The following insights are from an article by our founder and CEO, Maril Gagen MacDonald. Join the conversation now on LinkedIn.
For many, defining one’s personal purpose tends to come easily. My parents told me early on that living an authentic life comes from finding what you love and giving your whole self to it. For me, my passion—to help companies unleash the power of their employees and overcome the human struggle of change—is my purpose.
As instinctive as it can be to define a personal purpose, when it comes to defining a company’s purpose, I’ve seen many leaders face what I’ll call a “purpose paralysis.” Creating a purpose can be a daunting exercise, and therefore even brushed off. But leaders: don’t be paralyzed. I want you to know that you can do it—and that you must.
Your purpose is your organization’s collective ambition, your reason for being and why your team gets out of bed every day. It is core to your company’s being. It’s what drives you and why you exist.
Let’s get some collective peace of mind about purpose. Here are some of the biggest myths I encounter about purpose today:
Myth #1: Purpose is the Fluffy Stuff
False. Most people spend more time at work than anywhere else. Having a distinct purpose allows people to self-select into your organization. And in today’s world, either a company defines itself or someone else defines it for them. A purpose is a competitive advantage.
Also, research shows there are financial benefits to a strong purpose. A team of professors from New York University, Columbia University and Harvard Business School have demonstrated that firms whose employees believe in their organization’s purpose and meaning have better future performance and return on assets.
Lastly, a purpose only feels hollow if it’s not connected to actions. If purpose is the collective ambition and end goal, build milestones into your business planning on how you’ll achieve your purpose. Facebook does this by using its long-term view of where it wants to go to inform shorter-term decisions.
Myth #2: A Purpose is Forever
False. Purposes can change and mature over time. Your purpose today doesn’t need to last forever. With new ambitions or industry challenges, your purpose can evolve. GE, for example, has always striven to fulfill Thomas Edison’s goal to “find out what the world needs and proceed to invent it.” Over time, however, the company has entered and exited different industries, and its purpose has fittingly shifted to fulfill the needs of the world at those times. A purpose should have longevity, but it doesn’t need to be timeless. Don’t feel that what you’re creating today needs to be written in stone.
Myth #3: Defining a Purpose is Difficult
False. It may be daunting, but it’s not difficult. First and foremost, engage others! By soliciting input from many, you will be inspired by how much your team cares and wants to contribute.
Here are some questions to start capturing those imaginations:
1) What’s happening in our environment today?
2) What problems are we well-positioned to tackle?
3) If we didn’t exist, what would the world be missing? Who relies on us?
4) Why are we here?
5) What is it about our organization that gets people out of bed every day?
Next, digest your inputs and feedback. What are common words or themes? Do your inputs go beyond the “what” or “how” and get to the “why”? A strong purpose humanizes the emotional and rational articulation of “why.” If you get this right, compelling and impactful stories will flow!
Myth #4: I don’t have time for purpose… I have to deliver the numbers
False. I know how difficult it is to be a leader who’s living to fight another day. It can feel impossible to focus on anything other than the bottom line. However, now more than ever is the time to talk about purpose.
Use your purpose as your home base to inform your organization’s decisions—both what you choose to do and not to do (such as Southwest’s decision not to charge for bag fees). When communicating during this time, rely on this simple framework to connect with your employees: this is our purpose, these are our challenges, here are the decisions we’re making and here’s how we’ll get through it.
Remember, purpose is connected to resilience. It’s the common bond among your team that collectively grounds you.
Purpose Gives Meaning
While purpose is the collective ambition of your company, meaning is the satisfaction you get for living your purpose. Together, purpose serves as the anchor that keeps an organization true to its core and meaning inspires energy and optimism to continue to deliver on the collective dream.