CEO Insider

How to make purpose come alive …and avoid all that eye rolling

With the pandemic has come an almost epidemic level of talk about purpose. It’s not like the topic didn’t exist pre-pandemic, but in the face of this existential crisis, there’s been a widespread awakening to the need to do things that matter, to be working on meaningful projects and to be more attentive to the ethical stands of the brands from whom you buy. With an increased awareness of our mortality and a windfall of time courtesy of no commuting and limited ways to distract ourselves outside, many people have thought deeply about how they would like to spend their time and energies. As a result, across all manner of populations, there’s been a groundswell of interest in being more purposeful. Meanwhile, there has been and will continue to be a countervailing force in the form of increased financial hardship which means that people may not always have the luxury of choice.

In the years leading up to the pandemic in the US, we saw that people were increasingly prepared to leave a job if they were not entirely happy. In the Gallup survey State of the Workplace 2017, they reported that only one third of employees declared themselves to be engaged at work and that voluntary departures had risen to 27% in a year. Not only are these departures expensive in terms of time and money, they put a crucial strain on the remaining employees. If the lack of engagement is related to a lack of purpose, the reasons for the departures are far more prosaic. In most instances, having a stated purpose will not be enough to bandage over a lack of career growth opportunities, low pay, poor management skills or a lousy company culture. Similarly, from a consumer perspective, having an uplifting and wonderful purpose while providing a terrible product or service won’t be satisfactory either.

Doing what matters

To believe that purpose will fix everything is to fall into the trap of the tyranny of purpose. Just as a company with a purpose that is not profitable won’t survive to serve a purpose, a company that doesn’t perform with its goods and services will not be saved by having a purpose. So, what does it mean to have a genuine purpose and what role does it serve for a business? Having purpose is about doing things that matter. I like to say that a company with a proper purpose can answer the following question with conviction: How will the world be worse off without you? What would be missing if you didn’t exist? The answer to that question, in the eyes of most customers is regularly just a shrug of the shoulders. To wit, the annual survey by Havas on meaningful brands, showed that, in 2019, people wouldn’t care if 77% of brands disappeared (source). The key point is to craft a purpose that brings a bigger benefit that resonates inside-out, from the inside of the company through to its broader stakeholders, including its customers. When I ran Redken (the professional haircare brand, part of the L’Oréal Group), we had — and still have — the mission, “Earn a better living, live a better life.” It is a powerful purpose in that, while it was aimed at our hairdresser customers, it was also applicable to our ambassadors, distributors and down through the ranks of our Redken employees. Naturally, the application is nuanced and needs to be adapted to each class of stakeholder. And, of course, it was far from perfectly implemented. But we had the right intentions.

Crafting purpose

There are five questions to bear in mind when you want to craft a successful purpose for your company:

  1. To what extent is the purpose providing added value to a broader community?
  2. How ambitious do you intend to be with your purpose? How much do you plan to communicate about your purpose? Remember: it’s better to do it (through your actions and behaviors) and to have others say that you do it. Otherwise, you may engender eye-rolling and attract unwanted attention on your failings.
  3. To what extent is it realistic and weaved into your daily operations?
  4. How is it experienced by the employees and to what extent do they feel that they are contributing to the purpose’s realization?
  5. Back to brass tacks: Do you have a strong baseline product & service that sells and is profitable?

The scale of purpose

If you’re looking to insert purpose into your company, it may well be helpful to see it as existing on a scale. Not all purposes are equal. And, certainly, it’s important to craft a purpose that has the right dimension for your organization. When I say that purpose is about doing things that matter, it’s about finding meaning. Therefore, as a proxy for purpose, it’s about feeling that your role and your job are meaningful, at least in some small way.

At the far left of the scale of purpose in figure 1, we’re looking at a light touch version where employees can achieve meaningfulness, without having necessarily to fix the world’s biggest problems. To have meaningfulness can involve being part of a winning team, successfully overcoming a challenging problem, feeling recognized or, even, just having fun.

As we move along toward the right, purpose becomes more intentional and bigger, looking toward a wider community than just your immediate stakeholders. Here, your brand has a mission that is more ambitious, increasingly material and apparent. However, what’s missing is that the purpose is as yet not baked into the organization

To the right of figure 1, we have integrated purpose, where the purpose and the function of the business are tied together. The purpose of the organization is experienced inside-out, lived by the employees who are the number one fans of the brand. When you have reached integrated purpose, a bellwether signal is to what extent your employees pass the brand tattoo test, where they’d be willing to permanently mark some portion of their body with a representation of the brand. When you have a fully integrated purpose, it resonates at a deep level for all within and without the organization. An important nuance is that, even at the far right, the yellow triangle does not completely cover the company’s activity. It’s vital not to be overly dogmatic and drive your business only through purpose. To have impact, it’s best to remain in the black. When you achieve an integrated purpose, you’ll have a compass that helps to parse out the unnecessary activities. You will be more readily able to tap into your team’s discretionary energy. And, most importantly, you’ll be doing something that matters.

As a final impetus to embed purpose into your business, in these times of disrupted lives, burgeoning mental health issues and disturbed sleep patterns, it is worth noting that having a sense of purpose is reported to make you sleep better. A study out of Northwestern Medicine and Rush University Medical Center, published in 2017 in Science Daily, found that “having a purpose in life specifically results in fewer sleep disturbances and improved sleep quality and over a long period of time.”

It’s time to stop the eye-rolling and to make your purpose come alive.


Written by Minter Dial. Have you read?
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Minter Dial
Minter Dial is an international professional speaker, elevator and a multiple award-winning author, specialised in leadership, branding and transformation. An agent of change, he's a three-time entrepreneur who has exercised twelve different métiers and changed country fifteen times. Minter's core career stint of 16 years was spent as a top executive at L’Oréal, where he was a member of the worldwide Executive Committee for the Professional Products Division. He’s author of the award-winning WWII story, The Last Ring Home (documentary film and biographical book, 2016) as well as two prize-winning business books, Futureproof (2017) and Heartificial Empathy (2019). His latest book on leadership, You Lead: How Being Yourself Makes You A Better Leader (Kogan Page) released in January 2021. He’s been host of the Minter Dialogue weekly podcast since 2010. Minter Dial is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, and YouTube.