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Aligning Leadership, Culture, Strategy and Purpose - Paper 4: Purpose

Collins and Poras (authors of ‘Built to Last’) conducted 6 years research into factors that distinguish high performing companies from the rest. One key factor was defining the “core purpose” which they defined as: ‘The organisation’s fundamental reason for being’.

An effective purpose captures the importance people attach to the company’s work: it bridges the gap to why people are motivated to come into work in the morning. It describes the deeper reasons for an organisation’s existence - beyond the pre-requisite to make money in the private sector, for example.

To make their point, Collins and Poras pointed to exceptional companies that have prospered over the long term, including 3M, Disney, Hewlett-Packard, Marriott, Nordstrom and Procter & Gamble. These organisations can claim 100+ years of sustained business performance, each. Their share value was found to have performed 15x better than the overall NYSE since 1926.

The core purpose should survive the CEO, management teams, technology, products or services. Simon Sinek, in his book, ‘Start with Why’, points to the idea of why you exist and who you are as an organisation.

So, your organisation's core purpose has to be (completely) idealistic.

Therefore, your ability to prosper as an organisation is about what you believe which should drive everything you do. It is not about what you sell.

The whole point of your core purpose is to motivate your people and facilitate your leadership. It is the glue that holds your organisation together as it grows and evolves. People at every level of your enterprise must be clear that at the heart of what they do is something meaningful that always anchors their working lives.

Defining your core purpose is all about genuineness, clarity and alignment. It is not necessary to sound impressive on an advertising hording or as a unique selling proposition (USP). At the heart, though, it does need to be meaningful to your people.

Collins goes on to identify 5 important characteristics of an organisation’s core purpose. It

  1. Is inspiring to those inside the organisation.

  2. Is something that stands the test of time (say 100+ years).

  3. Can help you think expansively about what you could do but are not doing currently.

  4. Can help you decide what not to do.

  5. Is truly authentic to your organisation (but not necessarily unique).

To be clear, the core purpose is different to the organisation’s strategic differentiator and could apply to more than one organisation. For example; a puzzle company and an events business may both use a core purpose of ‘providing tools of imagination’. It is what is meaningful to the people that counts.

So what might be the starting point to discover a meaningful core purpose for your organisation?

For a start, don’t lock yourself away in a darkened room on your own.

Involve. Seek input. Here are a few questions to start with:

  • What would be lost if this organization ceased to exist?

  • Why does our organization's existence matter?

  • What is our most important reason for being here? Why?

  • Why are we important to the people we serve?

  • Why would anyone dedicate their precious time, energy, and passion to our company? (NB the answer is not money.)

Getting to the core purpose – the heart of the matter for the organisation, is hard work. Getting there will be accompanied by a strong sense of “yes” and conviction. Think of it as shaping the organisation from the inside, out. Your return on investment is high and built in to all that you do subsequently. Used well, your core purpose will drive your brand, customer experience and all stakeholder engagement.

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