Leadership / Purpose

What Purpose is and What it Isn’t

Don’t make it too grandiose.

I recently attended a Harvard Business Review webinar called “Building an Organization that Delivers on Purpose.” There were two business school professors talking and promoting their book. They made three primary points and I’ll paraphrase them quickly.

First, you need to be relevant which means you have a distinct set of customers. Second, you need to be unique which means there’s a hole left in the market when you exit. Third, your company needs to be the rightful owner. This means you fulfill the need better than anyone else.

For me, purpose is a huge thing. As a leadership consultant, I talk and write about it extensively (here and here and here, for example). I think it’s one of the keys for a successful organization.

I get it and I take it seriously. But as I sat and listened to these two professors pontificate, and really, that’s the absolutely correct word for it, I was struck at how serious this is. I mean, look at their points. Distinct set of customers; unique in the marketplace; rightful owner. These two were speaking from on high, delivering the truth!

From their remarks, I felt sorry for businesses the world over. By their preaching, no two businesses could be the same. It was so dramatic.

Purpose isn’t like that at all. Those things are wonderful but that means there would only be one fence company, one hamburger place, and so on. It would entail hyper-specialization, probably something like this restaurant is the only one that sells hamburgers made with 47% beef, 37% pork, and 16% chicken. If you want a burger with 49% beef, well, that’s two blocks over.

Purpose is what or how your organization contributes to society. Fencing companies keep kids and pets safe. Fast food places give you a hot meal quickly so you can do other things (like get kids to baseball practice, another to play practice, and a third to his band concert). Convenience stores allow you to travel less distance with less planning to get basic items. And so on.

People, don’t overthink it. These start-ups in Silicon Valley who start a taxi company to revolutionize blah, blah, blah — they’re wasting time and deluding themselves.

There’s nothing grandiose about it. The goodness of clearly understanding your company’s purpose is two-fold. First, it helps to give your employees meaning in their work. Second, it helps everyone make better decisions at every level by giving a common measure. They may not always get it right, but they’re going to do much better than without it.

Can it be those things? Sure, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The reality is the vast majority of businesses do something that someone else is also doing. If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be any competitive advantages. If you are that unique, then there is no competition.

Purpose is important. It matters. But your purpose doesn’t have to be all that and a bag of chips. It does need to clearly be articulated, widely communicated, and well understood. Then, go make a difference!

Retired Army officer with two tours in Baghdad, taught at West Point, married with four kids. Proud West Virginian and West Point grad. Amazon pubs.

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