Navigator Insights

Purpose: the game of champions, and subservience to purpose is a proven path to success

The more I witness organisations that are struggling to succeed, or survive, or just to run harmoniously, the more I see an absence of purpose. Most of these organisations have a great vision, mission and strategic plan, but lack the spark – all the DNA – to pull it all together.

In his book, Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies, Nikos Mourkogiannis records that “…purpose – not money, not status – is what people most want from work. Make no mistake: they want compensation; some want an ego- affirming title. Even more, though, they want their lives to mean something, they want their lives to have a reason”.

You can’t find much fault with that!

Purpose is not often discussed in the context of a business. The concept however is straightforward. Why does the organisation exist? What does the organisation do? “Purpose matters because it makes work meaningful and integrated into my life; it enables me to feel pride in what I do and liberates me to do it better” observes one of Mourkogiannis’s subjects (p.15).

And, purpose is not a new concept – it has long been recognised. For example, when Henry Ford was sued by his own shareholders in 1914 for breach of fiduciary responsibility, he argued from the witness stand that in effect businesses run solely for shareholder profit would ultimately make less money than businesses run for purpose. Ford was ahead of his time on both accounts!

Mourkogiannis makes the point that “where the company is driven by a purpose, the vision, mission and values flow naturally from that purpose. People don’t need to be “aligned” – they already have been attracted to the organisation, as employees or customers, by its purpose.”

Let’s explore these concepts further:

  • Stripped bare, vision is a statement about where you want to go as an organisation. It is a future state.
  • And your mission is the path that you take to get from where you are now to that future position enunciated in the vision.
  • A common element of many vision statements is to be number one at what you do.
  • And what you do should be your purpose. Purpose is what you do every day as part of the journey to achieve your vision.
  • Effective organisations are those that are fit for purpose at every point on that journey.
  • If you are not fit for purpose then your journey/mission can be very rocky.

What are some of the symptoms of organisational problems in terms of purpose? There are many but commonly they include morale problems (things are flat, there is a shortage of energy, people do not really believe what is been said and/or done); calls for a new strategy (often a call from a rediscovery of the foundations of the existing strategy); execution problems (the targets are okay but the actions taken are inappropriate) and concerns over reputation (actions debase core values). There is little to be gained by simplistic approaches often used to address these (like restructuring, for example.) There is no point trying to align the people if you are trying to misalign them with their understanding of, or belief in purpose.

Purpose is like a moral compass, pointing you in the right direction. It gives the business a clear sense of its reason to exist. It can and should be the test applied to each and every action you plan to take – is the proposed action consistent with the purpose? Will it contribute to achievement of our vision? Does it reflect our values? If clearly defined a purpose will excite and engage all stakeholders, especially staff and customers. An understanding of purpose enables staff to make better, and more confident, decisions. They are aligned through self-motivation, rather than inducement.

“An understanding of purpose makes it easier to follow the ancient learning ritual – fail and try again, fail and try again, and ultimately succeed.” (Mourkogiannis, p13)

Purpose ultimately provides the focus needed to create a focus on what needs to be done today for you to be successful, because you must succeed at all steps along your journey, you must be fit for purpose no matter how far, or close, your vision.

So, why did I use “subservience” in my title? This is aimed at leaders in organisations and comes from the work of Justin Menkes (Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others, 2011). He talks about the very significant impact leaders can have if they are subservient to purpose – and the importance of this “in today’s world of distractions and continual melding of home and work life.” (p.99) Subservience in his terms is the deliberate choice to put the purpose first: to frame all relationships and actions and engagement in the context of purpose.

Drawing on the work of Mourkogiannis and Menkes, it is my belief that the best leaders “discover” the purpose of their organisations through discussion and observation. Yes they can shape it – but not in isolation of the people who make up the organisation, and key stakeholders on the outside. Leaders emerge because they make sense and are able to capture and articulate what an organisation, and its people, needs to do to live its purpose.

And a brief comment about “alignment”. In the Navigator initiative, I experience a company with a purpose that aligns with mine – to make a difference by helping people and organisations become, and remain, fit for purpose. If your own purpose aligns with an organisation, then join it or remain with it. If it doesn’t, then find somewhere else to work. That might sound harsh, but it is really about doing something on purpose.

In a future post I will write about how to discover and develop your organisations purpose.

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Image courtesy of Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.