5 ways to shape & identify your purpose (or what make a great purpose and not...)

Your purpose is your passion – it’s what you’re willing to suffer for, so best make it something you are prepared to suffer for.

This follows on from the previous article about why a purpose is so necessary in the 21st Century business landscape. It is one of three connected articles based on the work i've been doing in Amsterdam and London with CEO's and Management Boards.

I've identified five factors that contribute to a cracking Business Purpose.

The five we'll look at:

  1. It's inside out
  2. It's strategic
  3. It's realistic
  4. It's goal orientated
  5. It's selfish

Lastly we'll look at what's not - for some perspective.


It's inside out

You can’t just invent a purpose or buy a great sounding narrative off the shelf stick on the window of your company and feel very proud Well, actually you can but it will be next to useless. A purpose is much broader than a slogan about saving the whales or sustainable practices. It’s the framework by which you make decisions, shape your culture, drive transformation and deliver increased profits and business value.

The purpose sits deep in the heat of the leadership and is shaped by the people, the heritage, the strategy and the ambition. It is a reflection of the entire business, bottom to top and it is unique to your company.


It's strategic

It's informed by strategy and shapes strategy. Your strategy is the practical approach you take to ensure your business success in the market place. It’s where you identify the obstacles you need to overcome and outline, practically (key word!) how you will do it.

It goes without saying that strategy takes purpose in to account but visa versa as well. Your companies purpose is shaped by strategy: our market position and what the competitors are doing, where there is a gap that can be exploited, a niche where you can differentiate yourself. It's the combination and the paradox that help you shape and grow and winning, purpose driven business. 

When I worked with PostNL on their purpose narrative: we had Head of Communications, Head of Strategy and various department heads in the sessions. As we talked, drew, wrote and sketched so a new purpose and a new strategy evolved together. The two shaped and informed each other.


It's realistic

I’m not a huge fan of visions. They can be helpful but they should be handled with care. Nine times out of ten they are fluffy sentiment that are used to as an excuse for a lack of strategy or to reassure people that someone knows what is going on.

Ambition is far more interesting. It might just be semantics - except it’s not. An ambition is something you can realistically achieve when every individual, system and process are working at their best. It’s a very practical (that word again) focus for the business to shape strategy and deliver results.

Philips have an ambition to improve the lives of 3 billion people. It’s practical, measurable and auditable.

For Kennedy it was putting a man on the moon. Audacious. Yes. Necessary, for America at that time. Yes. Practical – it was next mountain to climb, the next Wild West to be one. Measurable. Auditable.

Your purpose is why you are here - your ambition is what your want to achieve.


It's goal orientated

A purpose without tangible goals is mediocre poetry. 

What does your purpose mean? How can it be measured, counted or quantified?

It does not have to be a moon shot – we don’t have to have to be a Kennedy or a Philips. I spent a couple of hours with a CEO from a multi-national based in the Benelux. I asked if he had a moon-shot, an audacious ambition. He was very pragmatic and clear. 'No. I don’t and I don’t need one.' He said, paraphrasing: ‘we’re playing the long game. It’s my job to ensure a sustainable (economically, socially and environmentally) business for the future: we have a responsibility to the communities and planet we’re a part of and to the people that invest with us.’ We still shaped tangible goals, big goals at that – but there was no sense or need to bring that together in an audacious claim.


It's selfish

I sat with a CEO the other day. Big name. Well respected. Nice person. I asked Bob why he wanted the business to be purpose driven and, more importantly, what was driving the agenda. He gave some answers about climate, plastics, the ocean. It was all a bit ‘what he thought he should say’ So, I kept pushing… who cares? Why should I care? Why should the public care? He confessed all. He has a yacht. He loves to sail. He loves to sail with his family and he is fed up with swimming a soup of plastic. “I have influence. I can change things. We need to start doing things differently. We need to treat our world differently.

Make it personal. Make it something to get angry about. Make other people care. 

Your purpose is your passion – it’s what you’re willing to suffer for, so best make it something you are prepared to suffer for.


It's not...

  •  A collection of romantic, awe-inspiring words that make people feel all tingly on the inside. There is a name for that but it’s inappropriate for the nice people reading this.
  •  Ambiguous; impossible or unmeasurable.
  •  It’s not consensus.

This is not a purpose:

 “To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit. To inspire moments of optimism and happiness through our brands and actions.” 

It’s a beautiful idea from Coca-Cola but it’s a wonderful example of romanticism. Refresh the mind, body and spirit? How? When? How do you measure it? I mean it’s a great idea if it works? Refreshing the world. Stop. That’s enough. Now what does that mean for planet earth, for the communities they are a part of, for the supply for chain, for plastics? Coca-Cola may not have articulated a great purpose, but they are proactive in refreshing the world, you can read more here: http://www.coca-colacompany.com


Next up, how do we create a purpose!