How do you make organisational purpose work?

Nick Craig discusses organisational purpose in an extract from his new book, Leading from Purpose.

When you divorce individual purpose from organisational purpose, you may end up with a great slide deck or presentation, but what happens a month from now? When a leader can talk about his or her own purpose and how it is connected to the organisation’s purpose, that is powerful.

In fact, organisational purpose can be so powerful that many companies hire a consulting firm, ad agency, or marketing firm with the sole desired outcome of creating the organisation’s purpose.

Just as you shouldn’t pick a string of high-minded or sugar- coated words that will please HR and imagine you have found your own personal purpose, nobody can just instill a compelling purpose in an organisation and expect it to stick.

Remember, purpose is what allows us to create meaning in our lives, in our organisation, and for ourselves. Here is the challenge. Who really creates meaning for you? In truth, each of us creates our own meaning.

Others can offer a filter, but only we can actually discover the meaning for ourselves. Thus, if you don’t know your own purpose and the organisation defines its purpose from the outside in…yes, you can ‘get behind’ it – but can you be fully in the game?

Who really creates meaning for you? In truth, each of us creates our own meaning.

Over the last 10 years of working with leaders in the area of purpose, I have seen a lot of things that have worked and many that haven’t. There are some non-negotiable characteristics of every successful attempt to instill purpose and meaning in an organisation:

  1. You can’t fake it.
  2. It matters who gets the key roles in the organisation.
  3. How you run meetings must be an expression of the purpose.
  4. Get out of the way when the troops get it.

If you have been paying attention at all, by now you have realised that purpose isn’t something you can make up or fake. In good times, it may be possible to just buy into an organisation’s purpose and act congruently.

We all have gone to great meetings and events with the jugglers, slick videos, beautiful locations, and fireworks. But when things are not going well, everyone notices if the leaders really have embodied the organisation’s purpose.

If you don’t know the purpose that is leading you, how can you fully commit to it? One of the greatest gifts of knowing and leading from purpose is the ability to step up and lead in the hard times. Let’s return to Howard Schultz and Starbucks at exactly that dark moment in summer 2008.

How do you lead from a purpose such as to inspire and nurture  the human spirit when you are smack in the middle of the worst-case scenario? You have closed 600 stores and eliminated 1,000 non-store positions, the stock is worth less than half what it was a year before, and for the first time you report a net quarterly loss of $6.7m.

On top of this you are getting suggestions to sell the company, and investors want you to undo your company-owned-and-operated store model and franchise the system, with shops just paying Starbucks a royalty.

Others are suggesting reducing the quality of the roast by 5% – no one will notice. Lots of people are telling you the most obvious way to save $30m is to cancel the biennial meeting of 10,000 partners. Most of us remember 2008. What did your leaders do during that period? I personally watched almost every corporate event be canceled or ‘delayed.’

One of the greatest gifts of knowing and leading from purpose is the ability to step up and lead in the hard times.

Howard Schultz didn’t franchise, compromise on the quality, or cancel the gathering of 10,000 partners. His purpose helped him see that while cutting costs might help them stay afloat for a while longer, if they didn’t invest in their people, Starbucks would not survive. As Schultz often says, “Coffee is what we sell as a product, but it’s not the business we’re in. We’re in the people business.”

This takes me back to that coffee shop in Italy and his aha! moment about the human connection of the barista serving him espresso. Purpose doesn’t care about what others think, it makes us act with real impact in the challenging times.

Schultz also decided to publicly announce Starbucks Shared Planet at this crazy moment. Shared Planet included more farmer support centers in East Africa, ethically sourcing 100% of Starbucks coffee by 2015 and doubling their purchase of fair-traded coffee in 2009, affecting thousands of farmers.

How many of us would have done this if our business was in such dire straits? In hindsight it all looks brilliant, as today Starbucks’s stock is worth 20 times what it was at its lowest. But in that moment, it seems Howard Schultz was listening and leading from purpose.

You can’t fake leading from your purpose, especially when things are really challenging. I know you are probably thinking, ‘Well, what can I do? I am not the founder of my own organisation.’ Finding the link between the organisation’s purpose and our own is like that moment in the coffee shop in Italy.

It hits you and you don’t forget it. It’s not an intellectual process, but one that touches the heart and soul. When we lead from that part of ourselves we can face anything.


About the author

Nick Craig is the author of Leading from Purpose, available here.




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