Purpose is no recipe for success

March 29, 2016

Have the big news also reached you? That purpose is the new black. The new must have remedy for companies struggling with stress, high turnover, low employee engagement and who are caught in the downward spiral of competing on price?

Have you also read the impressive numbers of how purpose companies outperform the pants off traditional companies? As many celebrate the power of purpose these days, the likelihood is that you have. The latest article I read said that purpose driven companies achieve ‘superior results’.

I agree that all of the above are possible outcomes, and I should know, having made purpose one of my trademarks, but a very important point is missing in the discourse about purpose. One that causes me to put the caution sign up for everyone considering  embarking on a journey of purpose. 


A friend of mine recently mentioned a business owner, who had also read the impressive facts about purpose, and therefore thought to himself, “I better get me one of those purposes”. So now his tech-business was about saving the world. Which the employees could not see the point of, at all. Another post I read on LinkedIn mentioned Nestle as a successful purpose driven company. But what this post forgot to mention is the harsh criticism continuously hitting Nestle for its lack of concern for water shortage and wanting to privatize water!

These are just two examples of purpose gone wrong. Therefore I thought it was time to get a few facts straight about the idea of ‘purpose’. And perhaps save some business owners the cost and pain of going through the process of finding their purpose.


1. When purpose is something you decide on in a one-day workshop
For a purpose to be really powerful, it must be backed with meaning. This requires you to dig into the personal stories that exist in the company, the thoughts behind the founding idea, the current stories that are told about the company, what stakeholders think and experience about one’s brand. To really investigate the difference the company is making and wants to make in people’s life. For a purpose processes to be successful it takes hard and throughout work, involving many stakeholders, and can last for as long as a whole year.

2.When purpose is an initiative or an ’add-on’
The reason why purpose takes time to find is because bringing purpose into the organizations means one thing – and one thing only, and that is culture change. So you want to make sure that you get it right. Purpose is a way of thinking and being as a company. It involves following daily practices and principles that keeps the purpose alive in the organization and present in employees’ way of thinking, handling issues and daily decision-making. It requires commitment, sacrifice and long-term thinking. That means sometimes sacrificing short-term gain for long-term gain. And sometimes even sacrificing profit for purpose. This requires courage for any leader, and it requires faith and an inner knowing that even though you cannot see the outcome, you trust that your decisions is the right thing to do. And that the ‘right thing’ will eventually pay off.

3.When purpose blinds you 
Purpose ends up blinding some people. They think their purpose is so important that they are blinded by other factors essential to being a truly purpose driven business. You can have a purpose, which is very strong and noble, and at the same time have a real crappy company culture, which work against the benefits one can receive by being purpose driven. In some cases companies end up sacrificing employees on the altar of purpose. Plenty examples of this in the NGO world. So purpose without strong company culture is not worth much in the long run. The ability to balance mutual important aspects is required as a purpose driven business.

4.When purpose is not noble
It is all very great to say your company has a purpose. But is it noble? To be a real powerful purpose, it has to be noble to be a positive force for change. And having a noble purpose comes with obligations to be that positive force in the world. Today it is not enough to just have a purpose if it at the same time allows you to deplete the world’s water resources, or contribute to obesity or pollute. Or engage in other activities that go against basic human principles. So if you are purpose driven and still exploit the resources around you, you will not measure up to in the long run.

5.When purpose is deprived of meaning
A purpose has to be meaningful – i.e. make sense to the world around you. If your employees, your customers or your stakeholders do not understand your purpose or how it relates to your business, it becomes obsolete. It looses its power and purpose (no pun intended). So if you cannot translate it into meaningful day-to-day business actions, it really doesn’t matter to have a purpose.

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