The Power of Meaningful Purpose

Meaningful purpose is a core characteristic of extraordinary organizations. It bonds groups together and ignites passion that can deliver extraordinary results.

Organizations with meaningful purpose play to win and care about results. They know their work has meaning and that they can make a difference by achieving their goals.

We know meaningful purpose when we see it. Apollo 11′s mission to “perform manned lunar landing and return mission safely”, Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, Nelson Mandela’s mission to “End Apartheid” and Abraham Lincoln’s mission to “Preserve the Nation” all communicate simple, powerful and meaningful purpose.

While a great, short mission to change the world is exciting, it is not always easy to find a mission that is applicable to the company making or selling something basic. How can you have meaningful purpose if you sell groceries, stocks and bonds, cars, clothing and other such ordinary stuff?

It may not be easy, but it is doable.

In the grocery business:

Trader Joe’s mission is to bring our customers the best food and beverage values and the information to make informed buying decisions. There are more than 2000 unique grocery items in our label, all at honest everyday low prices. We work hard at buying things right: Our buyers travel the world searching for new items and we work with a variety of suppliers who make interesting products for us, many of them exclusive to Trader Joe’s. All our private label products have their own “angle,” i.e., vegetarian, Kosher, organic or just plain decadent, and all have minimally processed ingredients.

In financial services:

Charles R. Schwab founded this firm with a clear mission: to empower individual investors to take control of their financial lives, free from the high costs and conflicts of traditional brokerage firms.

In the car business:

Through “Monozukuri – manufacturing of value – added products” and “technological innovation,” Toyota is aiming to help create a more prosperous society. To realize this, we are challenging the below themes.

  1. Be a driving force in global regeneration by implementing the most advanced environmental technologies.
  2. Creating automobiles and a motorized society in which people can live safely, securely and comfortably.
  3. Promote the appeal of cars throughout the world and realize a large increase in the number of Toyota fans.
  4. Be a truly global company that is trusted and respected by all peoples around the world.

In the airline business:

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.

In the hotel business:

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is
our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience. The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.

In the coffee business:

Establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles while we grow.

And I’m sure it’s doable in your industry as well.

While these missions benefit from being short and results oriented, it is their genuineness and authenticity that seems to make them real. When I think of these organizations, I feel a high degree of fit between the mission and the experience. It is in this genuineness and authenticity that the passion of purpose is found.

Warren Bennis, the leadership expert, characterizes this sense of purpose within great groups as being like a mission from God. It’s a mission that is important, uniquely yours, serves a higher purpose and must be done.

It is this sense of purpose, this why we are here, doing this thing that we do, that matters so much to us and to our employees. While money can motivate us for the short term, it is meaningful purpose that motivates us for the long term.

Action items to find your organization’s meaningful purpose

  • Define your purpose first, then worry about your company’s purpose. If the two aren’t aligned it’s not going to work.
  • Use a cross section of the company to help define the purpose, not just the top team
  • Define your organization’s core value added – what is it that makes you different, unique in offering what you do and why is that valuable to the customer
  • Focus on getting to the flat statement. The flat statement is your mission without the spin, it may not be sexy, but it’s completely true and honest.
  • Don’t try to make the purpose statement carry all the weight of the five year vision or the values and principles of the organization. There’s room for them elsewhere.
  • Decide together, but don’t write together. Statements written by groups turn into “blah, blah, blah” statements. You need a good writer who is able to produce good options for the group
  • Most importantly, make sure it is simple, understandable and authentic.

Who’s Managing Your Strategy Implementation?

When companies decide to launch a major new product development effort or build a significant new manufacturing plant they assign a dedicated project leader to make sure everything that needs to get done is listed, tracked and reported on. If the project is important enough, the project leader will even have a staff of people forming a project management office to make sure things get done.

Yet, when it comes to implementing strategy companies seem to have a different management model. A model that often fails to provide adequate resources to make sure that strategy gets implemented.

The CEO is supposed to be the driver of strategy, yet they have full time jobs that divert their attention from the task of managing strategy implementation. They have to understand and sign off on financials, they are the voice of the company to the capital markets, they have to visit customers, worry about making the organization effective, communicate with employees, manage legal issues, work to keep their broad of directors up to date and a long list of other responsibilities that only the top executive can handle. On top of that long list, companies often add the responsibility for managing strategy implementation.

Strategy implementation is the largest and most important project in any company and all too often an under-managed project.

Managing strategy implementation requires focus, time and attention to making sure things are getting done. The same best practices used to manage important projects can be applied to managing strategy and greatly improve strategy execution.

  • Adequately staff strategy management
  • Make goals and expectation clear
  • Break down big goals into achievable milestones
  • Decide responsibilities
  • Get commitments for results
  • Track and communicate progress
  • Hold people accountable for results and for asking for help when needed

While the CEO must be involved in many of these steps they don’t have to do it alone. Providing adequate staff resources to make sure all of the best practices get implemented can greatly improve the CEO’s ability to provide the leadership the organization needs.

The strategy management staff requires special qualities that may be tough to find inside some organizations.

There are three types of help that you should consider looking for:

  1. Expertise that can bring together knowledge and information from different parts of the organization and facilitate a process that builds strategy from within
  2. A trusted resource who can leverage the CEO’s time by managing the logistics of the strategy execution process
  3. Someone who can and will hold the CEO accountable for making sure the organization executes

You can find such resources either within or outside your organization, depending on your willingness to let someone who works for you hold your feet to the fire, and their willingness to take the risk.

Getting the right resource is vital to improving the quality of execution and one of the best investments any company can make.

Don’t Just Strategize, Execute!

I have been helping companies develop and execute their strategies for over 23 years and I am frequently asked to facilitate strategy off-sites. Early in my career I would almost always say yes, excited about the possibility to help a client build a great strategy.

I was sure that getting a senior team together to build a vision and plan for achieving the vision was a fantastic idea. After all, doesn’t the road to great success start with a clear definition of what great success means?

Now, I’m not so sure.

The strategy off-site scenario goes like this. The potential client wants to get their team working together to build a plan for the coming year or two. It’s exciting. Everyone is looking forward to having some input on the plan. I get input before the meeting, assessing where things are and what the key issues are. The client and I plan and execute the two day session, which everyone finds rewarding and exhausting. We come out of the session with a clear set of goals and an action plan. Everyone has talked about what they are going to do differently to make sure it does. The team feels energized and looks forward to getting back to work.

Then what happens?

They go back to work and they face the chaos that attacks our everyday lives and business. An important customer calls with special requests. A key employee decides to leave. An unexpected product problem emerges. The auditor tells you that you need better controls. Your kid brings home a poor report card and needs more help with their homework. That charity you got involved with needs help fundraising. That industry committee you agreed to chair needs more attention.

The goals and action plan you put in place seem to fade into the background. You keep an eye on the financial statements and hope it works out. At some point, the financial statements take a turn for the worse and you jump back in trying to figure out what’s going on and what you need to change.

Unfortunately, if you don’t know how to execute, strategy off-sites don’t work.

Now when people ask me to facilitate strategy offsites, I ask them about how they get things done. Does the senior leadership team know how to make a real commitment, not just a “yes I’m on board” commitment, but a “yes I will get this done and I will stake my bonus on it” commitment? Does the organization have the skills it needs to execute? Can you focus? Can you communicate? Can you drive active accountability? Can you unbundle the impossible into the doable? Are you willing to dedicate time to the task?

Are you really ready to play to win? Are you really ready to turn your organization into producers, not consumers?

If you’re not ready or capable of executing, a strategy offsite is most likely a waste of time.

Execution is hard work. It requires a relentless focus, commitment and discipline. Before you invest a lot in developing strategy, invest in the skills and resources required to execute strategy.

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