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What ‘Purpose’ Really Means for a Company

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The media, employees, and even studies have implored companies everywhere to discover their purpose in recent years. Deloitte found that a company’s purpose can have a direct impact on retention, particularly with Millennials — now the largest contingent of the workforce. “Any workplace that lags in inspiring passion and purpose will suffer by losing key employees — and at an increasing rate as the global economy picks up momentum,” Deloitte concluded.

But Harvard Business Review cautioned businesses to not confuse their vision, mission, or values with their purpose. What a company does — say, sell organic dog food and treats — may serve its mission, which is to feed the dogs of America. That mission was likely created with its values — animal wellness, health, environmental care — in mind, and its all-encompassing vision of being the best organic dog food seller fuels its competitive spirit. But its purpose, the things its team members are driven to uphold every day, is to ensure dogs get food that keeps them healthy and active for a long time.

And that distinction is important because a company’s purpose serves as a foundation for its identity — and it helps employees, candidates, and consumers determine whether their identities line up. Gallup found that without that kind of alignment, what companies think their purpose is and what it becomes through its employees can be two very different things.

So how can companies identify their purpose?

Getting past the nebulous

“Purpose” may be championed by many outlets as the big determining factor between success and a lack thereof, but few actually define purpose or explain the impact it can have on a company. Without that, purpose remains a murky thing that companies know they need but can’t wrap their heads around.

Deloitte says, “Companies endure when they manage to endear.” By zoning in on what unites everyone within the company and keeps them picking that over what they could find elsewhere, a company can identify the purpose underpinning everything else. And it may not be what they expect.

“Purpose has to be viewed as a discovery process,” says Curt Cronin, a former Navy SEAL and the CEO of Ridgeline Partners, a consulting firm. “You have to be willing to go very broad in your search. The more you can experience, the closer you’ll get to it. People and companies expect bolts of lightning, and some may get it, but the incremental everyday process is where you find the exhilaration point. They must ask themselves, ‘What is so exhilarating that it is worth investing my life to make it happen?’”

Cronin says one of his favorite examples of exploring purpose is actually more personal, having come from his wife. As she made her way through medical school, she initially had difficulty pinpointing a specialty. She and Cronin actively discussed what brought her joy and, after thinking on it, she realized that she loved working with kids, so a focus on pediatrics made great sense. As they talked more, it became clear that not only was she meant to work with kids, but above all else, she was passionate about making sure kids didn’t experience the same terrifying breathing problems she suffered as a child. In the end, she ended up exactly where she was meant to be, working in pediatric allergy; she simply had to consciously identify what she knew unconsciously.

Making the unconscious conscious

Customers can sometimes identify a company’s purpose more readily than a company itself can. In the “Brand World Value Index,” consumers could identify the purpose behind many well-known brands: Walmart aimed to help save consumers money, while Amazon focused on convenience and speed. However, the index found that purpose and motivation weren’t necessarily synonymous.

For example, while 71 percent could explain what Walmart’s purpose was (beyond driving a profit), a mere 43 percent said that purpose aligned with their personal values — and a scanter 24 percent said it was motivating enough to compel them to support the brand publicly. That means a growing company working to identify its purpose would do well to identify a purpose that ranks highly for both ease of identification and alignment with its target audience.

Identify areas where there could be a breakdown. While Gallup found that a brand’s purported purpose sometimes took on a different form in the hands of the brand’s employees, there are actions that companies can take to prevent disconnect. Once a likely purpose has been identified, hold it up against the company’s internal and external processes and policies. Are there areas where the two diverge? Could something be interpreted as meaning the opposite? Take steps to actively survey employees to gather and review direct feedback. If there is a disconnect, brainstorm new approaches that both enable work to be done and create alignment with the purpose the brand wants to uphold.

Size up the competition. While purpose may seem far removed from worrying about industry competitors, examining what others are doing right can influence a brand’s decisions. Vic Strecher, a behavioral scientist and the director of innovation and social entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, recommends considering companies worthy of emulation — what’s their purpose? What are they driven by? Likewise, if your company made a name for itself in its industry and then faded away, what would you want its legacy to be? Thinking about how the company is seen in the marketplace can make its purpose much clearer.

“Purpose” may seem nebulous and hard to grasp, but it constantly plays a role in a company’s success, spoken or not. By defining its purpose, a brand can ensure its leaders, employees, and customers are on the same page — and more likely to stay there.

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