5 Pitfalls in Redefining Your Org's Purpose

So you’ve decided that it’s time to revisit your company’s purpose, mission and/or vision statement(s)—that’s great! 

Even the mere act of going through the exercises necessary to arrive at an authentic, powerful, and useful SOP (Statement of Purpose) can be a fulfilling journey within itself. However, as someone who has been squarely in this space helping people and companies discover and articulate their WHYs via my work with Start With Why as well as through my various consulting done during that span, I have some strong words of caution before you proceed. I have seen a wide array of organizations and leadership groups who were all of the minds that they needed to, for one reason or another, “roll out” a new company purpose. Unfortunately, no matter how powerful the experience or outcome of a “Why Discovery,” many organizations (and individuals) will likely spin their wheels on and ultimately give up on what could be one of the most powerful decisions of their lives, often stemming from things ranging from their initial motivation(s) for revisiting the “purpose conversation” to their true level of commitment once they find the right words. As someone who has encountered these pitfalls firsthand, I wanted to share some advice for anyone in this exciting time of transition to hopefully help increase your probability of success. 

Below are five common mistakes that can do more harm than good to your company as you roll out your org’s new/revised purpose: 

1: You are mostly looking for a new tagline/campaign, not a company transformation. 

It’s tempting to look at marketing research and say, “Millennials/customers want purpose-driven companies these days. We need to update ours; it seems outdated and uninspirational.” If sounds a little like where your motivation truly stems from, I highly encourage you to re-evaluate your decision. Why? A new SOP isn't simply an opportunity for a rebrand—it's a fundamental shift in the way that you operate your entire organization. It becomes your “True North,” and as such, can't be limited to shaping your marketing or PR materials. It will change the way you approach building your products. It should be reflected in how you engineer your processes like hiring, onboarding, compensation, benefits, and progression just to name a few. It's a long, daunting process that will challenge people at every level of the organization. It will be uncomfortable and it may cost you some money and opportunities in the short-term. The loyalty you build (both with employees and with customers) through creating an authentic, purpose-driven organization is well worth it, but if you aren't willing to truly commit time, energy, and significant capital to making this shift for at least the next 3-5 years, you're not ready. Just call it what it is—a marketing campaign—and leave it at that. 


2: This articulation of your purpose isn’t authentic to who you actually are. 

Often companies will craft a company purpose/vision of who they wish they were, who they hope to become, or even worse, who they think their customers want them to be. They think that this will motivate employees to push harder than they normally would (or will even stimulate sales), but it generally ends up being demotivating to all parties involved—especially to employees, because it makes them feel like they're lying to themselves and each other. And customers can tell when you’re faking it, especially in the internet age where secrets never last long. For a SOP to stick, it must be inspirational rather than aspirational. A purpose is inspirational when it describes who we are when we're at our best, and we can see evidence of it through our policies, partnerships, products, and employee/customer stories. It’s not unattainable or something unrecognizable by half of the employee base; the spirit/feeling/essence of your purpose should have always been in the background. Therefore, rolling out your new SOP isn’t as much a "change of direction" as simply articulating your purpose in a way that is actionable. 

3: It becomes a pendulum swing, rather than a course correction. 

It’s easy to get excited about your new-found Northstar, so executive groups often start building roll-out plans, reallocating budgets, and reprioritizing roadmaps—which are all good things to look at. However, sometimes we get so focused on this new shiny thing that we start to put it at odds with everything else in the org or all of the things we used to do. Knowing your WHY doesn't mean we don't talk about target demos, market conditions, etc. It just means that those things are not our primary means of decision-making (Allowing market research and customers to dictate your vision is the same as becoming a victim of circumstance rather than owning your destiny. By becoming purpose-based, you are taking more control in how you choose to operate). Like I said above, your SOP is your compass. It is meant to help you make better decisions as a leader. It doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to be there right now—especially if you just rolled out your purpose. 

You might not always feel like you're able to execute on the purpose, but the goal is the construct the environment within which the purpose can flourish (meaning, you may not always feel like you're personally living it to the letter. In fact, I'd argue that its nearly impossible to conceivably be at our very best all of the time. However, the goal is to engineer a lifestyle and environment in which you and those around you can easily and consistently do so). Finding a way to create and sustain this requires true thought and intent across all areas of your business. It's your job to figure out each of those looks like when it's brought to life and create habits/actions out of that, and to sustainably get the business there. We tend to get impatient and expect to see everyone else get on board as fast as we did—which is unrealistic. Then, when they don’t come along as fast as us, they’re seen as culture misfits or holding the rest of “us” back. When we get impatient and expect our SOP to change peoples’ minds & hearts on its own merits, we put it squarely behind the 8-Ball. Find ways to leverage your purpose to take all of the things you already do and inject new life and creativity into those things. Once you let it seep into the culture naturally, you’ll begin to see real results.  

4: It’s only partially complete, and therefore, only partially inspiring.  

I like the way that Start With Why constructs their WHY statements, and it’s a great template for you to keep in mind when crafting your new SOP. An effective WHY statement includes two essential elements: A Contribution and an Impact. Your Contribution is the high-level action that you take on a regular basis to help others. Your impact is the world that you're working towards creating through taking that action. For example, my WHY is "To catalyze growth in people so that we have the tools to build a better world around us." My contribution is that I create moments that catalyze growth in people on a regular basis. I do this by leading classes, delivering keynotes & workshops, and even though teaching my nephews life lessons as they grow up. The reason I do this is that I want everyone I interact with to be equipped to positively change the world around them. That's my impact. It's a great combination because it tells you what I do when I’m at my best, but it also tells you why that's so important to me. The WHY of a company is no different. People don't just want to know that you are here to help customers, they want to know the ultimate reason that it matters to you. It's the "So what?" behind your business. For more info on SWW’s methods for Organizational Why Discoveries, check out their website or the recently published book, Find Your Why

5: You make it solely focused on the customer.  

There’s a word for people who only give and give and give but never receive—martyrs. Your business is not made up of martyrs, it’s made up of people—people who need to be inspired. So your purpose can't just be about the customers. A strong SOP is about service, and many leaders misinterpret that as it being in service to your customers. This is a false assumption. An authentic SOP reflects your belief about serving all people, not just people who are buying your products or services. This includes your employees, your partners, and anyone the company impacts (think the local community where headquarters is located). That’s what makes it authentic and not just manipulation. If you treat customers one way and your employees an entirely different way, it reveals an inconsistency between what you say and what you actually believe. If you're going to portray a belief, you must embody that belief in all ways, at all times. 

If you’re not ready to address all of these points in your rollout, perhaps the timing just isn’t right. However, my hope is not to scare you off, but rather to inspire some truly transformative change within your teams and organizations. If you can truly overcome these big stumbling blocks and harmful mindsets, you’ll be truly set up to impact your employees, customers, and the world in a positive way. Oh, and you’ll likely inspire some true loyalty (and likely $$) in the process 😉 

What issues have you encountered in your own teams/companies when rolling out a new vision or purpose? I’d love to hear!