I am only really impressed by growth when I see how small the collateral damage is

Every entrepreneur strives for a contribution to society and good profit margins – read: earn good money. But ‘good’ can also mean ‘without harming the world or society’. If we abandon profit maximization, companies will become the driver for change in the world. That’s what Olivier Onghena-’t Hooft says in The Noble Purpose Book, published at the end of last year, inspired by the author’s remarkable life story. Business as positive activism and the market value of ethical entrepreneurship: the book is a toolbox, a philosophical essay and an exciting autobiography in one. Because everything started with three Colombian bullets.

Sometimes you have to hit the wall for a fresh start. This was a particularly intense experience for Olivier Onghena-’t Hooft. “I started my diplomatic career carefree and ambitious in the early 1990s, but in 1994 I was violently kidnapped in Colombia, which seriously affected my euphoric worldview,” he says.

1“By literally escaping death – I got bullets in my left and right leg and lower back, which led to paralysis – and a long physical rehabilitation, I started asking existential questions. To my own surprise, I developed a positive attitude to life in the aftermath of my kidnapping. Finding opportunities, looking for solutions. But also a compelling feeling that things had to be done differently.”

Noble purpose as a life purpose

His experience crystallized into a new life purpose: noble purpose. The soul and reason for existence of an organization. As CEO and entrepreneur, he found it the guiding principle for all his further ventures. “With my shock experience as a baggage, I threw myself into business management,” says Onghena-’t Hooft.

“I worked for four years as a young executive director for what was then Belgacom. I was in the Tiger Group of young top executives and also in a smaller executive team led by the late then CEO John Goossens, a true visionary. After that I was CEO of ORMIT, a specialist in management traineeships and people development, for years.”

“During a sabbatical I focused on my real estate. Strangely enough, I discovered the pleasure of working with my hands, by creating physically harmonious spaces. Harmony became a guideline. I started to read and meditate and also practice yoga and tai-chi.”

A strong culture change

Onghena-’t Hooft founded his own internationally operating consultancy GINPI (Global Inspiration & Noble Purpose Institute). There he could put his ideas into practice. Finding the balance between the purpose of an organization and its leadership, culture and strategy. Noble purpose is often strongly linked to a founder, says Onghena-’t Hooft. Airbnb and Uber had a noble purpose when they were founded. This was completely diluted under pressure from the creation of added value for shareholders. In many companies, motivation and vision therefore remain subordinate to strategy.

“In 2010 hardly anyone knew what noble purpose stood for. But our customers – often multinationals and large family businesses – were always quick to join the story, because we could translate it into employee engagement. A striking effect of noble purpose is that it puts all noses in the same direction. It leads to a strong cultural change with more engaged employees. The energy that arises is much more powerful than what you achieve with a respectful but always inadequate CSR approach”, he says.

More than corporate social responsibility

Because even with corporate social responsibility, profit is still the underlying goal. But the damage caused by this and the increasingly hopeless war for talent lead to the insight that ecology and humanism must be in economic progress. Onghena-’t Hooft: “As an entrepreneur you can set up a company in which you respect your raw materials, your employees and your end users. A noble purpose means that a company is fully at the service of all stakeholders.”

“Our customer Bosch Siemens Home Appliances – BSH for short – had two suppliers who were very efficient, but no longer aligned with the philosophy. Well, they cancelled those contracts. Then you are surprised to see which direction it can really take.”

Happiness is central to thinking about noble purpose. In his book Onghena-“t Hooft calls it “Joy through noble purpose“. To achieve that, harmony and new collective thinking are needed. “Just look at nature,” says the author. “We are all creating enormous disharmony there. COVID-19 is one consequence, the climate problem is another. Only with collective intelligence can you tackle such crises on a global scale.”

“If we don’t respect our sources and raw materials, we will pay the price. Collective thinking is important not only between a producer and a supplier, but also within the company or organization. Why does sales clash with finance? That happens much less with a collectively inspired corporate goal.“

“The great thing is that the collective also means that you stay ahead of your competitors. There is always that common glue: why do we do what we do. A noble purpose provides guidance and direction. And that works sublimely well.“

Proud of something that transcends yourself

It’s also about being proud of what you do. “Look, your growth and success as a company is directly proportional to that of your people. You need an eco-system in which people can develop by contributing to a greater purpose and are supported in this by their management. The organization of the future supports employees in their contribution to the internal and external noble purpose. Give people something that makes them proud to make a contribution that goes beyond themselves.”

“At Brussels Airlines there was a pernicious strike culture. The maintenance and engineering technicians and engineers worked in an acidic environment in which people were controlled via Excel sheets,” says Onghena-’t Hooft.

“We just asked them: what are you proud of? Why do you want to come and work? No one had ever asked them those questions. The narrative change from meaningless excels to a concrete contribution – safe flying, satisfied passengers – worked wonders, albeit together with new outfits and a physical make-over of the work environment. There were no more strikes. The impact was also huge at PSA (Peugeot Citroën Opel; ed.) and Sodexo. That is what I mean by you become what you believe: people can achieve a lot by taking them out of their socially limiting dogmatic thinking. As a ‘normal’ factory worker you can achieve a lot.”

The balance sheet reinvented

That is why it is important that a starting entrepreneur immediately determines his/her noble purpose. That creates focus. Moreover, companies with a keen social purpose are all seeing their activity grow, says Olivier Onghena-’t Hooft. Doesn’t that also apply to companies without a noble purpose but with a smart strategy? “Yes, but what collateral damage does that come with?” Onghena-’t Hooft rebounds the ball. “When the position of the late Didier Bellens, the former CEO of today’s Proximus, was questioned, I was asked by a number of government members to give my opinion. Bellens was known for his rough-hewn style. We were asked how we viewed these issues.”

“I then took a flipchart and made a balance of assets and liabilities, but then of what I call the balance sheet reinvented. You shift the focus from financial results to the indirect cost of the leadership style. Then you suddenly read ‘positive results’ very differently. Nice, your assets, all the dividends that have gone to the government, I told. But look at the liabilities: what costs does this policy entail in sickness and absenteeism, departing top managers, reputation damage and even some suicides? It turned out to be a multiple of the cost of the assets. That came in hard.”

“I often use the reinvented balance sheet during initial discussions with business leaders. I am only impressed by “growth” when I see how small the collateral damage is, because then the quality becomes clear. That way of thinking will be mainstream within five years. For sure.”

The crucial role of politics

The stock market profits of the major technology companies are soaring, but it comes at the expense of a lot of damage. The many homeless people in Silicon Valley, the plundered African resources. Greed is being rewarded. Even if in a super-democratic country like Denmark shareholders of companies like Carlsberg no longer have the right to vote, so that noble purpose is no longer stifled in profit maximization. A drop on the hot plate, it seems, in a world encouraged by Trumpism to become less and less democratic.

“Indeed, you cannot call an Amazon a purpose-driven company,” agrees Olivier Onghena-’t Hooft. “Even though Jeff Bezos puts a lot of money into philanthropy, that’s something completely different. I think Bill Gates is a purpose-driven entrepreneur: he did not set up Microsoft to become the richest man in the world, but to provide everyone with a PC at home and to give everyone access to information.

Do you understand the difference?”

“We did not want to keep Arcelor Mittal as a customer because we felt it was only about profit,” he continues. “Purpose was pure marketing. Yet noble purpose also exists in BRICS countries, where self-esteem often arises by making a fortune in the very short term, where it can be found in self-conscious and enlightened entrepreneurs.”

“Collective thinking and serving society is the basis of entrepreneurship. But my ideal is that you do business in a system where politics also inspires you to do business consciously. And that is currently not the case in the BRICS countries. Corruption is often the way to get a business deal. A properly functioning and regulating democracy is therefore an important condition for noble purpose.”

No more modern slavery

With his book, Olivier Onghena-’t Hooft wants people to question certainties, he says, just as he once did after an attack on his life on a dark roadside in Bogotà. “I’m aiming for the entrepreneur or even the billionaire who wants to do things differently. The politician, the social entrepreneur and the ordinary citizen who wants to leave the system of modern slavery.”

“What I am saying is that we will eventually move towards societies in which noble purpose-driven politicians create an economic climate in which entrepreneurs can achieve special things from which we will all benefit. A collective of flow and harmony, in which people have the space to make conscious contribution to such a healthier society.”

Interview for BLOOVI by Wieland De Hoon / Oct 6th, 2020 (Translated from Dutch)