From Why to What to How – What’s your purpose?

by Sari van Poelje

From Why to What to How – What’s your purpose?

One of the enduring factors in creating an agile and innovative business is purpose. Purpose answers the question: why do we do what we do? It gives a sense of determination to your ambition and direction. It gives a different flavour to your work then a  vision, mission or strategy. To me a vision provides a point on the horizon, the guiding light for your ambition. A mission directs the task that will lead you to your vision. And a strategy is a process or road map to realize your vision.

Purpose makes economic sense

Jim Stengel, ex-CMO of Procter & Gamble, postulated in his book Grow (2011) that there is a very sound economic argument for a focus on purpose. A ten-year study of the growth of 50,000 brands shows that companies with ideals to improve people’s lives at the center of all they do outperform the market by a huge margin. The world’s fastest growing brands are organized around ideals. The top 25 like Apple, Red Bull, Google and Starbucks – excel at clarity, consistency, commitment and creativity.

Ignoring the flaws in Stengel’s research (he didn’t compare with the worst performing brands to demonstrate the opposite, for example) the idea is intriguing and endearing. According to research done by R. Sisodia (2007, Firms of endearment) and Edelman (The good purpose study, 2013) a company based on purpose has distinct advantages:

  • Get and keep best employees: 1.4 x more engaged, 1.7 x more satisfied, 3 x more likely to stay
  • Attract, retain and engage customers: 89% of the clients believe a purpose driven company will deliver highest quality, 72% of global consumers would recommend a company with a purpose (up from 39% in 2008)
  • Increase return for shareholders: 10x purpose led companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 10x between 1996 and 2011, 120% meaningful brands connected to human well being outperformed the stock market by 120% in 2013

So, how do you, as a business find your purpose?

How to find your purpose

Purpose can be best found on the intersection of:

  • Personal desire: transforming pain into contribution
  • Customer dreams: connect with the core values of the people you serve
  • Business direction: creating value together

We’re going to look at how we can use the idea of the Hero’s Journey to consider our business purpose and how we can write the business story that serves our personal desires, our customer’s dreams and the business direction.

Let’s first consider personal desire. Humans are not just the sum of our experience or even our relationships. We are ultimately the sum of our stories. It is not the events in our lives that determine our actions, but the interpretation of those events.

For example, I could describe my expat childhood in very different ways. I could tell you a story of a nomadic existence, with a subsequent lack of belonging or feeling of home. Or I could tell you a story of the rich cultural experiences we had and the opportunity to build friendships all over the world. Of course both stories could be true. But the important thing is: depending on the story I choose, my experience of life will differ.

Narrative theories, like J. Campbell’s “The hero with a thousand faces” (1947) and Berne’s Transactional Analysis, can help frame this idea. Within TA we believe that people create a life script at a very early age, a story about who we will be when they grow up. This story informs our actions like a kind of bass tone in our lives, and determines many of the main themes that run through our personal, relational and professional lives.

Formally we define a life script as follows: A script is an unconscious life plan learned in early childhood, reinforced by parents and reinforced by later events, resulting in a known pay-off.

The same holds true for organizations. At the cultural level, it is the script beliefs of founders, reinterpreted by successive generations of company leaders, that influence the culture in a company. Your leadership, what you have learnt through it, how you write the story of your learning, in part determines the purpose of your organisation.

RATE: Radical Agile Transformation Exercise: Review your key learning moments

You have probably already completed the RATE exercise from a few months ago. Things will have changed in the intervening months. It’s important to regularly review what you have learnt, so go ahead and revise your answers to the questions from What are the key learning moments in your leadership?

Bibliography: References & links

A culture of purpose: how to choose the right people and make the right people choose you, Lueneburger, C, Jossey-Bass, 2014

Common purpose, Kurtzman, J & Goldsmith, M, Jossey-Bass, 2010

Firms of endearment: how world class companies profit from passion and purpose, Sisodia, RS, Seth, J & Wolfe, D, Pearson Education, 2014

Lead with purpose, Baldoni, J, AMACOM, 2011

Passion and purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, Coleman, J, Gulati, D et al., Harvard Business Review, 2011

Start with why, Sinek, S, Penguin Group, 2009

The happiness of pursuit, Guillebeau, C, Harmony, 2014

The purpose economy, Hurst, A, Elevate, 2014

What On Earth Am I Here For? Rick Warren, Zondervan, 2012

Grow, Stengel, J, Crown Business, 2011

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Sari van PoeljeSari van Poelje has 30 years experience of innovation on the interface of leadership and organizational development, executive coaching and transactional analysis both as a director within several multinationals and as an international consultant. Specialization in creating agile leadership teams and business innovation! She is the author of numerous articles and books on leadership and change.

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