Do You Know Why You Exist? Go Ahead, Tell Me.

I’m sure most people leading businesses know what they do, regardless of their organization’s size or industry category. Their people can probably describe the products and services they sell, and most know how they do what they do. But very few leaders can clearly explain why they do what they do.

An increasing number of organizational leaders are re-thinking this notion of “why?” Why does the organization exist?

The Golden Circle“The most inspired companies and their leaders think, act and communicate from the inside out by asking ‘why’,” says Simon Sinek, author of two books on the subject.

I’ve consulted to purposeful organizations, including the Ritz-Carlton, Medtronic, Hallmark, Mayo Clinic, Toyota and numerous pharmaceutical companies. They’re upbeat places where the people are genuine. They respect each other. The commitment to purpose pulls people toward a nobler goal, providing clarity and meaning to what people do every day and inspiring them to do more.

So how do organizations become more purpose-centered? What do the most inspired organizations do to connect the what, the how and the why in order to link their people to a higher purpose than repeatedly getting the product out the door?

I’m currently working with a successful company led by a strong, compassionate leader with an equally strong and compassionate leadership team. They care about the results they create for their clients. But they want to go above and beyond, to establish a sense of purpose that’s focused on enriching lives—the lives of the various communities they touch; their clients, their employees, civic groups, hospitals, schools, or a single neighborhood. They want to make a difference beyond “just doing the job”.

They’re becoming a purposeful organization and doing it quite well.

Getting started down this path requires a huge shift in mindset and commitment to changing the culture.

  • It starts with a recognition that purpose is not about another fad. It’s not about banners posted on walls or elevators, phony rah-rah celebrations or hallway conversations asking people, “Have you fulfilled your purpose today?” (Wink, Wink! Chuckle, Chuckle!)
  • Leaders, often with employee involvement, need to create a clear statement of purpose—what we will and won’t do to fulfill our purpose.
  • From there, leaders then need to create a strategic narrative, or a story that explains a) the current business context, b) our desired vision–what we will look like when we get ‘there’, c) resources we need to “get there” and how we’ll all benefit when we realize our purpose.

The strategic narrative is only the beginning. Words mean nothing unless they’re backed up by clear actions that enable the organization to live the purpose.

To make the improvement stick, organizational systems and processes need to be managed in a way that literally locks in systems. And those systems need to be managed in a way that communicates what’s important and what’s not.

As I said in my last Leadership Report, systems speak. That includes measurement, rewards, recognition, learning and development, technology, communication and most important, leadership—what leaders say and do.

Leaders communicate what’s important by how they use their time, what’s first and last on their agenda, who and what is rewarded and recognized, the questions they ask and the small acts of symbolism that communicate “whether she’s serious about this purpose stuff.” When leaders don’t do that, or try to fake it, employees will see through it and go back to to the old culture.

The tiniest misstep by a leader, like an under-the-breath comment, inappropriate facial expression, or note in the margin of an email can undermine the organization’s attempt to live the purpose.

KEY TAKEAWAY: When leaders can answer the “why”, clearly communicate the organization’s higher purpose and focus their time removing the barriers to embodying that purpose, employees will take notice and dive in to create it.

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