In our last article, we explained why it’s important to make sure that your purpose is thoroughly grounded in the political, economic, social and technological context in which you operate. We call this the “dig” phase: intensively researching and analysing your external environment.
The “dig” phase doesn’t stop with the outside world, however. It’s just as important to look inwards. For your purpose to have any hope of gaining real purchase on the day-to-day operations of your business – to have any hope of being authentic - it must be fully aligned to the truth of your business.
How do you get to the truth? It’s helpful to look at this in terms of your past, present and future. Tap into your past for inspiration. Ensure that you have a crystal-clear picture of the present. Finally, align your purpose with your future business growth strategy.
Inspiration from the past
Start by looking into the history and heritage of your company. Why was it set up in the first place?
Paul Polman is rightly heralded as a hero of purposeful business for his work as CEO of Unilever. But Polman did not conjure Unilever’s purpose (“to make sustainable living commonplace”) out of thin air. The consumer giant’s social mission harks back to the ideals of its founder, William Hesketh Lever.
In the 1880s, Lever created Sunlight Soap to “make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness” – all in a Victorian England where hygiene was a major public health issue. Fast-forward to the 21st century and Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap is partnering with NGOs to reduce child mortality in rural India, simply by making soap more widely available.
This shows how digging into the past can reawaken a sense of purpose and mission for the present.
As a company grows, it can lose sight of its original reason to exist. It can get bent out of shape by opportunistic expansion or simply overwhelmed by the pressures of day-to-day survival. Pausing and reflecting on the original “why” can be a powerful catalyst for change.
A crystal-clear picture of the present
An animal born and raised in captivity struggles to survive when released into the wild; its life in captivity has not given it enough information about how to cope in the “real world.”
Will your purpose survive being released into the wild? Do you have enough information about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats you face?
There’s only one way to find out: Ask.
To make your purpose credible and robust, you will need to bring a broad range of stakeholders into the conversation. Input from different perspectives will give you a crystal-clear picture of how your business is understood, felt and experienced out there in the “real world.”
How do people experience you when you are at your best, and how do they experience you when you are at your worst?
Pick up the phone and talk to your customers. Telephone surveys, roundtables, focus groups: Find the right methods to reach them and listen to what they have to say. Talk to your employees. After all, they are the ones who will ultimately bring your purpose to life. Talk to other stakeholders, including the people affected by the social issues into which your core business is entwined.
We’ve taken many companies through this process: everyone from SMEs to major global brands, working alongside our friends at BRIDGE Partnership. The results are always fascinating – all sorts of surprises, positive and negative, invariably emerge. Blind spots are discovered, and hidden strengths brought to light. All of this insight gives you a firm foundation from which to craft and define a realistic and durable purpose.
Supercharging your future growth strategy
Purpose has to be truly transformational in order to be truly effective. To be transformational, it has to supercharge your business strategy and energise your culture. Put in practical terms, your purpose needs to support your business needs and give a pragmatic answer to the question, “what do we do differently tomorrow?”
Take Interface, led by the late Ray Anderson.
Anderson was a true pioneer of purposeful business. After experiencing an environmental epiphany in 1994, he introduced a brand new purpose to Interface: to become “the world’s first environmentally sustainable – and ultimately, restorative – company,” along with a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2020.
Anderson did not shutter the carpet tile factories and start building solar panels. His customers still needed carpets. Instead, he and his team set about creating an innovation strategy that would allow Interface to grow as a business because of its purpose, not despite of it.
This meant radical innovation in product and process, which in turn meant fostering a culture of experimentation and “failing forward.” From the lab to the factory floor, every Interface employee has a role in finding new ways to live the company’s purpose. Together, Interface employees have created revolutionary new sustainable products and cut over $400 million worth of waste from the firm’s operations.
Interface still makes carpet tiles. But by following its purpose it has grown sales, profitability, and reputation. This is because its purpose is fully aligned and integrated with its business, culture and brand strategy.
We call this “purposeful advantage.” That focus on the power of your core business to do good is what separates purpose from CSR or cause marketing.
Finding and defining your purpose means mapping your place and direction within the real world, not formulating an abstract inner aspiration. The challenge is always to root your purpose in practical context, rational data and emotional intelligence so as to find the territories you can feasibly go after and the goals against which you are prepared to be held accountable. Only then can you truly say that your purpose is grounded in reality.