Can You Articulate Your Company’s Purpose?

In business, purpose is the foundation of “why this company matters”.  Great companies all have a compelling purpose – a clear reason they exist.  Sometimes the purpose is obvious – in the case of health care or medical research companies, there is a direct link to saving lives or serving mankind

This just in – people want to ground their work to a worthwhile purpose, to feel like they belong to something meaningful. That being said, not every company is saving lives, so sometimes the purpose can be a bit fuzzy.  As a leader, you’ve probably been asked the purpose question many times by your employees; it often comes in the form of “why are we here?”  What the employee is yearning for is an anchor to something great and enduring – something that makes all the hard work mean something. The question I have for you is: “how are you helping to shape the purpose message?”

I recently came across a wonderful book that might help with this challenge.  It’s called Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies by Nikos Mourkogiannis (2008 paperback).  The author’s premise is that to truly achieve enduring success, the one attribute every company absolutely must have is Purpose. Mourkogiannis explains how a visionary sense of Purpose can be used to inspire and lead an organization to greatness, and uses examples to describe how companies that stand for something are the ones that create lasting competitive advantage. Successful companies can define their Purpose in one of four key ways: Discovery of the new (IBM, Sony, 3M, Intel), Excellence (Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, BMW),Heroism (Ford, Microsoft, Exxon Mobil), or Altruism (The Body Shop, Hewlett Packard, Nordstrom). Once Purpose is in place, planning, motivation, and success can begin.

Purpose creates the underlying rationale for corporate activity and decision making. Purpose is a call to action that great leaders use to stimulate people to act consistently and decisively, innovating and building high-quality relationships.  Purpose will boost profits – if it is pursued for its own sake.  Through engaging examples of great companies and great leaders, Mourkogiannis explains how to discover Purpose in your personal leadership style and in your organization’s approach to business.  He shows how to create a community of purpose among your employees, and how to turn commitment into action with measurable results.

I have a personal story about purpose.  When I was at Capital One, the founder and CEO, Richard Fairbank would often get the purpose question in our leadership program.  “What was Capital One’s purpose”?  Now some might see this as a real challenge – after all, banks and credit card companies make some for their money from late fees, etc. – how can this be a noble purpose?  Mr. Fairbank didn’t see it that way – he felt strongly that the purpose of the company was to help people gain access to credit that enabled them to achieve greater convenience and flexibility in their lives.  He spoke passionately about how our work impacted people’s everyday lives in a positive way.  He had clearly given a lot of thought to the question of purpose, and it showed every time he addressed an audience.

This holiday season, while you give thought to the broader meaning around you, spend a little time reflecting on your company’s purpose.  Can you articulate the essence of why your organization exists?  Better yet, can you translate that into meaningful action for your team?  I think you’ll find Purpose is a valuable message to have at your fingertips as a leader, no matter where you work.