STRATEGY – The why and how of purpose

28 February 2017

You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about purpose. But why is it important, and how do you get it? We spoke to two purpose experts with the Sustainable Business Network.

In some ways purpose is not new. We have all had visions and missions floating around our businesses for some time. But the concept of Purpose widens attempts to widen and deepen the scope of this. Businesses have visions and missions. People have Purpose.

Does your business suffer from declining sales, high staff turnover and a general lack of drive? purpose might be what you are in need of.

Judit Maireder runs Y Brand. It’s a specialist consultancy that works to connect brands with values.

She says: “Nobody should be in business without knowing why they are doing what they are doing.”

Jacqueline Farman is a co founder and Director of The Purpose Business and chairs the board of the Sustainable Business Network.

“A lot of organisations have some sort of mission or purpose in place,” she says. “But it is something that needs to be refreshed regularly. You can’t assume that something you put up on the wall a couple of years ago is still relevant and meaningful today.”

The process of establishing a purpose is about working out what is unique about your business. How does it stand out? What does it stand for? This has to go way beyond the buzzwords.

Judit explains. “Often businesses do a purpose process. They come up with this sentence of what it might be. They write it on a wall. That is it. Another approach that doesn’t work is to make it a marketing exercise. The focus is on supporting charities or whatever to create a short-term artificial façade and push the image. That doesn’t work. Consumers have got really good at spotting authenticity.”

So this isn’t just the latest hot workshop to tick some boxes and blow some training budget. It might start with a fun workshop, but the heavy lifting is in getting the purpose actually installed into the business properly.

This means involving all your people. Involve your customers. Involve other key stakeholders like your board or partner businesses.

Jacqueline says: “Many missions are as inspiring as dishwater. They sound like they could apply to any organisation. But everyone wants to believe that they work they do makes a difference, and want to engage at an emotional level. So you need to talk about why you should matter to your people and your customers. That tends to be something that is bigger than your category. Why are we here? What difference are we going to make? It’s above and beyond the products and services that you deliver. A purpose should take people outside of their day to day jobs. It should give them something bigger and more meaningful to believe in.”

The process can involve some internal research and then a workshop. Finding a purpose is something that can usually be completed within a month. But this must be followed by that much longer process of installation across the business.

You can start small. You can make a case study in a single department. You can run it as a prototype and showcase it to the wider organisation.

Jacqueline says a business’ purpose is often right there, hidden inside the favourite stories people tell about it.

“Every business has a history, and those legendary stories that survive over time,” she says. “Everybody knows them. They tend to be about when the organisation is at its best and working with its heart and soul.” 

Once you have a purpose, you need to know how best to communicate it. But this is something you should not rush into. Talking a great purpose can too often become a substitute for actually demonstrating one. What you say about your purpose will only ring true if customers and others interacting with your business experience real signs of it.

Judit says: “You don’t necessarily have to be perfect in everything you do. You don’t have to have all the solutions lined up. You can say this is something we care about and we are on a path towards doing it. It’s a genuine way to communicate. It’s credible.”

The result?

Jacqueline says: “Behind every organisation that achieves sustained greatness is a powerful purpose and an inspired workforce. There’s lots of research that really strongly purpose driven companies outperform all others by about 15 to one. The competitive advantage and reputation capital they enjoy can be significant if you get it right. You can see whole teams and organisations transform themselves, from the inside out. Once they have that sense of direction productivity goes through the roof. It’s not a job anymore, it’s a crusade. They are prepared to put in discretionary input. They may be prepared to work for less.”

Gallup has produced global studies on staff engagement. They found only between one in four and one in three staff are fully engaged in what they are doing. That can leave the rest of them pretty much just clocking in for a pay check or dragging their feet.

One of the key ways to increase engagement is to ensure the values and aspirations people have at home are reflected in what they do for work. As recent studies by Colmar Brunton have shown, this is particularly important as the new generation of workers comes through. Millennials say they want to work for companies that have a purpose or values aligned to their own.

For Jacqueline, that links right back into sustainable business.

“Your purpose has to come from a desire to make the world a better place, so you can’t separate it from sustainability. Anybody with a sustainable philosophy has an immediate advantage in defining their purpose. The growth in purpose has mirrored the growth in sustainability. They are on the same race track, gathering speed.”

If you want to be at the head of the race, get your purpose sorted now.