Purpose – why?

We’ve all read Simon Sinek’s work on purpose – if you haven’t then you should. In short, people don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it. And it has been the flavour of the month with some organisations – especially in these days of showing that we care for the environment, staff, and community. The whole idea is that a purpose stitches together all the stakeholders in a business – not just shareholders, and staff, but shareholders, staff, suppliers, partners, community, regulators, and articulates why we do what we do. It can be used as force to protect what matters, or as a driving force for change.

And from what I’ve seen over probably 8 or 9 years of working on the topic with different businesses, sporting teams, and individuals, there are two distinct reasons they wither work or don’t – ownership, and accountability.

Ownership

I’m not convinced that a purpose statement needs to be all fanfare and promotion when it’s launched and then used. It can be much more subtle than that. I’ve seen organisations put the words on mouse-mats and mugs (not a fan!) and I’ve seen others figuratively lock them in a drawer and use them when issues, or decisions are unclear. A true statement of purpose should help guide in these moments. I heard a CEO talk about their organisation’s purpose recently and a phrase he used stuck with me, “this belongs to us”. he made it quite clear that the words on the page were special and that they were unique to that organisation. It created an emotional connection for people that were hearing it for the first time. It stressed what the words mean and how they carried weight.

This helped create the sense of ownership. Not completely but it set a super solid foundation. Then it is up to the leaders in the business to talk about and refer to with regularity. Aristotle said, “We are what we do repeatedly.” If we talk about purpose, refer to it as a north star, and make decisions aligned to it – repeatedly – then we will be purpose led. Otherwise we are just a bunch of schmucks that have some words on paper.

Accountability

There is no point developing a purpose for yourself or your organisation if you aren’t willing to hold yourself and the people you work with accountable to it. Successful sportspeople do this really well. There is clarity of what’s acceptable and when that level isn’t being met the feedback is swift and sharp.

In working with organisations trying to develop their purpose I often see people be emotionally engaged in the discussion but fall away at the last minute because they know that if they go out with this, then they better live up to it. And that is often the sticking point. Not that the purpose is wrong, or lacks clarity, but that there is a need to be accountable to it in every decision, every action, every day. That scares people. It’s a big ask – and exactly why purpose matters.

Time is running out

This will only get bigger. Purpose as a force isn’t going away. It’s not going away because our people will demand it, shareholders will demand it, our communities will expect it, and it’s good business. Larry Fink CEO of Blackrock the largest money-management firm in the world with more than $9 trillion in assets under management, famously said, “Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them. Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.” We can’t get away from understanding and taking the time to articulate what our purpose is. And when we do the plan has to include steps to develop and drive ownership, and accountability every single day.

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