Purpose statements revisited: how they matter and how to make them work


By Elisabeth Goodman, 2nd December 2019

How purpose statements matter

I’ve written before about the importance of purpose as a motivator for employees (see ‘Why clarity of purpose is so important for both effective leadership and management)

Sally Blount and Paul Leinwand sum it up nicely in “Why are we here?” in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review:

“Many people, not just Millennials – want to work for organisation’s whose missions and business philosophies resonate with them intellectually and emotionally.”

Purpose - HBR Nov-Dec 2019

Illustration from Why are we here? Harvard Business Review, November – December 2019, pp. 132-139.

According to these authors, an effective and indeed powerful purpose statement achieves two things:

  • It articulates strategic goals focused on your customers
  • It motivates your employees.

Paul Leinwand is a global manager at Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. Their recent survey of 540 employees worldwide revealed many ways in which purpose statements matter.

For instance:

  • Employees consider purpose to be more than twice as important, on average as other motivators such as compensation and career advancement
  • At companies that have clearly defined and communicated purpose related statements, 63% of employees say they are motivated vs. 31% in other companies

How to make purpose statements work

1. Don’t worry too much about the distinctions between mission, vision and purpose.

Many companies use these interchangeably, and what you will find on different websites varies enormously.  The important thing, as the HBR authors assert, is that whatever form of statement you use it should clearly articulate:

  • Why your organisation exists, in relation to the products or services it delivers to customers. What difference it makes to your customers’ lives or business.
  • What makes your organisation unique. What gap it would leave if it ceased to function.
  • How your organisation does business including any guiding principles that influence interactions with customers, suppliers and employees themselves

2. Be clear about what key talent you need to attract to deliver on your purpose

Rather than trying to attract the best talent for every aspect of your business, which may not be possible or sustainable, home in on the key areas that are vital to your business.

You can always support other areas through high-quality outsourcing.

3. Structure and invest in your organisation so that people can effectively work together to achieve your purpose

Many organisations create cross-functional teams to break down silos and enable the creativity, innovation and development necessary to deliver on their purpose.(This is certainly true of most of the companies with which RiverRhee works.)

In fact, given that working this way is often key to the success of an organisation, cross-functional teams need to receive adequate time, funding and attention. Is this the case in your organisation? If not, how could the focus of attention be shifted to make it so?

4. Make sure your leaders are acting as role models for your purpose.

The HBR authors put it perfectly:

“Strong leaders personify their organisation’s purpose every day through their words and actions, whether that involves communicating priorities to the workforce or visibly spending time with employees and customers.”

5. Challenge your board to ask you tough questions about your purpose

Your board is well placed to keep you focused. The HBR authors suggest some questions they could ask, or indeed that you could ask yourself:

  • Would your employees be able to tell your purpose statement apart from a competitor’s?
  • How many of your employees could cite your purpose?
  • Do your employees have the resources that they need to deliver on your purpose?

NOTES

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.) Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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