Far from being touchy-feely concepts touted by motivational speakers, purpose and values have been identified as key drivers of high-performing organizations.
- In Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras reveal that purpose- and values-driven organizations outperformed the general market and comparison companies by 15:1 and 6:1, respectively.
- In Corporate Culture and Performance, Harvard professors John Kotter and James Heskett found that firms with shared-values–based cultures enjoyed 400% higher revenues, 700% greater job growth, 1,200% higher stock prices and significantly faster profit performance, as compared to companies in similar industries.
- In Firms of Endearment, marketing professor Rajendra Sisodia and his coauthors explain how companies that put employees’ and customers’ needs ahead of shareholders’ desires outperform conventional competitors in stock-market performance by 8:1.
Leaders who have a clearly articulated purpose and are driven to make a difference can inspire people to overcome insurmountable odds, writes Roy M. Spence Jr. in It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand for.
“Life is short, so live it out doing something that you care about,” he writes. “Try to make a difference the best way you can. There’s an enormous satisfaction in seeing the cultural transformation that happens when an organization is turned on to purpose.”
While a well-designed strategy and its effective implementation are required for business success, neither inspires followers to maintain engagement during troubled times. The purpose must tap into people’s hearts and help them give their best when the chips are down.
In a company without purpose, people have only a vague idea of what they’re supposed to do. There’s always activity and busyness, but it’s often frenetic, disorganized and focused solely on short-term goals.
“Across organizations, nearly every survey suggests that the vast majority of employees don’t feel fully engaged at work, valued for their contributions, or freed and trusted to do what they do best,” reports Tony Schwartz in a recent HBR.org blog post. “Instead, they feel weighed down by multiple demands and distractions, and they often don’t derive much meaning or satisfaction from their work. That’s a tragedy for millions of people and a huge lost opportunity for organizations.”
Leaders must clearly identify and articulate what truly matters:
- Why are we in business?
- What difference do we want to make in the world?
- What’s our most important purpose?
Finding a Business Purpose
A company’s purpose starts with its leaders and works its way through the organization. It shows up in products, services, and employee and customer experiences. An inspirational purpose often lies hidden, so review the following:
- Revisit your organization’s heritage (past history).
- Review successes. At what does the business excel?
- Start asking “why?”
- What won’t your organization do? Review false starts and failures.
- Talk to employees.
- Talk to top leaders.
- Talk to high performers.
- Talk to customers.
- Follow your heart.
A purpose is informed by the world’s needs. When you build an organization with a concrete purpose in mind—one that fills a real need in the marketplace—performance will follow.
Ask the following questions:
- Why does your organization do what it does?
- Why is this important to the people you serve?
- Why does your organization’s existence matter?
- What is its functional benefit to customers and constituents?
- What is the emotional benefit to them?
- What is the ultimate value to your customer?
- What are you deeply passionate about?
- At what can you excel?
- What drives your economic engine?
Mission statements used to have a purpose. The purpose was to force management to make hard decisions about what the company stood for. A hard decision means giving up one thing to get another. ~ Seth Godin, marketing expert
When a mission statement is well written, it serves as a declaration of purpose. But corporate mission statements are often little more than a descriptive sentence about products, aspirations or desired public perceptions. They’re more powerful when they clearly and specifically articulate the difference your business strives to make in the world.
Leaders who want to succeed should straightforwardly communicate what they believe in and why they’re so passionate about their cause, according to business consultant Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Portfolio, 2010).
Most people know what they do and how they do it, Sinek says, but few communicate why they’re doing it.
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy into why you do it,” he emphasizes.
The Bridge to What Matters
Great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Walt Disney always communicated their “why”—the reasons they acted, why they cared and their future hopes. Great business leaders follow suit. Apple’s Steve Wozniak thought everyone should have a computer and, along with Steve Jobs, set out to challenge established corporations’ status quo. Starbucks’ Howard Schultz wanted to create social experiences in cafés resembling those in Italy.
It’s up to you to build a bridge between the business’ purpose and your own values:
- In what way can you make a difference through company products and services?
- How can you express what truly matters in the work you do?
- In what ways can you make a difference in the world through the people you work for and with?
When you share your greater cause and higher purpose, listeners filter the message and decide to trust you (or not). When listeners’ values and purpose resonate with your own, they are primed to become followers who will favorably perceive subsequent messages.