One of the first questions I ask small business owners when I begin working with them is “What is your company’s purpose?”
Shockingly, more often than not they look at me like a deer caught in the headlights and say “Huh?”
Why am I shocked? Purpose speaks to the soul of the business. It is the foundation on which a company is built, survives, and grows. Research is compelling in showing that businesses that state, live and breathe their purpose:
- Have higher employee engagement,
- Attract a broader fan base of customers, and
- Grow exponentially faster.
In Bob’s Case…
Consider your local ice cream shop “Bob’s Creamery.” Bob tells his employees “Our purpose is to put a smile on everyone’s face. I want you to be very creative about how you put a smile on each person’s face that comes to buy ice cream. That means little Johnny and Molly, Mom and Pop, Grandma and Grandpa, and Aunt Myrtle. I mean everyone!”
Bob unleashes his employees to come up with creative ways to put a smile on each person’s face that they serve. If they don’t, they get to talk about it together and brainstorm what they could do if Grumpy Greg, Sad Sarah or Angry Andy comes back for ice cream.
Here’s the thing. It’s pretty easy to put a smile on people’s faces when they are buying ice cream, right? Bob takes nothing for granted. He wants Bob’s Creamery to be:
- Crowded every day and every night with happy people who can’t wait to come back,
- Who tell their friends to meet up at Bob’s for ice cream, and
- Who decided it’s such a great experience to go to Bob’s that they don’t even consider going to Slab Creamery down the street.
Bob’s simple purpose to “put a smile on everyone’s face” is compelling because it is how they create roaring fans, not just customers, and bring together the community. That is how they grow themselves AND the business. Here’s why it works:
- It rallies the team, gives them meaning and focus, and brings them together to get better and better and better at it.
- They learn to make purposeful decisions.
- They are empowered to be innovative and creative in making sure that their customers have a great experience.
- They are working on purpose in each action and interaction.
But We Are Engineers
For most of my career, I have worked with engineers, and I can hear them now. “We’re engineering. We don’t need a purpose. That’s good for an ice cream shop, but we do BIG things.” With a chuckle, my comeback is “You’re so focused on your purpose you can’t even see it. Obviously, your purpose is to do BIG things, and honestly, you seem pretty motivated to do just that.”
Yesterday, I asked yet another business owner the purpose of his IT services company, and I got the same typical response. “We don’t need to craft a purpose statement. We’re all about Service First. We’re gaining customers for life.” Right out of his mouth he said he didn’t have a “purpose statement” and then told me what it was. “Service First” sets a clear priority and focus for his team to make decisions to ensure they serve customer needs.
Just to drive the point home, the purpose is so foundational to running the company that it sits at the soul of the company. It’s what you’re all about. It’s why you and your people enjoy coming to work every day.
If you suffer from low employee engagement or missed performance targets, you may be lacking in purpose. When people don’t have a unified purpose, they begin to lose meaning and worse, they begin to believe that what they’re doing has no real value.
What Experts Say
In the book, Exponential Organizations: Why New Organizations Are Ten Times Better, Faster and Cheaper Than Yours (and What To Do About It), (2014), Diversion Publishing, author Salim Ismail and his colleagues share their research of multi-billion dollar organizations that grew exponentially during the last decade. They discovered that those organizations that grow exponentially start with a Massive Transformative Purpose because they think BIG to “pursue a business strategy to achieve rapid growth.”
They found that the organizations with exponential growth use aspirational statements “to capture the hearts and minds, imaginations and ambitions, of those both inside and (especially) outside the organization.” Their purpose statements have a “radical transformative power” and “inspire people at large” (inside and outside the company) to participate.
The higher the purpose, the more attractive it is to employees and consumers. Consider Seventh Generation, a household goods company. Its purpose is “to inspire a consumer revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations.”
In Verne Harnish’s book, Scaling Up: How A Few Companies Make It…And Why The Rest Don’t, (2014), Gazelles East Pte. Ltd, he suggests, “A powerful purpose tends to revolve around a single word or idea,” and cites the following:
- 3M: Innovation
- Disney: Happiness
- Wal-Mart: Robin Hood
- Starbucks: A Third Place
Notice that the purpose for Bob’s Creamery is not “serve people ice cream” or “serve people ice cream with excellence” or “serve 100s of people ice cream tonight.” “Put a smile on everyone’s face” speaks to the experience Bob wants for his customers. That extends the purpose from the soul of the company in and through each employee who serves, and in and through each person who is served. It brings everyone together in a great experience. It is aspirational and motivational.
Ironically, this purpose statement says nothing about serving ice cream.
Here are some other great purpose statements:
- Bluegreen Vacations: “Share happiness.”
- USAA: “Legendary service.”
- TED: “Ideas worth spreading.”
- Natural Grocers: “Empower people with health.”
- John Kenagy, MD: “Ideal patient care.”
To sum up: A well-stated purpose statement makes it clear why the business exists, and better yet, what experience you want to offer your customers.
I hope you see the power of purpose in business. I strongly encourage you to state your business purpose, if you haven’t already done so. It will help you and your company to make the difference that it is destined to make no matter how large or small it is. The key is not that you impact millions, but that you consistently, positively impact each person you serve.
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3 Steps To Become A Purpose-Driven Business
1. State your business purpose
Here are some helpful questions to lead you in stating your business purpose:
- Why does our company exist?
- What contribution do we make to the community and to society?
- Why does what we do matter? Why do this work?
- What difference are we making in the world and for generations to come?
- Why would people miss us if we weren’t around?
- What single word or idea captures your purpose?
2. Vet the purpose
Evaluate your purpose against these success criteria:
- It speaks the truth of who we are and what we’re about;
- It speaks to the experience we want to give to our customers;
- It’s motivating to our people;
- It’s simple and easy for everyone to remember;
- It sets a clear focus on our decisions, actions, and interactions; and
- It’s evergreen – it will always be our purpose.
Share the purpose with your leaders and employees to gain their feedback. People will likely fall into various categories of early adopters, slow adopters, laggards, and naysayers. Don’t let naysayers and laggards stop you. Use the feedback to tighten up the purpose statement and affirm your conviction to pursue purpose in your company.
3. Promote the purpose
As a leader, you “walk the purpose”. In the example of Bob’s Creamery, Bob is the first person who engages in “putting a smile on everyone’s face.” He shows people how to do it, how to be persistent at it, and how to hold himself and others accountable in fulfilling it.
He keeps the purpose as his main focus when he’s interacting with his employees, his suppliers, his customers and his public. He focuses his employees on doing the same by guiding them, chiding them, and encouraging them.
Technology offers many ways to promote the purpose in a large company or one with dispersed employees. Use daily videos, podcasts, and/or blogs to talk about your purpose and how it needs to show up every day. Feature people with stories that portray the essence of your purpose in their daily actions and interactions. Give regular feedback to people and hold them accountable in fulfilling the purpose in small and large ways.
Promote your purpose far and wide, and it will promote your company.