Are You Different on Purpose?

Roy Spence, one of the toughest-minded business thinkers I know, is a cofounder of GSD&M, the legendary advertising agency based in Austin, Texas. In a provocative and saucy book, It's Not What You Sell, It's What You Stand For, Spence and coauthor Haley Rushing explain the business strategies and competitive ideas behind many of the one-of-a-kind organizations he has studied or worked with over the years, from BMW to Whole Foods Market to the U.S. Air Force. Sure, these and other organizations are built around strong business models, stellar products and services, and (of course) clever advertising. But Spence is adamant that behind every great brand is an authentic sense of purpose -- "a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world" -- and a workplace with the "energy and vitality" to bring that purpose to life.

In a chapter on the mission and culture at Texas A&M, the huge (48,000 students), rabidly conservative, steeped-in-tradition university that traces its history to 1871, Spence and Rushing highlight a saying about the school that students have been reciting for decades: "From the outside looking in, you can't understand it. From the inside looking out, you can't explain it."

That's a neat way to capture how it feels to change the sense of what's possible in your field -- and a reminder of why so few leaders muster the commitment to build an organization with a unique sense of itself. The rituals at Texas A&M include Silver Taps, Muster, Midnight Yell, Fish Camp, and the Aggie Ring -- memorable events that define life at the school. "The unique culture you encounter when you step foot in 'Aggieland,'" argue Spence and Rushing, "is like nothing you'll experience on any other college campus."

Spence's own firm walks the purpose-driven talk. Haley Rushing serves as GSD&M's "chief purposologist" and cofounder of its Purpose Institute. Spence and Rushing contend that the virtue of being clear about purpose and identity -- what makes your organization different, what difference it is trying to make in its field and in the lives of its employees -- is that it creates the strength to resist mimicking the stale ideas and outmoded practices of the competition.

"You can look at an opportunity or a challenge," they explain, "and ask yourself, 'Is this the right thing to do given our purpose? Does this further our cause?' If it does, you do it. If it doesn't, you don't. If it's proof to your purpose, embrace it. If it violates your purpose, kick it out on its ass." (I told you the book was saucy.)

I'm not sure I've ever read a more persuasive statement about why companies infused with a sense of purpose outperform those whose leaders and front-line employees don't have a crystal-clear sense of the impact they're trying to have and the reason the company exists in the first place. And this doesn't just go for high-profile consumer brands. One of my favorite purpose-driven companies is DPR Construction, a go-to building contractor for some of the most cutting-edge companies in the country, from Pixar to Apple to big semiconductor companies.

Back in 1990, before Doug Woods, Peter Nosler, and Ron Davidowski (the "P" and "R" in DPR) hammered their first nail, they hammered out a "core ideology" designed to set them apart from their peers -- and to announce their intention to challenge convention in their industry. "We exist to build great things," the ideology declares. "We must be different from and more progressive than all other construction companies. We stand for something."

DPR didn't just build its business (and these buildings) in accordance with its aim-high ideology. The founders also established "tangible images" and "vivid descriptions" of the future -- rich, easy-to-visualize portraits of what success would look like if the company lived up to its ideology. Early on, success meant being recognized as a different kind of company, a change-minded maverick in a slow-moving industry. "Our families will say we work for a great company," read one of the company's first 12 descriptions. "Our friends back East will mention that they have heard about DPR's greatness," read another. "We have built a major project that has been recognized in an industry magazine," read another.

Like Roy Spence's ad agency, DPR is a company that believes firmly in the power of language and symbols. Painted on the walls of its offices in Redwood City, California are the slogans and rallying cries that get repeated at all the company's offices around the country. "We exist to build great things," one wall declares, "Smarter, faster, better, safer," exclaims another. "Exceed all expectations," urges a third.

Why invest so much energy in building a vocabulary as opposed to just, say, building factories and laboratories for clients? "Because at the heart of every great company is a clear sense of purpose," answers Peter Salvati, a senior DPR executive who works out of the company's San Diego office. "One of the things I always have fun with, and I've probably done this with a hundred clients, is to suggest that they ask other construction companies, 'Why does your company exist?' You ought to be able to answer that about your own company. But so many people just look at each other, shrug their shoulders, and say, 'To make money, I guess.' It's different for us."

How would you answer Doug Woods's question? Why does your company exist? Are you different on purpose?

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine, author of Practically Radical, and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him @PracticallyRad or at WilliamTaylor.com.

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