Purpose? What a strange question to ask, you might be thinking
My business’s purpose is to make money, surely! Or, my organisation’s purpose is to not make that evil capitalist offshoot, profit, and serve society in a charitable way instead.
But is this really its purpose? There is a realization catching on like wildfire around the world. It is that making money for the shareholders is not actually what gets us up in the morning. We are unlikely to give our best efforts when we feel we can’t bring our whole selves to work. Where somehow we have to leave half of ourselves in the car park while we trudge through the day. Waiting for 5 o’clock, our weekends and our pensions.
Is purpose all about the Why?
Why does your organisation exist? Why was it created? What does it stand for in the world? Why does it matter? And what difference would it make if it wasn’t there?
Asking these kinds of questions taps into something deeper within ourselves that inspires us. We all want to belong to something, to have the feeling that our contributions matter. This is most easily done when our personal values and aspirations are aligned with our organisation’s purpose.
Here’s a small example. Patagonia is a company that designs and makes outdoor clothing and gear. Their purpose, their ‘Reason for Being’ as they put it, is to Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. People who work at Patagonia have a strong identification with the outdoors and making a difference to the environment. They would not rather be working for a different manufacturer somewhere else: the company stands for what they stand for.
Because of this, they are passionate about its purpose and they bring oodles of discretionary effort to their jobs. In a world where, as the Gallup poll admits, only 13% of us are engaged at work, this makes a huge difference – if you can tap into the other 87% of people’s energy, this releases a lot of potential in the organisation. It also sets up a positive chain of events: Patagonia receives around 10,000 resumes for 100 openings. That is a powerful way to harvest talent for your organisation.
It’s not about ditching profit
If you’re reading this as a commercial enterprise, the purpose is not about ditching profit and suddenly getting all causal about things. It’s about putting purpose at the centre of your enterprise, putting it before profit and being purpose-led, because, ironically, companies connected to their purpose end up being 10 – 18 times more profitable than those companies who focus solely on profit itself. The two are inextricably interlinked. And it makes sense. Work is intensely personal.
The more we as companies can tap into what our employees care about, the more inspired they will be at work, and the more inspired they are, the more they will contribute to the success of our company. If you add to this the possibilities of also connecting your other stakeholders to your purpose – selecting suppliers who resonate with your purpose, for example, and ensuring that the brand you put out into society reflects your purpose – then a powerful ripple effect is created that sustains itself and is far more effective than a leader trying to gee up the troops from the front.
This is as true for commercial enterprises as not-for-profits. Purpose aligns us, energizes and unites us. When we are connected to something greater than ourselves we are inspired by something we can believe in and all the silly little distractions, like me jostling for position over you, talking at cross purposes, duplicating effort or silos are lessened because we have a common language and are all clear about what we’re here to do, and we’re inspired by it.
So how do you go about setting up your organisation’s purpose?
In many respects, it is easier to do it from scratch and build it into your organisation’s DNA from the beginning so that it is central to all your other operations. For existing organisations, especially large and complex ones, it can be difficult to turn the oil tanker towards the true north of purpose. If you want to hear a pin drop, put a group of executives of a large enterprise into a room and ask them what the purpose of their company is. The last time I did it, the uncomfortable silence and shifting in seats indicated that this is not something they had thought much about before, but underlying that was an unspoken apprehension that should they discuss this openly they might not agree.
However, some distinctions help:
Vision = The picture of our desired future state
Mission = What we do and who we serve to get there
Values = The beliefs that underpin our behaviours in order to make mission and vision a reality
Purpose = Why we do all this in the first place, why we exist
Here are some examples of well-known companies’ purposes:
Disney – Using our imagination to bring happiness to millions.
Merck – To alleviate pain and suffering.
Walmart – Save money, live better.
McLaren – To win.
Your organisation -?
What would you put, personally? Does this align with your personal values? What would everybody else put down? How does this align with your organisation’s current vision and values? And how do you begin to have the conversation to align and harness the energies of your organisation towards an inspiring and fulfilling purpose?