Ikigai: Some Personal Reflections on Raison d Être and Purpose in Professional Firms

Print PDF

By Nick Jarrett-Kerr | Aug 25, 2019

Introduction – Identity, Purpose and Vision for the Professional Firm

I have often written of the imperative for a professional firm to develop an overall and shared “Strategic Intent” as a great starting point for the development of the central part of a firm’s strategy. Strategic Intent (Identity, Purpose and Vision) provides and communicates an unmistakable sense of direction, identity and destiny for every person in the firm and identifies clear purposes and objectives which will drive the firm beyond its current limitations and constraints. Every professional firm is made up of its members and needs a raison d’être which transcends the desire to make money. Why the partners/members of any firm stick together and choose to be part of a particular firm has a lot to do with the mutual motivations and shared values of its members.

The problem is that many firms are made up of partners with differing views of what they need from the firm. It is difficult to main maintain unity of strategic purpose in a firm made up of widely different character types. Hence, the second part of Strategic Intent, and in many ways the most difficult, is to agree on the firm’s purpose: identifying why the partners are in business together and what seem to comprise the bonds – beyond the pursuit of profit – that drive the firm forward. A strong sense of purpose is necessary to give partners and staff good reasons for working late, going the extra mile, and investing their careers, money and resources in the firm. Strong values therefore form a large element in a firm’s sense of purpose – the issues and factors which are important to partners, which form the soul of the firm, and which help people to understand why the firm exists and what really matters to its stakeholders.

Sense of Purpose for a Firm Starts at the Individual Level

This higher purpose for a business needs to be built on developing and defining the sense of purpose that is important for its stakeholders. Businesses fail through lack of passion on the part of its stakeholders, and it is therefore important that the firm should be built or developed on the foundations of an agreed reason for being. Over the past two decades I have had the honour and pleasure of working with firms across the world with many different cultures, faiths and religious beliefs. In my engagements I often ask law firm members what gets them up in the morning, what motivates them and why they come to work. I have been astounded by the similarity between forward-thinking firms world-wide in the answers to these questions. I have, of course, come across a minority of firm members who are demotivated or bored and sadly treat their job or career as fulfilling no real purpose than the need to make a living. Most, however, feel passion for what they do.

As a practicing Christian I have found the answers to the really deep and difficult questions of higher purpose (for example “Why am I in the World?”) to be fairly straightforward conceptually, though less easy to put into practice in day-to-day life. My faith is based on knowing, growing and serving God, built on the fundamental premise that our higher purpose is to serve God “as the best and happiest thing in the world” – as one writer put it – and empowered with a desire and drive to work hard so as to try to bring more good into existence. Both Judaism and Islam have similar philosophies – the very name, Islam, means submission or obedience to God, and the Muslim is one who submits or surrenders to God and accepts that all created things fulfil their assigned purpose by serving God.

Other religions show a remarkable similarity of approach. The Hindus adhere to the concept of “purusharthas” which comprise the four proper goals or aims of a human life. These are Dharma (righteousness, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values). Not entirely dissimilarly, for Buddhists, the path to enlightenment is attained by utilizing morality, meditation and wisdom.

Towards an Ikigai Sense of Purpose

Whether religious, agnostic or atheist, these “Higher Purpose” philosophies can be summed up by the Japanese concept of Ikigai as illustrated by the graphic at the head of this piece. Ikigai roughly means “the thing that you live for” or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” and provides a way of discovering the delicate balance between pursuing your own passion, serving others and earning a living.

I feel Ikigai can provide the common ground here between religions, culture and business practices across the commercial world in order to root the motivations of stakeholders into the values and objectives of purposeful organisations.

Putting Ikigai into Practice

If the sense of purpose valued by individual stakeholders is to act in any way as the glue holding an enterprise together, it is axiomatic that sufficient numbers of firm members must think the same way and hold roughly the same core values even if their cultural norms or religious beliefs (if any) are somewhat different. Whatever the history and tradition of the firm, it is important to go right back to understand what motivates and drives individuals in the firm. The ultimate goal of Ikigai is not happiness – it’s about a life practice towards fulfilment.

Prospering by doing what you love, what you are good at, what you find most natural and easy, and then working towards the needs of the world all form good tests for career planning, business planning and creating the purposeful glue in a business enterprise. The decisions made by businesses and individuals need to align with these purposes which can then be anchored into a culture of conscious choices and decisions.

Edge Principal Nick Jarrett-Kerr is one of the leading UK and international advisers to law firms on business issues, strategy, leadership and management. In addition to matters of strategy, Nick has a particular interest in law firm governance, partner compensation, partnership performance criteria and partner development. He regularly leads or facilitates strategy days, retreats, partner conferences, practice group retreats and away days.