I arrived in Aldrich inspired and a little more hopeful about the future of business. Here are three of the lessons I’ve taken away.

With purpose, companies need to walk the talk

Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, shared, “I don’t think you can really fake purpose.” As many of us consider where we want to work and why, this rings true. It is so easy to slap a purpose statement on a company website. It is another thing to live out that purpose in the way you do business. And all stakeholders—from employees to customers—see right through words that are not backed by action. At Unilever, purpose is on full display: for example, Dove has done workshops with 60 million girls to change their perceptions of beauty, and Domestos has put over 30 million toilets into homes in an emerging market. “Only when you’ve taken those actions do you earn the right to talk about the purpose (behind those actions) to consumers,” Jope said. 

For early-stage companies, setting a purpose and sticking to it can be one of the only ways to grow. “In the early days, when you cannot pay market salaries, when you do not have a momentum of revenue, nobody knows who you are. The only thing you really have is your narrative,” Mona Ataya, the founder of Mumzworld, told Professor Gulati. Mudassir Sheikha, founder of Careem, shared similar thoughts. “Hiring talent for a startup in the Middle East in 2012 was like climbing Mount Everest. No one wants to work at a startup, especially a startup that cannot even pay them a competitive wage. But Careem’s purpose, that was the thing we were selling.” Because of this, it was “the real believers that came on board…all of a sudden there was momentum because we surrounded ourselves with people who were here for the right reasons, who believed in the purpose. And we started believing in the purpose even more.”

Dilhan Pillay of Temasek Holdings in Singapore spoke to the importance of rolling out purpose systematically. “We’re actually putting in place right now a framework for us to have (purpose) rolled out throughout the organization…to ensure that when we undertake things, people have in mind the reason why.” The challenge, he said, will be “making it authentic…that’s going to make it stick.” Across the podcast series, it became clear that all CEOs agreed on the importance of authenticity when it came to purpose. David Vélez, founder of Latin America’s Nubank, kept it short and sweet: “actions speak louder than words.” 

Following a purpose often means taking the long view

In many cases, shareholders tend to look for short-term success. But sometimes, what is best in the short-term is at odds with a company’s purpose in the long run—and many CEOs grapple with this trade-off. Anand Mahindra, CEO of Mahindra Group, told Professor Gulati that he thinks this trade-off is “fictional.” He elaborated, “When it comes down to it, unless we show that we are clear in our outlook and our sense of purpose on what is good and bad for the world, consumers are going to vote with their wallets and move away. If you really believe in purpose and really believe in this kind of purpose, doing the right thing will help you do well and do good at the same time. You may take an immediate hit, but in the long run, you are going to get consumers.” Rosalind Brewer leads Walgreens with a similar thesis: “When my team brings me something that doesn’t match our mission and values, I decline it. I don’t want what everyone’s doing now. We’re going to fight for the future. It’s a long-term vision. People are startled by it…but we have to make decisions based on who we want to be.” 

Recently, more and more shareholders are willing to take the long view, according to Piyush Gupta of DBS Bank. To convince them, he says, “You have to get people reconciled to the view that in the long-term, what’s good for the shareholder is working on things that are good for the country, society, community, employees, et cetera.”

It is important to note, of course, that while deep purpose organizations are grounded in their long-term goals, they do not lose sight of the short-term. Coming out of his conversations with the ten CEOs, Professor Gulati told me that they all “recognize that short-term deliverables are markers towards achieving long-term goals. Both are important, and deep purpose orgs understand that reality. Purpose gives them a framework to contemplate the inherent trade-offs in business.”

Purpose is personal

In all ten conversations, what sticks with me most is the importance of marrying personal purpose and organizational purpose. Each CEO shared stories from their personal lives and backgrounds. They covered why they chose a specific path: switching careers, starting a company, returning to an industry they loved. They also shared what lessons they learned from their parents, or the experiences from childhood that shaped them and informed the type of leader they strive to be. 

For most, the unlock came before they joined or started a company. “When I thought about coming into the healthcare industry, I thought to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’,” Brewer shared. “We’ve lost both of our parents now, but the care for them towards the end brought us together as a family. This is the legacy that I want to leave—to see how well I can create impact, create noise in this industry…it stems from my lived experience.” In a previous job, Sheikha had the opportunity to reflect on his personal purpose. The five things he came up with ranged from “be there for my wife and give the right upbringing to my kids” to “do something with Pakistan…the country that gave me the opportunity to get out and do the things I was able to do.” He would go on to start a ride-sharing company in Pakistan, and ultimately sell to Uber on terms that kept true to the company’s—and his own—purpose. Similarly, Ataya was a mother of three when she started Mumzworld. “On one side, I’m an entrepreneur, on the other side I’m a mother, and they hold equal weight,” she said. “It was very important for me from day one to be purpose-driven. And I’m getting alignment of the family because every hour I’m away from my children, they are vested in that as well. So we are building this business together. Therefore the purpose (of the company) had to be meaningful and relevant and in line with our shared values.” In doing this, Ataya says, she can create “a legacy to be proud of.”


There’s so much more to dig into across the ten CEOs from diverse regions and industries featured on Deep Purpose. Professor Gulati is hopeful that his podcast will serve as a call-to-action: it’s never too early to find your purpose. “Why am I here? It’s a big question, and most of us wait too long to think about the answer,” he told me. “It’s important to think about our purpose in life. When we think about purpose, it forces us to think long-term and short-term. It gives us perspective.” There’s a good chance you thought about purpose before HBS. And there’s an even better chance you’ll want to factor it into the decisions you make after. As you listen to the journeys of these storied leaders, remember that.

Find “Deep Purpose” on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts. To learn more about Professor Gulati’s collection of “Deep Purpose” initiatives, visit deeppurpose.net.

Rory Finnegan (MBA ’24) is originally from New Jersey. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in poetry writing in 2018. Prior to HBS, she worked in consulting and CEO communications in New York. 

Ranjay Gulati is a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert on leadership, strategy and organizational growth. Until recently, he chaired the Advanced Management Program, the school’s flagship senior leader executive program. He has authored seven books, including “Deep Purpose: The Heart and Soul of High-Performance Companies,” and is the host of the new podcast “Deep Purpose: How Courageous Leaders Unlock Potential.”