A Corporate Story of Purpose

After last weeks post is your team ready for the New Year?, the two questions that permeated to the top were:

a) “Why is purpose so important for an organisation?”

b) “If it is so important, what are the steps that one must take?”

As stated last week, in line with a New Years thought, I have written a fictitious story to bring this quandary (and opportunity) to life.

In summary the main points (or the moral) of the story are:

1. Purpose transforms organisations

Ultimately, a greater sense of collective meaning and organizational identity is articulated through building and embedding purpose.

Purpose taps into a yearning for meaning that cannot be met simply by a set of objectives or financial targets. Connecting with a sense of collective meaning that provides a tangible reason for personal endeavors is deeply enriching and fulfilling.

Once clarified and embedded within organizational culture, it transforms the experience of employees and their engagement at work

This resonates a clear and compelling story from inside and out.

Done well, this will drive growth, productivity and higher shareholder return over the longer term.

As purpose permeates through an organisation fabric, it builds resilience, genuine differentiation and a formidable & sustainable competitive advantage.

2. Organisations are bereft of purpose

In the absence of purpose, organisations almost inevitably become focused on metrics expressed as financial targets or growth objectives. This is often communicated as a desire to ‘maximize earnings and grow shareholder value.’

While this model can drive short-term results, it misses our human need for purpose and our desire to engage in meaningful work

3.There are four ingredients to make purpose happen

a) A genuine desire to make a difference

The team has to be amped into making a contribution to something greater than self. It is rooted in our quest to find something worthy to serve that is meaningful and fulfilling.

It is an articulation of our collective intent to contribute and improve the humanity and includes the genuine desire to improve the working lives of employees

b) CEO must sponsor the journey

Only your CEO has the authority, credibility and influence to sponsor purpose in an organisation.

It is essential that your CEO is fully invested in purpose and committed to leading through every stage of the journey.

c) An inclusive and participative process

A ‘top down’ project in which purpose is delivered Moses like from the mountain, almost inevitably fails, as employees feel as though it is being done ‘to’ rather than ‘with’ them.

Ideally opportunities will be created for all employees to actively participate in such a way that they feel it is done ‘by’ them and that they jointly own he purpose.

d) A genuine and sustained leadership commitment

Purpose is not a short-term fix, nor is it something that can be delivered within a tight time frame.

It requires a genuine and sustained leadership commitment for it to be meaningfully embedded within your culture and become your new way of organizational life.

4. There are four main stages to make purpose happen

i) Commit – Committing to the journey with integrity and resolute intent is the first great step in becoming a purpose-led organisation

ii) Discover – There is a lot of activity in multiple domains, many discussions up and down the whole organisation and a degree of anticipatory excitement about what might be discovered

iii) Engage – Your aim is to transition your staff to become card-carrying advocates as you embed your purpose within your organisation.

iv) Embed – This is where the real work begins as you embed purpose in every fibre of your organisation


The Quest of Beer Co

“Something is missing.”

“What do you mean?” asked Grant our dynamo COO

“I don’t know,” replied Jane. “I just know that there is something missing – it’s as if there is something we are not seeing.”

It was the weekly meeting of the senior leadership team of Beer Co, a leading alcohol organisation. Gathered around the boardroom table was more tense than normal. Jane, Beer Co’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) chaired the regular Monday morning meeting.

“We have all the data we need,” continued Jane. “We keep strategizing and planning, executing and implementing, and the numbers are still tracking south when we need them to go north. We have spent months refining our strategy and building capability and we are still not getting the results we need. My question is, what is it that we are missing?”

Everyone on the Executive Team felt that their patch was above reproach

The COO Grant said: “The problem is not lack of data, nor are we missing anything. The impact of the Synergise project is still being felt throughout the business, particularly in the back office.” It was hailed as the expected savior of the firm, yet to date Synergise had caused enormous internal tension with little rewards in terms of productivity and profitability. “My view is that we have to keep with the same strategy.”

Our Director of People and Culture Steve said: “We know that our people are working as hard as ever, but something is getting in the way of us getting the scores on the board. From my perspective, a worrying sign is the dip in engagement that we saw in the last Pulse check. That is the first time in four years that our engagement has dropped below 50%. This used to be the best place to work. We were above 80% and a clear barometer was the amount of people who loved spending Thursday & Friday nights together at the bar.

Joffa our affable Comms maestro suggested a focus group of our youngest and brightest to get a litmus test and a Lessons Learned review from our tried and trusted.

Sarah from Joffa’s team came up with this gem: “These days, everyone is busy doing so many things and there is seemingly no end to the change agenda. We know what we are doing, but I get the feeling we don’t really know why we are doing it. I don’t mean to be discouraging or anything, but sometimes it just seems like we are doing more and more projects for the sake of it and we don’t stop to think, what is the point of doing this?”

Jane had stopped listening. There was one word ringing around in her head, getting louder and louder.


Here was one of her best, brightest and most energetic young leaders expressing the fact that she didn’t know WHY she was doing what she was doing. Sarah knew WHAT, but didn’t know WHY!

That moment was a revelation for Jane. A light had gone on and suddenly her confusion had started to clear. She knew she hadn’t found the answer, but for the first time she was certain she had discovered the source of the problem.

It was not a lack of organizational vision, strategic clarity, or direction from the board. It was not because the business was not doing enough, or didn’t have enough projects on its slate. It was not because of Project Synergise or Project Client Plus or Lion or the emergence of craft breweries. And seemingly, it was not because the executives had not done enough.

Stage 1: Commit

Jane called an extraordinary Executive meeting and started the session with a pertinent question: “Why do we do what we do?”

Jane’s team stared back at her in stunned silence.

“Seriously, it’s an important question. Why is it that we do what we do?”

I am not quite sure I understand the question,” said Angus our gun Financial Controller.

“The question is exactly that. Why do we do what we do? What is it that Beer Co is here to do?”

Once again Jane was met with profound silence.

“Well, clearly our job is to deliver on the board’s expectations and deliver a return to our shareholders,” Angus proffered. “These are profit targets to meet and…”

“Sorry to interrupt Angus, but that’s not what I am asking about. Yes we have targets and profit forecasts, but they are simply objectives that need to be achieved. I am asking about something different. I want to know WHY we do it.”

Jane stood up and in large bold letters wrote WHY on the whiteboard.

“I am not sure I know what you mean Jane,” said Grant looking puzzled.

“The way I understand it is like this. We spend the overwhelming majority of our time focused on things that can be measured: tangible things like objectives, goals, profit results and financial metrics. They are all future focused, time bound targets and many relate to the financial health of the business.

But there are also the intangible arenas we work in: culture, values and ensuring that Beer Co is a great place to work; team development and mentoring programs; the brilliant work we do in the Dream Team with our Reward and Recognition scheme. All of the work is aimed at ensuring that people feel great about working here; that they bring heir hearts and minds to work, their passion and drive. That leads to a more engaged and happier workforce, with the benefits of loyalty, discretionary effort and greater productivity.

Yet there is something that we have not invested in that is fundamentally important to all of us and that is our need to know why we do what we do. I think his is what we are missing at Beer Co.”

Jane paused for a moment to let her senior leadership team absorb the insights she was raising for the first time.

“We know what, we know where, we even know how. But we have never identified why. Of course, at a simple level, we serve our clients because we want to help their financial objectives and wealth creation. Yet the question why leads to something much more fundamental than that.

The best way I can articulate it is this: I think that we as an organisation need to be clear about the purpose of Beer Co.

Jane paused and made eye contact with each person in turn as she spoke. “What is our essential reason for existence? How do we act in ways that demonstrate that? How do we communicate it tour people? We need to define and be able to communicate our raison d’etre; in short, we need to know what is our reason for being.”

The senior leadership team sat quietly. After a moment’s silence, Jane took a sip of water and continued.

“All of us need to know that our effort and our work means something. That it adds value in some way, to somebody; that we are building something, or contributing to the benefit of our society at large. We need to know that our work makes the world a better place; even if that contribution is as simple as taping up boxes in a factory.

This is what we have been missing. A way of providing a collective sense of meaning for our people that helps us answer the question: why do we do what we do?”

Finally, Angus spoke up and said what many were thinking.

“I don’t really see how that is important to people. We just come to work and do our job and that should be enough for everybody.”

Jane had expected this type of response from Jim and was prepared for it.

“When I was in high school, I had an amazing teacher, Miss Rodgers. She was our Math’s teacher in Year 8. She had long hair that was always tied back in an incredibly neat pony tail and I remember she drove a Beetle, which we all envied.”

As Jane spoke, it was as if she was looking back into her past, sharing something very personal and important to her.

“At the beginning of the year, she said to us that we could have a ‘normal’ year or an ‘amazing’ year. She refused to tell us the details, except to explain that if we chose the amazing year we would work harder and longer, but we would get to the end of it and say that it had been amazing.

“Over the next few weeks, Miss Rogers taught us the difference between developed and undeveloped nations and in particular the chronic history of poverty and malnourishment in Africa.

Miss Rogers took us back to school and told us about the Big project: our class was going to spend the rest of the year raising $3000 so we could supply an African village with a new water well.

And that is exactly what we did; except that most of our activity was outside normal school time, as we still had to complete the normal curriculum.

We did so many terrific things that year: most Friday nights we would go to each other’s houses and bake cakes and then sell them to friends and family over the weekends; we donated toys and books and sold them at market stalls.

We even held a school fair in a last ditch effort to raise the money we needed. We soon had enough money to pay for the well and gave all the remaining money as an extra donation to the charity.

When I look back at my school days, it is the experience that sticks out for me as the one that I will never forget. I know why it was so poignant: because in our minds, we knew the whole time that we were helping to save people in Africa. We had never met them and knew that we probably never would. But we were so clear in our conviction that it was important, we did whatever was needed to ensure that we were successful.

It wasn’t the project that galvanized us. It wasn’t getting the money either, although that clearly gave us a target. It was knowing that we were doing something together that would change people’s lives, and that meant something to us and it still does.”

The room was completely silent.

“That is what I have been reflecting on for so many weeks now. I kept on asking myself, ‘what’s missing?’ We have done so much work on direction, strategy, governance and operational effectiveness, but we still have not got our edge back. I think that what has been missing is a collective sense of purpose that gives us meaning. So that we can know what we are doing and also why we are doing it; and, just as importantly, why we are doing it together.”

The room was quiet for a moment

“I’ve never experienced the sort of collective purpose that you just described, Jane,” said Grant. If that sort of energy and drive can be created inside Beer Co, I am interested in exploring it.

Steve joined in. “I agree, Grant, it does make intuitive sense. There has been good research over the last few years that demonstrate a strong correlation between organizational purpose and business productivity.

The only voice of potential dissent was from Phil, our experienced Sales Leader. “When I was at my old firm, we had a Mission Statement. It was pinned up on every wall around the building. It said some great things and was very lofty in its aspirations, but it meant absolutely nothing. It was just a bunch of meaningless words dreamed up by some people who didn’t know us. In fact, I think it had a negative effect, because we all thought it was such a load of rubbish.”

“I am glad that you brought that up. That is exactly the problem Phil. So many times, when organisations like Beer Co do this, it ends up being a piece of paper on a wall. We have to find a way of doing this so it is not just a bunch of empty words on a mouse pad or some fancy words on a glossy poster.

I want to find a way of galvanizing our people through a shared sense of purpose, one that becomes embedded through every nook and cranny of Beer Co. I want it to become our lived experience.”

“Then you’ll need to include everyone in the process.” The voice came from Rose; the sage, creative Marketing Director who was responsible for a lot of our growth.

“Exactly, this will have to be a company-wide exercise. I want every single person involved. I want to hear their thoughts. I want them to participate and feel involved! I want them to know their voice has been heard.

This has to be an expression of our collective experience – not mine, not yours, but all of ours. What is Beer Co’s reason for being here? This has to involve everyone and I think that also includes the board.”


Stage 2. Discover

“I would love to give you a brief précis of the extraordinary history of our firm, much of which was new to me, as I am sure it will be new to you,” began Joffa.

It was the fourth meeting of the recently formed Team WHY, chaired by Steve. Jane was the executive sponsor of the Purpose journey, but she wanted another executive level team member to have day-to-day oversight of the logistics and process. Joffa the head of Communications had been charged with gaining a better understanding of the firm’s history as one of the key inputs into the Purpose Journey.

There was a palpable buzz in the room following Joffa’s presentation. Then a series of updates followed regarding the various work streams of what was now being called the Discovery Phase.

There were two main forms of data collection: online and in-person. A dedicated portal had been set up allowing any member of Beer Co’s staff to complete a questionnaire and share comments.

Team WHY had decided to engage 10% of the company’s workforce in workshops, gathering data through facilitated dialogue and brainstorming exercises. The aim was to cover each department and layer in the organisation and gain a thorough cross section of views and inputs.

A separate workshop had been scheduled for the board and was due to occur in the forthcoming week.

Upon the completion of the workshops, Team WHY will collate, synthesize and distill the data into core themes, dominant words and key phrases. These will be the inputs that will be taken into the final workshop.

Stage 3: Engage (from participants to advocates)

It was the day of the launch and the organisations top 100 leaders were in full attendance. Jane shared the history that led to the launch, the work that had been done to date and the process of data gathering and refinement that culminated in the final Statement of Purpose (and stimulus to bring it to life).

Jane also shared some of her personal story, including her experience of knowing that ‘something was missing,’ and her feeling of not being able to identify what that was. Finally, Jane shared her story of Miss Rogers in Grade 8 and the impact that had on her as a young girl.

“Miss Rogers gave me my first experience of the power of a collective purpose and that’s what we have an opportunity to engage in now as we bring a sense of purpose at Beer Co to life.

The Statement of Purpose is a representation of the views and aspirations that everyone in the room, and our staff, has shared with us during the Discovery phase.

There was a high level of consistency in the data. Words, phrases and themes were repeated over and over again, which is a testament to the strength of our corporate DNA and an acknowledgement of how well our people know this place. It made our job that much easier when we came to distill and refine the data, as there was so much consistency and repetition in the message.

In a way we have done the easy part. Has anyone in this room ever worked in an organisation that did a similar exercise and then stuck a whole lot of posters around the walls, put some slogans on screensavers and then forgot all about it? So that it ended up as just another one of those initiatives that lacked credibility and created skepticism rather than engagement?”

Jane spoke with conviction. “We are not going to do that at Beer Co. I made a commitment to the senior leadership when we began this exercise. I want us to embrace purpose within our firm in a way that will bring it to life. The people who will lead that process and ensure its success are the people in the room right now.

I invite every one of you to become a custodian of our corporate purpose. That means that I am asking you to accept the responsibility of honoring it, embracing it, sharing it and communicating it, finding ways through your actions and endeavors that will infuse it into every nook and cranny of our business, using it to guide our culture and our expectations of each other.

In short, we become the people charged with converting a bunch of words into a living, breathing expression of organizational purpose at Beer Co. It’s an awesome responsibility and I know that if you choose to accept it, you will do us all proud.”

Teams were then asked to:

  • Reflect on what was said
  • Express how they felt
  • The interpretations of the Purpose
  • Stories that came to mind
  • Pictures it brings up
  • How it resonates?
  • Exploration of how the Purpose is infused into Business Units
  • How teams can work together?
  • What stories will help bring the purpose to life?
  • What new projects to be implemented?
  • What will be measured?
  • Impact on relationships with customers
  • Impact on us
  • Interpretations of the words
  • What training will need to be done to embed purpose
  • What new initiatives could be introduced
  • Impact on recruitment and induction strategies
  • Implementation activities
  • Agency briefing requirements
  • Guardrails for decision making

Stage 4: Embed

Fourteen months later, Jane and the senior leadership team met with the board for their regular quarterly review.

“Rather than starting with a detailed look at the metrics today, I propose that we begin with an update of our Purpose Journey.

Since we first proposed becoming a purpose led organisation, our experiences and achievements have surpassed our expectations. I think you would agree that we look, feel and operate in different ways than we did before.

Not only do we work differently, I believe that working according to our corporate purpose has been embraced in our thinking, planning and decision-making processes. This has become incredibly beneficial to Beer Co.

Our productivity gains and financial health speak for themselves and you are all aware of the significant improvements we have made in our growth, market share and net profitability.

In the last quarter, Beer Co has increased market share by 8% and with that growth trend we expect to reclaim the lead from Lion within six months. A great achievement when one considers our previous dominance over Lion until they themselves embarked upon a Purpose led recovery.

I am extremely proud of our improved engagement score, which has improved from a low of 42% two years ago to 84% last month. That improvement is a major step forward for our company and we are definitely on track to making Beer Co the company we want it to be.

The feedback that we have gathered from across the entire company is that the drive to discover and embed purpose within Beer Co has been one of the single biggest contributors to our staff feeling more connected and re-engaged with our business.

Significant changes to our strategy, in line with the evolution of our corporate purpose, have led us to abandon four product lines. We have implemented new service initiatives and market offerings, including the recent launch of three new products.

Project Fresh is now complete and I know that we are all enjoying the new brand and the impact it has given us in the marketplace. Embracing our purpose within that brand has given our people an enormous sense of pride in our business.

However I want to sound a note of caution. The aim was always to become a purpose led organisation – to embed our purpose so deeply within every layer and the fabric of this great company that we could truly say we are living our purpose.

I do not believe we can say that yet. Even after nearly 18 months of continuous effort at embedding our purpose within Beer Co, we still have much more work to do.

My research tells me that organisations often dwindle in their enthusiasm and energy regarding their purpose. As a result, there is often a rapid step backward, and it’s at that time that people say ‘Oh well, that was another one of those fads.’

We are doing well. The energy in our purpose-aligned projects continues to be very strong and we continue to come up with new initiatives and client offerings aligned with our purpose. The feedback we get from clients and our community engagements are wonderfully positive and supportive. For all of that, we can be proud.

However, the biggest mistake we could make now would be to sit back and rest on our laurels. Like anything, purpose requires energy, focus and ongoing investment. If we stop investing, it will die quickly.

Our senior leadership team is fully committed to delivering on our promise and that means we will continue to invest in our purpose going forward.”

Later on Jane had some reflective moments with her immediate team.

“People need to know why they are doing something, especially if they are going to give their all to that enterprise. We have answered that question and it’s given us a sense of meaning. We are connected to the business in a new way and with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and that is reflected in the results we were able to demonstrate to the board today.

These last 18 months have been the most profound journey of business transformation I have experienced. I am grateful for that.

That sense of something missing kept on gnawing at me for so long that I finally realized it was time to do something about it.

I don’t have it anymore, you know – the sense that something is missing, I mean. It’s been replaced by something far more fulfilling and in its own way, quite serene.

I’m still full of questions, of course, but they are different. Before, it felt like I was constantly searching for something I couldn’t find. Now, however, I find myself so focused on business transformation and become aligned with our purpose that my questions are all about how best to engage with our employees, open up new opportunities for growth, or improve our contribution to the community.”

Laughing as she spoke, Jane said, “And those are much better questions to have!”

“You know Steve, in the past, we were so totally focused on numbers and metrics; of course, that is still fundamentally important, but everything that happens as part of our purpose has made it so much more enjoyable to work here. I love the sense of fulfillment I get now, knowing that we are accomplishing our business objectives in a way that embraces a collective purpose.

Remember how it felt when we left school and got our first jobs? The excitement, the sense of potential? I’ve got that back again.”

Steve grinned. “Finding our purpose has been like reinventing Beer Co, Jane. Who knows what could happen next?”

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