Is Your Business Working On Purpose?

When your company has a true reason for being, everything works better. Here's how to define and stay true to your purpose.

When I misbehaved as a young lad, my mother was the one who almost always reprimanded me. After lecturing me on the rights and wrongs, she'd ask, "Did you do that on purpose?," and then hand out the punishment.

My actions were almost always spontaneous episodes of teenage stupidity, not premeditated acts of dissent. While I was definitely a rebellious teenager, my mother’s inquisition always made me think about my actions, and to this day, "Are you doing that on purpose?" is a question I ask myself regularly about my impact on others.

Purpose and people are the new frontier.
For most businesses today, the most valuable asset they manage is their people—and employee engagement and satisfaction are strategic imperatives that every leadership team should understand and explore proactively.

People who turn up to work each day and aren’t actively using their talents to pursue or connect to their purpose, don’t operate at their full potential. People who find their reason for being, who uncover their purpose and connect with it passionately, become more engaged and significantly more effective at work and in life because of a clear sense of fulfillment. Helping your employees discover and define their purpose represents a significant opportunity to improve "people" engagement and therefore overall corporate performance.

Companies that find their purpose are no different when they define or rediscover their reason for being. Working closely with executive teams at large corporations to reposition and refresh their brands, I encounter many who ask for our guidance and help to explore and define their purpose in the world. On the surface, this sounds like vision and mission work, but when examined, it becomes deep strategic work that has the potential to impact every facet of a business. The opportunity to do business around purpose is one of the new frontiers for driving significant and meaningful change both inside and outside of a company.

How is purpose different from vision?
There has been a lot written around purpose, the role we play in the world, the reason we exist as individuals, and the need for our lives to have meaning. Finding purpose is the central question we all seek to answer at a key point in our lives (whether we know it or not), and thanks to authors like Simon Sinek and Rick Warren (and of course my mother), there are tools that can help us find the answer. Like people who are trying to find their way, companies who are seeking to reinvigorate their business and find a relevant and compelling position for themselves must step back and answer the central question of why they exist in the world. Oftentimes executive teams try to answer this question by laying out a vision statement about how they see the future.

A vision statement, for many, is aspirational; it’s a description of what the company wants to achieve and is not intended to be literal. Sadly the result often is not believable or is totally unachievable. Whereas, a purpose statement clearly articulates the reason a company exists in the world, the role it plays (and the difference it makes) in people’s lives, offering a clear and accurate description of the core business.

Companies with a greater purpose
A company must make money and add value to the community it exists to serve. But this is merely operating as a viable entity. Existing to make money does not unlock the potential contained in the power of a clear purpose. It feels like just yesterday when purpose-committed companies like Patagonia and Newman's Own were few and far between. But today successful new companies like Warby Parker, FEED, MiiR, Cleanwell, The Honest Kitchen, Raven + Lily, Sseko Designs, Project 7, and The Paradigm Project are among the many social enterprises that were founded with a clear purpose in mind and are sprouting up in almost every business category, challenging the current ways of doing business and offering consumers the ability to make a broader impact through the products they purchase.

Can profits and purpose mix?
Purpose is not the exclusive territory of socially conscious startups. Southwest Airlines, for one, was built on making flying and travel accessible to more Americans. And 40 years later, their reason for being is still expressed and executed strategically across every facet of their business. "Freedom to Fly" can be experienced by customers in three simple areas: low fares, lots of flights, and the friendliest service in the sky. They give their employees the freedom to keep fares low in every city they serve, and they are low by philosophy, not expediency. They provide the best customer service in the airline industry (in their parlance, Positively Outrageous Service). Their reason for being—their purpose—is expressed in every functional area of their business, and the difference shows in the customer experience as well as in their financial performance. They have enjoyed 40 consecutive years of profits, which is unheard of in the domestic airline industry.

We're seeing the search to clarify purpose as a growing trend among the international companies we work with, as their executives seek to understand how to play a more meaningful role in the world and improve their overall business performance. So if you sit in the C-Suite of any major corporation today, don't run past the question of purpose as a serious opportunity to impact your business and the people who work for you.

The benefits and effects of your people doing their work on purpose.
When your company has a clear purpose, you plan with that connected purpose, mapping your strategy clearly to your reason for existing as a business and the role you play in the world. When objectives have a purpose, everyone on the team is on the same page and understands what to do and why they are doing it. If you define your purpose, plan with it in mind, and measure your actions and performance against it accordingly, you increase engagement, inspire performance, and do your most rewarding and satisfying work.

If in doubt, just remember what my mother asked: "Are you doing that on purpose?"

[Image: Flickr user Lali Masriera]

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2 Comments

  • David Edward

    People and companies are alike in that they both need purpose to reach actualization or fulfillment. They both need the other to have purpose to reach their fullest potential. It is one of the tenets in my forthcoming book.
    Thanks for this insightful piece.

  • Ki-Resolutions

    If the purpose of life is a life of purpose - then the purpose of business is a business of purpose.  How well connected are you to yours?