Young people are overwhelmingly disengaged from the world of business as a potential venue for their ambitions, according to YouGov research for accounting giant Grant Thornton.

Sacha Romanovitch – CEO of the firm’s UK wing – argues that the young require greater numbers of role models from business who can demonstrate the value of vision, culture and purpose, and what those qualities can achieve. “Only 1% of 8 to 15-year-olds want to work in business when they grow up,” she laments.

“To inspire the next generation,” she points out, “we need to do more to showcase and celebrate leaders from UK businesses – as well as public- and third- sector bodies – who will role model how people and organisations can contribute to the growth of our economy and society in a positive way.”

Romanovitch notes that this is the driving force behind her firm’s Faces of a Vibrant Economy initiative, which has just launched its second, annual showcase.

She says: “Our Faces are exceptional leaders, driving positive results against a clearly defined purpose. Their commitment and passion makes us want to be like them, to work with them and to learn from them.

“These leaders show us how business can be a force for good in society, how creative approaches to public services and commitment to investing in your people can drive superior results – and how passion, coupled with purpose and a great idea, can change the world for the better.”

However, with young people’s attention so often swayed by digital distractions, organisations and their leaders will have to do more than simply show an example. What kinds of practical efforts can they take to ensure that young people get the message about the potential that business has to do good?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “Increasingly, we’re seeing evidence that young people want to find a distinct purpose in their work, and need to align their own values with those of the organisations they work for. They seem to want different things from life, compared to the cherished goals of previous generations – and while they are not opposed to profit, they are far more likely to support that goal if it’s met ethically.

“When careers are portrayed solely as decades-long slogs dedicated to the pursuit of shareholder wealth, I think that’s the point where young people’s eyes glaze over. Few go to work with the specific intent of making shareholders rich. And in recent years, leaders have lost sight of that – particularly in the financial sector. What is the underlying motivation for work? Yes, you may be making profits – but are you doing it ethically? There is clearly a huge difference between creating wealth and creating value. The latter is a purpose by which young people will stand.”

James notes: “In terms of how to attract young people to work in business, you must stress your values, maintain absolute transparency, convey how you deliver upon your mission and explain how ethically underpinned your operations are. In that sense, there’s a strong link with the timeliness of your payments: as businesses, we’re all part of a wider supply chain, and everyone in that chain has to benefit – otherwise the chain breaks.

“Role models are very important – I’m never going to dispute the inspirational kick we get from seeing individuals in action who we want to emulate. But I do think you need more than that if you’re going to attract young people into business. If the prevailing commentary around millennials is correct – such as the observation that they’re much more inclined to work collaboratively – then I’m not sure whether ramping up the profiles of individual leaders and saying what they’re doing is great is the correct sell.”

He adds: “I think it’s much more about emphasising the good we’re doing collectively – not just the impact that we’re having within our own organisations, but how we are creating a positive influence throughout the entire supply chain.”

For further thoughts on the value of corporate social responsibility, check out these learning resources from the Institute