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Who needs a purpose

Whenever I have time to suspend running around addressing practical aspects of business and life, I like to pause and think of the meaning of the different activities I am involved in. In particular I found that teaching is a great way to rearrange and articulate my thoughts about activities that I carry daily in an instinctive, hands-on approach. A Corporate Strategy course I recently taught has given me the opportunity to reflect upon the concept of Purpose.

Like in any regular Corporate Strategy course, I started by introducing the notions of Mission, Vision, Goals and Objectives as necessary elements to build a Strategy. While researching more unconventional organizational approaches to business strategy, I found that companies engaged in the likes of Conscious Business and Self-Management (for example Patagonia, Whole Foods or Morning Star) tend to place the notion of Purpose rather than Mission at the center of their strategic process. Interestingly, Purpose is an increasingly popular concept in the business literature (check out "Your Company’s Purpose Is Not Its Vision, Mission, or Values" by Graham Kenny, Harvard Business Review September 3, 2014) and a growing number of major corporations, like ING, Kellogs or IAG, adopt formal Purpose Statements. The general interest for the notion is confirmed by looking at Google Trends and comparing the growing number of " Purpose Statement" searches to the declining one, albeit still much larger, of "Mission Statement".

At first sight, Purpose and Mission may look very similar as both may be used to steer the long term direction of a business. However there are major differences. As G. Kenny puts it, a Mission "describes what business the organization is in (and what it isn’t) both now and projecting into the future" while a Purpose "express the organization’s impact on the lives [ ... ] of whomever you’re trying to serve". From my point of view the most important difference is that one can fail the Mission by not achieving it for whatever reason, but it is impossible to fail the Purpose as long as one is honestly true to it.

This has a tremendous impact on resilience, defined as the capacity to adapt to events (especially adverse ones) and create long term value, since it gives individuals and organizations a motivation to keep struggling to overcome any downturn, against all odds. Victor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, in his description of the struggles of Nazi camp prisoners in "Man's search for meaning", repeatedly quoted Nietzsche's : "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how".

It seems to me that both individuals and organizations would benefit from a clear and explicit reflection of their respective Purposes as businesses and as professionals and I sense that great organizations will emerge when the overlap of individual and organizational purposes is maximized.

John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, in "Conscious Capitalism", go back to Plato's transcendent ideals of Good, Truth and Beauty to classify the main categories of great Purposes. To the three classical categories, they add a fourth one, the Heroic, defined as "Courage to do what is right to change and improve the world".

This started me thinking about a formal purpose statement for my personal professional activities, which since a few years revolve around coaching individuals and corporations through professional and organizational change. Not being able to give up any of the 4 fundamental categories, I tried to cover them all:

The Good: help people and organizations identify and move toward their own true and deepest professional and business Purposes.

The Beauty: create in my own organization and help other organizations create inspirational environments where employees can flourish as happy individuals while achieving the organization's Purpose as well as their own.

The Truth: research, identify, collect and share the best ideas, theories, concepts and process that will help people and organizations achieve their professional and business objectives while remaining true to their personal and organizational Purposes.

The Heroic: making the world a better place for all by fostering the creation of workplaces where organizations can prosper and people can grow personally and professionally.

Reading it back, it looks like an ambitious but nice compass to drive my professional life, one that should keep me busy for a while. And the good news is that it will remain valid whatever the outcomes will happen to be, even if I do not actually achieve it (I am particularly wary of the one about changing the world). The only way to fail will be by being deliberately unfaithful to it.


Photo courtesy of Seth Sawyers

First published on Linkedin , April 15th 2015

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