Purpose is the essence of what gives substantive meaning to why we deliberately choose to do the work we do. This isn’t about strategy. And, it sure isn’t about putting profits ahead of purpose. In fact, defining the purpose of your business drives its financial well-being because it inspires people to bring forth the very best they have to offer as professionals, colleagues, and leaders in their own right.
To define and cultivate “Purpose”, you must be willing to make the space necessary to engage in a dialogue that aims to answer: “How do I infuse my business with purpose?” Before we can tackle this question, we need to address a few misconceptions:
1st Misconception- Purpose will find you:
Just like Neo in the Matrix, some believe that purpose will be bestowed upon them. Someone tells you what your purpose ought to be. Some may even believe that the sisters of fate fashion life events that culminate into a symbolic message delivered to them through a series of unexpected events. Look, we may find ourselves spiraling into the abyss of darkness where we experience suffering only to rise like the phoenix bird and come to believe that there is something we must do. Some would say that “Purpose” found them! I say it is equally possible that during the unfolding of one’s suffering, moment, by moment, the “you” in every moment was in the process of building a purpose. This purpose is finally claimed by a mind that wasn’t able to notice it before.
I give full credit to my now 14-year-old daughter who at the age of 5 shattered this belief which seemed to be holding me back in my professional life: She had come home from school and seemed upset. She asked that I don’t question until she is ready to share. Well, that evening as I tucked her in for the night she told me what happened during recess. As she shared her situation and her management of the “friend crisis”, I was moved by her act of kindness when it would have been perfectly acceptable for her to refuse to stay in the game with her friend. In that moment, I heard myself saying to her, “My sweet child, God has great plans for you”. Wide-eyed, she replied, “Should we not have plans for him?” In other words, quit waiting for purpose to find you, mommy!
2nd Misconception- Purpose needs to be recognized by society as “special”:
Our society makes us feel that people who embody mindfulness leadership, conscious capitalism, or social giving through social entrepreneurship are the lucky few who are purpose-driven in their lives.
Really? What about the bartender who ensures that people do not drive drunk? The police officer who manages to put himself in harm’s way? What about the receptionist at the physician’s office? He greets people with a smile and manages a disgruntled patient on the phone. The nurse who stays by a dying patient’s bed side even after her shift is complete? The teacher who deliberately prepares her assignments to capture the interest and curiosity of our children? The fireman who doesn’t hesitate to run into a burning building? What about the million bus drivers who ensure our safety day in and day out? How come society doesn’t regard these roles as purposeful? Do they not do what they do with a sense of purpose? I say “yes”!
Aristotle would agree. He had anchored purpose within his ideas regarding teleology, explaining that purpose is something that is inherent in all beings. Scholars have interpreted Aristotle’s notion of purpose as not only about having an idea of what is purposeful, but also enacting a pursuit of that purpose. Hence, the intellectual possession of “a purpose”, without exercising it is at best ineffective, and at worse, useless. Therefore, we are all living a purposeful existence.
3rd Misconception- Purpose does not change:
Some would argue that purpose does not change over time, and that it stays the same forever. Once you figured it out, that’s it! You hang on to it for dear life! This way of thinking flies in the face of reality: Just like everything we do is an unfolding of moment, by moment, so too is purpose. It shifts as we change in relation to ourselves and to the world around us. I now know that the shape our corporate purpose takes in this very moment has shaped our future prospects.
How do I infuse my business with purpose?
Engaging in a dialogue that leads to your answer to this question begins with identifying a Single Organizing Idea (SOI®) and aligning it with your business-related activities and stakeholder relationships. My thinking around SOI® is inspired by Neil Gaught’s book entitled, “Core: How a single organizing idea can change business for good”– Recently short-listed in the Best Business Book Awards in the Engaging Change category.
SOI®, in a nutshell has to do with that “one” focus you have that can sustain your work, give it an enduring quality and constant clarity over and above the business objectives you set out for your company. Once you have that “single idea”, then you can identify the mechanisms on how you bring it alive. Identifying that “single” idea is answering the first sub-question dealing with Purpose: What do we do?
All of our businesses are fragile except when we look over the horizon, above our preoccupation with external goods (e.g., profit, surplus, value for money, shareholder return) and focus on the essence of our business. In articulating its essence, you answer the second sub-question: Why does what we do matter to us?
The mechanisms we deploy inform society how we do the work that matters to us. As a Digital Citizen, we must consider how advanced technologies can be leveraged in a manner that has us influencing people anytime, anywhere. In considering the mechanisms to deploy your single idea, you answer the third sub-question: How do we do the work that matters to us?
I do believe that the future of any business will be predicated on the strength of its purpose. Making time to articulate your purpose is an investment of time worth making.
*This piece was part of Mirella De Civita’s keynote address at the MEECO Leadership Conference in May, 2018, and part of her upcoming book entitled, “Coaching as Purpose”.