5 Biggest Misconceptions of What Purpose Means in an Organization

Purpose is everywhere. It became a buzz word already. I am so happy that we finally talk about what it means in life and at work. As I do Purpose work in companies, I see many misconceptions of what it means to be a Purpose-Driven Organization though. In this article I want to share what it is not:

  1. It is not a beautiful sentence that a leader creates to frame and hang on the wall that will never be seen or revisited again.
  2. It is not a marketing tool.
  3. It is not a lofty ideal.
  4. It is not a goal.
  5. It is not giving to charity.

None of these form a purpose-driven company.

Purpose is not a sentence created to be framed and forgotten.

Purpose can be very clear to a founder at the very early stages of forming a company that has a deeper meaning to him/her. The reason any entrepreneur starts a business is so much more than making money.  If the founder is aware of this WHY in him or in her, that will be the WHY of the company right from the start. It cannot end there though. You make sure, it speaks to people’s hearts not only their minds. Everybody in contact with the company, all stakeholders need to now this WHY.

Some of the best examples I have seen do not even tie their why to their services or products. Those are the ones who know their people come first. Like WD-40 says “We exist to create positive lasting memories in everything we do.” It has nothing to do with the lubricant they sell.

If a company that has been in business for years want to integrate purpose into their culture, it starts with a brainstorming exercise. In those sessions, I invite people from all departments to get their points of view on what their WHY could be. It is always fascinating to see what people come up with. So in the end, purpose becomes a statement embraced by many, instead of only coming from the top. We usually have the best ideas from people who already love what they do and get excited about looking at the big picture rather than their daily tasks.

So when the purpose statement is done, it does get be framed maybe but that is not enough. Everyone, yes EVERYone in the company gets to know it. It is part of their daily life now. It does not go away; it becomes a constant reminder of why they work there.

It is not a marketing tool.

It certainly is not a marketing tool. Some companies will never even find out what purpose actually means, but will use it in their ads just to get attention since people care about it now. I guess there is no way to stop them. I trust people though who can tell what is authentic and what is not. We are so over companies who say one thing and than act totally different when it comes to delivering on that promise. (Trust in companies are lowest in the last decades for a reason.)

Purpose is not only a lofty nice ideal to have.

It is something you strive for every day with every decision made by the company. If Southwest says “affordable traveling” in their why, they will resist all the pressure coming from shareholders to charge for luggage. At least they stayed firm until now. They were told they are leaving 300 million dollars on the table by not charging for baggage but I bet they make more money than that because they kept their promise to their customers. We don’t see so many examples of companies who will not go for extra money they can charge, so it makes us loyal to them when they do. It is keeping your WHY alive even when it is hard to stick by it. You aspire to be better every day.

Purpose is not a goal.

Goals are like growing my company 10 fold in the next 5 years, like making xxx profit. Purpose in the other hand is something people are inspired by. It is a lot more than numbers. It answers the question “How will my company impact lives?” It is usually something that you cannot measure; at least not directly. It is something you feel. It is something you believe in and want to be part of.

When Purpose is implemented correctly, it is part of EVERY decision, business strategy, Talent Development, and hiring practices. In organizations, we go into lots of details to activate it. We change processes, mindsets, training, decision making to incorporate purpose in the right way to create positive change. It is not only a sentence; it is a way to run the business.

Purpose is not giving to charity.

One biggest misconception I see is giving to charity looks like Purpose to many. Giving to charity as a company is great, sending your people to do volunteer work, the same. I am all up for it but it does not make you a purposeful business in the real sense. Purposeful businesses have a very clear WHY they exist and it is the foundation of everything they do from then on.

Brooke O. Erol
Brooke O. Erolhttps://www.purposeful.business/
Brooke O. Erol started her career at IBM following the traditional path she was given to be "successful". She quit her "great job" on paper after 11 years, feeling she is not aligned with it. She started her journey to find her purpose in life. She started her first business in 2003; Your Best Life to help professionals who don’t like their jobs and want to find more meaning at work. After being around so many unhappy people at work as her clients, she decided to help the organizations and leaders who employed them. She started her second business; Purposeful Business to help leaders catch up with our times and grow their businesses without sacrificing the well-being of their people; where profit becomes a by-product rather than the main goal. She believes life is too precious to live only for weekends and retirement. She is the author of Create a Life You Love. She is also the co-author of "From Hierarchy to High Performance: Unleashing the Hidden Superpowers of Ordinary People to Realize Extraordinary Results" that became an International Best Seller in 2018. She speaks and writes about Leadership, Purpose-Driven Life and Organizations, Future of Work in the US, and abroad.

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  1. Consumer expectations are evolving. Companies must therefore have a sort of ‘social license’ in order to operate and without this social recognition they are unable to maintain a sustainability of their profits. From there comes the importance of a company’s purpose. The purpose is nothing more than the reason why a company exists, it is the engine that determines how the company moves and generates profits in a sustainable way. And this is an increasingly valid thing on the market. The companies more attentive to these aspects, manage to maintain a healthier business and profits in the long run.

  2. Thank you Jeff. Such a wonderful example. There is this myth that still lives where leaders think you cannot do good and profitable business if you put your people first. We will all challenge that more and break this belief. I appreciate your comment and taking the time to tell me the story.

  3. Brooke: “Some of the best examples I have seen do not even tie their why to their services or products.” YES!

    While reading your article, I was reminded of a story about Alcoa Aluminum and one of its CEOs. Paul O’Neill’s ascent to the helm of Alcoa is legendary. Introduced to a group of investors and analysts in October 1987, he didn’t talk about revenue and expenses, and strategy and tactics. “I want to talk to you about worker safety,” he told the Wall Street crowd.

    Talk about a meaningful and BRAVE purpose for an organization: looking inward and protecting those who do the great work. Guess what happened to Alcoa’s productivity, stock price, profitability AND worker safety record? “Do well by doing good,” the CEO I worked under for 15 years used to say.

    Thank you for giving real meaning to what for many is still just another “buzz word.”

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