Corporate Leadership: Find your company’s larger purpose

The summer doldrums are upon us. Our employees yearn for opportunities to take advantage of the great Wisconsin outdoors. So, the inevitable question of how to keep them focused on workplace needs looms.

My thanks this month to TEC/ Vistage member Paul Ratoff for some great ideas on the subject. He points out that the top three companies in the Fortune 2007 list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” are Google, Genentech and Wegmans Food Markets. 

What distinguishes these companies is that in each case, they have a clearly defined “larger” purpose:

Google: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.””

Genentech: “To positively impact the world of human health.”

Wegmans: “To be the very best at serving the needs of our customers, our people and our communities.”

Ratoff believes that having a clearly defined purpose that is truly inspiring and goes beyond “getting a quality product/service out the door” is far more motivating than a traditional mission statement. 

Stated differently, a global purpose or reason for being signals a higher calling for employees as a whole to endorse and embrace, as opposed to individual employees seeking individual satisfaction from their own contributions.

The Google, Genentech and Wegman purpose statements might make you conclude that these are poor examples because, by definition, these firms are up to something bigger.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Small companies can have big purpose statements as well. For example, at TEC, our purpose is to make CEOs better leaders because we believe that better leaders make better decisions that lead to better results. It’s a unifying passion for everyone in our small company.

The key is analyzing how your product or service contributes to solving a larger problem.  Once this is accomplished and articulated as succinctly as possible, all your employees can work to support it.

Steps to establishing your larger purpose

First, ask yourself, do you already have a larger purpose?  

It’s important that you don’t confuse mission, usually a “what you are doing” statement,  with purpose, which connotes a larger contribution to society and explains why you are doing what you are doing.
Second, agree on a larger purpose.

The key here is to put together a random group of employees from every level of the company to define your larger purpose. It’s particularly helpful to find an outside, trained facilitator to help you with this process. It may take a few two- or three-hour sessions.

The questions you need to ask are:

   • What larger function or benefit does our product or service provide to improve the quality of life in our society?

   • What do we do to enhance our society’s basic value systems?

   • What particular audience do we impact upon the most?

   • How far-reaching are we (local, regional, national, global)? 

Third, align actions with your larger purpose. Once you have determined your larger purpose, the next most important question to resolve is the extent to which your stated mission supports your larger purpose. Is what you are doing in harmony with why you are doing it? If so, how? Are there inconsistencies? How can they be eliminated?

The bottom line is that your larger purpose should provide the context for everything your company does internally with employees, and externally with customers and vendors.

Business structure must fit the larger purpose

Today, virtually every successful business, regardless of size, relies on a series of metrics to measure its progress. For a larger purpose to become an integral part of the company’s culture, you must use new metrics to identify gaps in what is in the “here and now,” vs. what must be in the future. Without these metrics, the larger purpose commitment, and the passion it creates to support it, will disappear.

I was in a prospective TEC member’s company the other day, waiting in the lobby to meet with him. On the wall, I saw a wide assortment of customer appreciation plaques, assembled around a plaque of the company’s mission statement. I asked the receptionist what the mission statement meant to him. Sadly, this 15-year employee didn’t know what I was talking about.

Quite frankly, I bet this isn’t an isolated incident. Mission statements are great tools to repeat the obvious. Most successful companies have them, and most successful companies do what their mission statements say.

I remember an old story about Peter Drucker who was perhaps the greatest management consultant of all time.

As a young man, he was interviewing foremen in a stone quarry. He asked the first one, “What are you trying to accomplish in your job?” The reply: “I’m putting in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.” The second foreman said, “I want to have the most productive shift in the company.” The third foreman said, “We are building a cathedral.”

What are your employees building? If they know what it is, it will ignite their passion, their enthusiasm and their motivation. Most importantly, it will put the issue of summer doldrums to bed.

Finally, I am always reminded by our competitive advantage experts that the edge that businesses have today has become narrower. Anything that we as CEOs can do to stay in front will benefit all of us in the long run.

Until next month, I hope that your larger purpose will help sustain your competitive advantage!

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