Why your purpose can become your competitive advantage

If you ask, the usual purpose of a business is “to make money”. Employees are also at work to make money, but that only reason doesn’t make them come to work happy and engaged. Younger generations expect something different.

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The usual purpose of a business is “to make money”. Employees are also at work to make money, but that only reason doesn’t make them come to work happy and engaged. Younger generations expect something different.

“If happiness is everyone’s ultimate goal, wouldn’t it be great if we could change the world and get everyone and every business thinking in that context?” Says Tony Hsieh in his book Delivering Happiness. He is the CEO of the online shoe and clothing company  Zappos, is one of the most recognized companies getting a competitive advantage in the market, due to putting culture first and focusing on the purpose of delivering happiness to the world. And their customers know it.

Wouldn’t it be great if all the companies in the world could work to help employees, customers, suppliers and the community maximize it? In Toyota, they say their purpose is to “create long-term mutual prosperity for all stakeholders”.

Surviving thanks to your purpose

Words and statements are great, but when problems, challenges, losses, grief arrive… we tend to lose our north. We don’t know where we are any more…

I recently suffered a loss. I felt vulnerable, disconnected from everything else, even from myself. Empty. It took a 2-day trip by myself to help me realize that I could lose everything, but I could never lose my purpose. If I stick to it, I would never feel empty again. So, I focused more than ever on my purpose, even more when I felt sad.

The same happens with teams and companies. As the research from McKInsey&Company Leading agile transformations “Purpose amounts to a clear, shared and compelling aspiration: the north star of the organization”.

It doesn’t seem to be anything particularly new; organizations have been looking forward to writing their mission and vision statements for decades. Unfortunately, they are usually just that, an empty statement. Sometimes they may not even be shared with the employees. But now, mission and vision alone are not enough. Researches have shown that also the purpose is important to guide a company. It has become a foundational element of the company culture, the reason for the team members to stay engaged. The team needs to know what needs to be done. How to do it depends on the why.

Another purpose statement from a hospital in Kentucky: “Continuously improve patients outcome through a culture of safety and clinical excellence”

Why is purpose so important?

Every system, a team or a company, “is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish an aim. Without an aim, there is no system.” Says Edwards Deming. That is what we call the purpose. Having a higher purpose in mind makes people work harder. The purpose may be to work towards having the best customer service or the best product on the market or it may be a more social purpose, such as being a green company.

A clear purpose allows people to:

  • Survive: as I said before, a clear vision allows the teams and individuals, to be focused and optimistic about the organization’s capacity to survive in the future. Team members learn to focus on what has to be achieved and not on what goes wrong. What goes wrong may generate delays, but the final objective remains clear. Without a clear purpose, errors and delays turn into fear and distrust. With a clear purpose in mind, failing just becomes part of the process.
  • Empower: with a clear purpose and clear roles, people can be empowered to decide how to get their job done. They can decide how to prioritize. Everybody understand how a metric impacts the purpose, and why you are doing that job. Understand why is key to make them owners of the job. Usually, I hear employees complaining they that some decision makes no sense to them, and do them just to please their leader. This doesn’t allow them to improve what they are doing, because they don’t know where they are going.
  • Connect people and processes. Gene Krantz, Flight Director of the  Apollo 13 says in his book “A clear goal, a powerful mandate, and a unified team allowed the US to move from a distant second in space into a preeminent position”. When employees know the purpose behind the work, they know how what they do each day contributes to the KPIs of the company. In Toyota they call it the light of sight. “while there may be mitigating conditions such as economic fluctuations, material disruptions, etc., the True North, that is, the vision, purpose and mission, always remains the same.” Says Tracy Richardson in the Toyota Engagement Equation.
  • Engage: a research from Gallup shows that engaged employees are 20% more productive, have fewer turnover rates, fewer quality defects, and fewer safety incidents. Motivation flourishes when people realize that replying to an email or helping a coworker is part of a bigger project that they believe in. In Toyota for example, employees leave their initials printed on every part they make., increasing their sense of contribution. For some people, being part of a green company and participating in social responsibility activities, for example, helps them feel more emotionally engaged, and less prone to leave the organization for other reasons.

The goal of the team members should not be just do their job, but to improve their job every day. A clear purpose helps them see that. That is how they connect better within the process, make better decisions and engage at work.

How are you working towards your purpose each day? What inspires you? What inspires your work? Are you working to be and do better? What is your company’s higher purpose?

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