Any typical conversation with a business owner always evolves to discuss this matter at some point or another and now more than ever, as businesses seem to be all finding it hard to find the right type of employees to work for them. At some point in the conversation, business owners will likely grumble with me on the difficulties they are facing to have his or her employees show initiative, drive and loyalty to the business. I normally reply by asking “But what is the purpose of your business”, to which I normally get a blank face complemented by the usual standard reply “Heq…to make money”. Whilst that is maybe a very strong purpose from the point of view of the business owner, is that also a strong purpose for employees, team members and other stakeholders?
As Simon Sinek put it – “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.” Today, the concept amongst company leaders that their businesses’ purpose is to make a positive difference in the wider context of their existence and not just maximise profits — is gaining ground. This is happening not because of a sense of corporate responsibility, or not only due to that, but because company leaders are understanding that creating this sense of purpose helps companies navigate a volatile and unpredictable environment and delivers higher and more sustainable performance.
So the next question is quite obvious. How should businesses define a correct and powerful Purpose? Here are some insights.
Let us be clear on what this Purpose should be about – It is the ultimate goal of the business, the essential reason why it exists, and how it contributes to the common good. Some examples would help – Google’s original purpose was to “organise the world’s information” and Netflix has defined its purpose as “entertaining the world.” Explicit in this definition is the view that business can and should be a force for the common good, rather than merely a vehicle whose only objective is to maximise shareholder returns. To help you arrive at your business’s Purpose please consider the below:
- What does the world need or need more ? What specific, important unmet needs exist in the world? How critical is it to address these needs? What difference will it make?
- What people at the company are passionate about: What drives people at the company? What difference are they keen to make in the world?
- What the company is uniquely good at: What are the unique assets that allow it to address certain needs in a way others can’t?
- How the company can create economic value: What business opportunities stem from these considerations? How attractive are the associated potential profits?
Added to all the above is the importance of focusing on underlying human needs, rather than on the products and services you offer to address these human needs, when defining the purpose of your business. Taking this approach will make things more inspiring. Using Simon Sinek’s words once again, this approach is what separates “the why” from “the what and the how”. In essence you need to focus on: Does the world need more or the products or services your business is involved in? Or are these products or services merely a means to an end? What is this end?
At the end of the day, business is fundamentally about human relationships — and any business is a human organisation made of individuals working together in pursuit of a common purpose. To this end, it becomes imperative for leaders at all levels not only to be clear about their own “why”, but also to understand what drives people around them. This is critical for becoming what I call a human leader (on which I wrote a few weeks ago). Making things personal is also critical for defining the company’s purpose because it illuminates what people in the company, from front-liners to top leadership, are passionate about. When people’s passions align with the company purpose, then everyone is fired up to give their best to pursue that collective purpose. Beyond individual specifics, most people typically want to do something good for someone else.
Creating such purpose also helps to see how the business deals and touches with all its various stakeholders. Businesses cannot thrive and succeed in isolation. So the question is: How can businesses ensure that all stakeholders benefit from the business’s purpose? It starts with identifying clearly who they are, what they need and how the company could help address those needs. This reflects a view of business that goes beyond the company’s four walls to mobilise all stakeholders in pursuit of the company’s noble purpose. With this mindset and approach, the business is an ecosystem based on a mutually beneficial interdependence of all stakeholders. This mindset has employees at the heart of business, creating and nurturing caring and authentic relationships both within the company and also with all of the company’s stakeholders in a way that not only contributes to the company’s purpose but also creates great outcomes for each stakeholder.This may feel like squaring a circle – because you may be focusing on the inherent tensions and conflicts among the interests of stakeholders. This is true if one where not to focus and work on defining a common purpose.
Articulating a beautifully worded purpose is only the first step. Next is making sure that it actually becomes real, beyond PowerPoint presentations and company websites. What does it take? First, it requires making the company purpose the cornerstone of the company’s strategy. It also requires enabling every employee to make it their own, translating it into their individual work. Thirdly essential elements to bringing the purpose to life is unleashing what I call human magic by creating an environment in which everyone is able and willing to give their very best in support of the chosen purpose. This is the hard work that builds genuinely purposeful businesses.