Discovering and embracing your company’s core purpose will help drive your strategy and decision making at all levels.
I spend a lot of time with leadership teams working on strategy and planning. I start the process by asking why the company exists beyond just making money.
Why do I start here? Because before we can set goals and figure out how to position the business in the market, we need to understand its purpose. Having a clear understanding of your company’s purpose will make it easier to come to decisions on what direction to take. Without it, it’s more likely teams will deadlock over key strategic moves and which paths to pursue.
While there is no one right purpose, there are some purposes that will serve the company better and some that will serve them worse. A clear and committed purpose is a powerful decision-making tool.
The idea of a purpose is to define a clear pursuit you can dedicate yourself to for one hundred years or more. It should transcend current technologies, markets, politics, and cultural trends.
Having done this with dozens of companies, I have developed the following shorthand formula for defining a purpose: We serve X by Y so they can Z. Where X is who you serve, Y is the value you give them, and Z is the ultimate benefit they gain.
While this looks a bit like a value proposition, it’s much bigger in scope and longer-term in nature. It needs to be valid for over a century.
For example, Apple’s purpose when using this formula would be something like this: We serve consumers by building beautiful and easy-to-use technology solutions so they can bring their ideas to life and enjoy the process.
Why does this work? It’s specific and makes it clear what the company does and does not do. It’s long-term in scope and something they can pursue for many, many years to come. And it shows the impact they want to make.
Here’s how to think through each step to develop your company’s core purpose. I generally do this with the founder and/or the leadership team over a series of meetings. Don’t be afraid to create a rough draft and refine it over several months.
1. Who do you serve?
While this can be thought of like a target customer, it is bigger and more general. You want to define who you will serve for a very long time. However, you also want to be as specific as possible.
General consumers? Children? Business executives? Sports fans? Wine lovers? Small businesses? Trucking companies? These are all specific yet you can dedicate yourself to them for many decades.
2. What do you provide them?
Again, think about what you can focus on for an extended period of time. Your company will grow and innovate its products and services, yet you want to maintain this path.
Recently, I worked with an environmental consulting firm and their purpose was “to enable the successful development of real estate while protecting our environment.” While specific, this allows for a broad range of possible services and products they can develop for many years to come.
3. What is the end benefit you enable?
Now you want to define the ultimate value you create for the people you serve. Describe what they should do with your product or service and why it is valuable to them.
As a business coach, my purpose is “to create more thriving small and medium-sized businesses to strengthen our economy and raise everyone’s standard of living.” And while I do that through specific services and products, it ties me to my bigger picture.
While talking about purpose and what a company will pursue for one hundred years may sound airy-fairy, getting this right and well defined will make the work of developing a strategy and building a culture much easier.
Statistically, the vast majority of companies don’t last a century. But I think more would come closer if they imagined themselves thriving that long.
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