7 provoking questions critical to your purpose in business

As published on Switch & Shift on Wednesday August 5, 2015. “Nothing is more creative nor destructive than a brilliant mind with a purpose” – Dan Brown.
It seems the corporate world more than ever understands this message, with the concept of purpose being more talked about these days than the concept of sustainability. Purpose is king and there is no turning back. 87% of business executives agrees that their companies will perform better if their purpose goes beyond making a profit (EY Purpose Institute). Organizations with a strong sense of purpose are more likely to say they encourage innovation, record positive growth and outgrow competitors (Deloitte 2014 Core Beliefs and Culture Study). And for consumers worldwide, purpose is the new paradigm, with almost 9 out of 10 global consumers wanting businesses to place at least equal weight on society’s interests as they do on businesses’ interest (Edelman Annual Global Goodpurpose Study).
Yet very few company purposes actually make a difference. Leadership often fails to set an example for the rest of the organization by truly living the organization’s purpose. Purposes are not always significantly embedded in people performance management. Sometimes, purposes are even false, inaccurate or misleading, in an artificial urge for companies to stand for something. The following questions will help you craft a purpose statement allowing you to make a genuine difference and long-lasting impact.

1. Are you a Hedgehog?

You might be familiar with the 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox by philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Despite the sleek and shrewd character of foxes that can tap into a wide range of interests and strategies, the hedgehog typically comes out the winner knowing how to do just one thing perfectly: defend itself. The same principle holds for a strong purpose: it helps you focus on what you are good at rather than search for alternative strategies. A fine purpose is the perfect intersection between “what you love doing”, “what you are great at”, “what the world needs” and “what you are paid for”. It gets you up in the morning and keeps you working late. It captures something at which you are or can become the number one in the world. It taps into a bigger human need. And it helps you achieve sustainable economic success.

2. Are you speaking to the heart?

A strong purpose speaks to the heart, not the mind. Emotion is what gets people moving, offering a near-infinite well of human energy. A number of medical studies even point out that people with a purpose live longer than people without. So avoid settling too soon for a purpose that does not feel quite right. It you have not found it yet, keep looking. In the words of Steve Jobs:

“As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like in any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”

Make sure not only your co-workers but all stakeholders emotionally resonate with your purpose. Think of the way Nike emotionally connects with and celebrates everyday persons all over the planet through its Find Your Greatness campaign, inspiring greatness through movement in all walks of life.

3. Are you serving needs greater than your own?

When discussing the secret of happiness, philosopher Dan Dennett said:

“Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

A powerful company purpose centers around serving needs that are greater than one’s own, enabling personal growth and building a close community feeling. A purpose needs to describe an attainable state of perfection as opposed to an unattainable utopia. That does not necessarily mean it needs to be big and bold.
It has to reach for the stars with both feet on the ground, allowing individual people to make a meaningful and measurable contribution. Think of Starbucks’ purpose to create a third place in between home and work where people can enjoy caffeinated connections with each other. All possible Starbucks stakeholders can contribute to its purpose in big and small ways.

4. Is your purpose category unique?

Apple (“Think different”) and Volkswagen (“Think small”) very much tap into the same kind of purpose of helping people stand out from the crowd and feel unique. And that’s perfectly fine. Unlike selling propositions, brand positions and competitive advantages, company purposes do not necessarily have to be unique across different categories. Nevertheless, uniqueness within your category does matter. According to the Havas Media Group’s Meaningful Brands study, the majority of persons worldwide would not care if 73% of brands disappeared tomorrow. A strong and distinguishing purpose helps people see a brand’s unique contribution and added value to the world, leaving a sense of emptiness should the brand disappear.

5. Does it reflect the real you?

What you say about your company purpose does not matter; what does matter is how it is heard. Double-check the power of your company purpose by testing how well it is translated into everyday practices, behavior and ambitions. People care less about where you are from than what you are doing or want to do. A purpose only exists by the real – not perfect – behavior it triggers. Having a purpose is an illusion if nobody believes in it or, if it is not understood in a similar way by everyone. The best purposes are deeply rooted, experienced and co-created by all stakeholders contributing to the value creation process of a company.

6. Does it unify people?

A strong purpose is contagious. It clarifies to people what to expect from the company, but also what to expect from each other. It is inclusive and resonates in people from all levels within the company, without restrictions as to the understanding and motivational value of it in place or time. Write up your purpose in a simple, single-minded and short abstract, focusing on the essence and making it non-negotiable. Avoid lessening words, don’t compare yourself to others and make it accessible for everybody. It will make your purpose stickier, more memorable and more militant. It will also enable each employee to hook on to this greater cause at the level that suits him best.

7. Is it made to last?

A purpose does not follow trends nor does it change frequently. A purpose can and should be as durable as possible. It should be there to stay. Over time, many companies lose connection with their true and original purpose, resulting in a dilution of focus. Starbucks is one example, with the company having gone back to its primary raison d’être upon the return of Howard Schultz as CEO in 2008. And LEGO was criticized recently for its move to gender its toys, as a seven-year-old explains it, with girl personifications that “sit at home, go to the beach and shop” and boy personifications that “save people, have jobs and even swim with sharks”. This is in sharp contrast to the days – now more than 40 years ago! – when the Danish company explicitly pointed out to parents that “the urge to create is equally strong in all children, boys and girls.”
In today’s marketplace, merely having a purpose is no longer a golden ticket. Having the right purpose and translating it into day-to-day actions is what distinguishes purpose leaders from followers. Take your time to craft the purpose that fits your company and don’t settle for one too rapidly. Once you have the one, hang on to it and let it animate everything you do. Good luck!

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