People need purpose. Without it, we are aimless and unmotivated, and likely unhappy. On a personal level, the search for purpose can be profound and life changing. In the workplace, purpose may not be life changing, but it certainly provides employees with the direction and motivation they need to be most effective.
At its most basic level, the need for purpose reveals itself on a daily basis when people ask questions such as ‘What’s the point?’ and ‘Why are we doing this?’ Critical thinkers are constantly testing directives against some standard of reasonableness to make sure they can “get behind them” and execute.
Business owners can (and should) ask the same questions about their businesses. ‘What’s the point?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘What is our purpose?’ Important questions indeed, and the answers, if they are clear and succinct, will give your team the true direction they really need.
Traditionally, companies have created vision, mission and value statements. At their core, these statements attempt to provide direction and motivation, but often don’t quite hit the mark. They aren’t necessarily wrong, but they don’t move the needle. In the worst case they become targets of ridicule, because they are so hard to live up to or seem unrealistic.
Instead of trying to come up with a vision and mission, it’s better to think about your company’s “purpose” and the “way” it conducts its business. Why you do the things you do is your purpose. The things you consistently do to achieve that purpose is your way.
If asked why your business is successful, you likely can pinpoint something that is unique and different in the market from your competitors. It could be a “secret sauce,” a unique process, how you treat employees or any number of differentiators. That is where you start. But sometimes identifying those areas on your own is not as easy as it seems.
For example, one of my clients engaged me to take a candid look at its various HR programs and its culture. To understand the business and discover why they are successful, I asked people what the company’s purpose was. I got very few consistent answers, so we worked together to uncover it. We discovered it buried in the day-to-day company operations, and then put it to words. Those words, crafted into a simple phrase, were used to guide performance internally. That phrase also became a marketing tagline that they now use as a part of their logo.
We did not set out to create a marketing slogan, but the fact that their internal message became an external one reveals that a company’s purpose statement often has something to do with its customers and what it does for them.
Focus on what you do and why you are successful, and stay away from vague, intrinsic concepts. For instance, very often business leaders think what makes companies successful are things such as passion, commitment and work ethic.
You pay people for their labor and their talent. You do not pay people for passion, commitment and work ethic. You can’t buy it, and you can’t expect people to have it. People bring it to the table because they want to, not because they are paid to.
Instead, think about things you can actually hold people accountable for doing. Things you can define as behaviors. Let’s say that one differentiator for your organization is that you have a culture of responsiveness. When clients call, you call back quickly. That is a behavior you can expect your people to do, and when they don’t, it is easy to see. Because the behavior is defined, you don’t need to rely on someone bringing their “work ethic” to the office to expect that behavior.
In the scenario above, we might say the purpose of our firm is to be highly responsive to our clients because we know that doing so differentiates us. The way we accomplish that is to pick up the phone and not let it go to voice mail, call back within four hours, respond to emails with at least an acknowledgement and follow through swiftly on our commitments.
No doubt a purpose statement will be more complex, resulting in many actionable behavior statements, but limit your ideas to a handful. Focus the most energy on the few things that really differentiate and drive your success.
Your employees need a clear, simple, unifying message that connects what they do day to day with the ultimate purpose of the firm. They may find it difficult to rally around traditional vision or mission statements. They might not even try.
Hugh Fisher is the owner of HPFisherHR LLC, focusing on recruitment, performance management and culture building. Contact him at email@example.com or 216.272.5722.
Cohen & Company is not rendering legal, accounting or other professional advice. Information contained in this post is considered accurate as of the date of publishing. Any action taken based on information in this blog should be taken only after a detailed review of the specific facts, circumstances and current law.