20 on 20: Finding Your Purpose

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Welcome to “20 on 20,” a blog series in celebration and reflection of 20 years in business. Follow along as founder Nancie McDonnell Ruder dives deeper into one of her 20 reflections.

I have read a lot about defining your organization’s purpose in the past two years. As the world entered into chaotic and rapid change, people yearned to get their footing and the fundamentals became more important than ever. When it comes to the fundamentals of business, there is no greater one than your business’s Purpose. It is the most basic yet profound reason why your business exists. If your Purpose is undefined or ill defined, it will be difficult for leaders to make strategic decisions and even more difficult for those they lead to know why they should follow.

At its most basic level, the Purpose of any and every business is to create a customer. The customer is what ensures that anyone within the company has employment. Said another way, when working to determine your purpose, start with your WHO: who you serve and what need they have that you can fulfill. Then make sure that this purpose is valid and inspiring to a broader society of people, to ensure that you can expand and attract more customers over time.

While 2020 and 2021 have been difficult years in business in many ways, the elevated attention to the importance of Purpose has been very exciting for us at Noetic, because this is an aspect that we help companies define and plan how to fully activate. In this work, we are often NOT working from the blank page; rather, we are working with organizations that have been in existence for some time and have rich history, yet are uncertain what their true Purpose is. We work with them to pull back the layers and get to the core of why the business was begun, who they serve best, what needs they truly address. Importantly when looking at the customer, we investigate this both internally and externally. Internally, we study who their employees are, what they value, what inspires them, what bothers them about the company and the brand or brands they represent. Externally, we study their best customers, their lapsed customers, their potential customers. If we can get to them, we even study their previous customers who have rejected or finished working with them.

If you are seeking to define Purpose and you are not sure where to start, watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk about how great leaders inspire action. For you and for everyone in your organization, Sinek unpacks the rationale that our customers – internal and external – don’t buy what we do; they buy why we do it.” Then look at the stories of your organization. When have you delighted customers? What are you really good at? What does the world gain from your being in business? Why do people pay you?

John F. Kennedy said, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” I believe this is a great articulation of why Purpose has renewed relevance and even urgency in our world today. As we toil and dig deep in our jobs and our lives, we inevitably find ourselves asking, why am I doing this? Do I want to be doing this? It is not enough to work hard…our work must have true meaning. When we find ourselves working harder, under more difficult circumstances, these questions become more urgent even to the point of not being able to be ignored. With an absence of Purpose, we have seen many leave jobs or the workforce all together, in search of their own ‘why.’

Examining and articulating your Purpose is not easy work – especially if you are doing it for your own business. Being so close to it, it can be hard to see. We strongly recommend speaking with your customers – internal and external – to understand their point of view of what you offer them. With this learning, then work in a team that is a mix of different functions and levels and use this insight to examine and create your purpose. Push yourselves to be honest about who you are and what you are capable of being.

According to Harvard Business Review, below are the most meaningful questions to ask to uncover your true purpose:

  • What does the world need: What specific, important unmet needs exist in the world that we can or do address?
  • What do people at the company have passion about: What difference are they keen to make in the world? (These apply to senior leadership as well as the overall employee population.)
  • What is the company is uniquely good at: What are the unique assets that allow it to address certain needs in a way others can’t?
  • How does the company create economic value: What business opportunities stem from these considerations?

Once you have a draft version of the words, go back to your internal and external customers to ensure this Purpose rings authentic and true to them.

Once your Purpose is well articulated, the work really begins. A recent PWC study showed that 79% of business leaders think that Purpose is integral to business success, but only 34% are using their Purpose as a guidepost for leadership decision making and formulation of company direction. In order for your Purpose to be real, it needs to be pulled through in everything you do, both from the top down as well as from the bottom up – and all layers in between. Determine the activities that initially and over time can be woven into the daily, weekly, quarterly and yearly fabric of your company to ensure that people see and feel the purpose in all you do.

Some of these activities should be bite sized and frequent, such as discussing in team meetings how the Purpose came to light that day or that week or in a given decision that was made. Others can be more episodic and even grandiose in nature, where you may want to create a video of testimonials to show the Purpose being discussed or hold an event to give recognition to employees living the Purpose in their work. As basic as it may sound, one critical detail we recommend in all cases is to ask all team members to print the purpose and keep it somewhere that it will be top of mind for them each day. As they look at it, ask them to ask themselves, how am I living our Purpose today?

Rest assured that this is time well spent. Once purpose is well articulated and tended to over time, it will serve as a powerful rallying cry to help everyone know what reason we are all here. As Howard Schultz said, “When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.”