Updated: May 19, 2020
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 the space of helping people and companies discover and articulate their “whys” for the past several years, I have some strong words of caution before you proceed. I’ve 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 purpose exploration, 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. The reasons vary, but can often be traced to things like secondary motivations for revisiting the purpose conversation, or a lack of commitment once they complete the process. Derailing your pursuit of purpose can happen to any team for a myriad of perfectly understandable reasons, so as someone who has encountered many of 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 cause your new purpose implementation strategy backfire--BIGTIME. If any of these ring true for your team, organization, situation, or mindset, it might be time to rethink the journey ahead:
MISTAKE #1: Your goal is more around external branding than transformation across the business.
It’s tempting to look at marketing research and say, “Millennials and customers these days want to work and buy from purpose-driven companies. Let’s re-imagine our current purpose to be more inspiring!” Why is this line of thinking so dangerous? There is a big difference between your company’s purpose and its slogan. A slogan can be a shorthand expression of different aspects of the purpose, but its use is typically singular and aimed at enticing consumers. It has no impact on the way that you actually run your business.
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, isn’t 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 will most likely cost you 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. Otherwise, you’re setting a false expectation for employees and customers a lot, which will likely result in employees being demotivated and customers feeling used.
MISTAKE #2: The way you articulate your purpose isn’t rooted in who you actually are.
Often companies will craft a 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 stimulate sales and motivate employees to push harder than they normally would, but it generally ends up doing the opposite for all parties involved—especially employees, as it makes them feel like they're lying to each other and to customers. And beyond employees, customers can tell when you’re faking it, too; especially in the internet age where secrets never last long.
For a SOP to stick, it can’t be solely based on aspirations and dreams. A purpose is truly motivating 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. It’s not an automatic eye-roll from half of the employees when they hear it and a false grin from the other half when they say it. The spirit/feeling/essence of your purpose should have always been in the background, in some form or fashion. Therefore, rolling out your new SOP isn’t as much a "change of direction" as simply re-connecting with your purpose in a way that is actionable.
MISTAKE #3: This is a massive pendulum swing instead of a course-correction.
It’s easy to get excited about your new-found Northstar, so oftentimes after putting new words to the purpose executive groups will start building roll-out plans, reallocating budgets, and reprioritizing roadmaps—which are all great 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. Creating clarity around your purpose doesn't mean that everything we were doing before was bad. We don’t abandon figuring out target demos, researching market conditions, and setting financial benchmarks. It just means that those things are no longer the primary means of decision-making. They are used to create context for our primary decision-making mechanism- the SOP.
Think about it: Allowing market research and customers complete power to dictate your vision is the same as becoming a victim of circumstance rather than owning your destiny. By becoming purpose-centric decision makers, you are taking ownership in how you choose to operate and what you see as valuable opportunities. 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 failing if you’re not there right now—especially if you just figured it out.
You might not always feel like you're able to execute on the purpose, but the goal is to 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 it's nearly impossible to conceivably be at our very best all of the time. However, the goal is to be more cognizant of those moments so that you can engineer an environment in which you and those around you can easily and consistently execute on your SOP. Finding a way to create and sustain this requires intentionality across all areas of your business. It's your job to figure out what each of those looks like when it's brought to life and create habits/actions out of that info so that we can sustainably get the business there.
As leaders in the organization, 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 immediately change peoples’ minds & hearts on its own merits, we unintentionally make everything that we used to do wrong, which invalidates the efforts and inputs of many of the people who helped us build the business to where it is today. Instead, see if you can 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.
MISTAKE #4: It’s only a partially-complete (and therefore, only partially-inspiring) SOP.
Take a second and think about the companies and even leaders of causes that inspire you. When you think about what their SOP might be, we often think about only one of two pieces: If we’re outside of the company or cause, we think about what the world gets out of them existing. This is an important and inspiring piece of their purpose, but if you’re on the inside of these organizations or causes, it does nothing to tell you how we will actually get there. What do you personally do to further that vision? Therefore, when we’re inside those teams and groups, we often focus on the opposite- we focus on what we give to people, or the action that we specifically take. It’s more relevant to our daily lives, so it attracts our attention.
Unfortunately, focusing on just what you give doesn’t necessarily inspire people to support or join you. It can often prompt the natural follow-up question- “OK….but so what?” That’s why an effective organizational SOP includes both of these essential elements: the Give and the Get. The Give is the high-level action that you take on a regular basis to help others. The Get is what the world gets out of you doing that thing. It’s the answer to the “So what?” question.
For example, Slack might articulate its SOP as, “To build platforms that connect teams.”
It’s fine. And accurate.
We know exactly what they give, but… so what? Why should we care that you build those platforms? What do we get out of it? What made you want to get into platform-building in the first place? What problem are you trying to solve? With this in mind (and knowing that only the actual Slack team can answer that question, so this is just a guess on my part), an amended SOP might be something like, “To build platforms that connect teams, so that all of us have the freedom and flexibility to work however we want.” Now that’s a purpose I can get behind. On top of a product-need level, it resonates with me on a lifestyle level. It’s a cause I want to support because it’s a world I, too, want to create & live in. And as an employee, it also lays a foundation for how we can approach product development, prioritizing features that are focused on creating operational flexibility rather than just a standard chat platform. You can easily make your SOP more inspiring and useful by simply ensuring you’ve got these two components: the Give and the Get.
MISTAKE #5: Your purpose is solely about the customer.
Let’s get one thing clear: Customers. Are. Important. They provide the fuel to your organization and are paramount its success over time. They definitely shouldn’t be ignored. We are in total agreement on that.
Your customers don’t build your products and services. They don’t answer the phones for your team. They don’t dedicate their time and energy to contribute to the success of your business. Your employees do that. And working for a company that only cares about selling things to customers--or even just doing good for people that buy stuff from you--feels...well, grimy. It’s not inspiring. It can be challenging (in a good way) in the short term, but in the long-haul, if all we talk about is helping customers, eventually I’m going to realize that you aren’t really interested in my well-being as an employee, or even as a community member that sees your business from afar.
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.
So, in conclusion…
Redefining or re-articulating your purpose is a big deal. If you’re not ready to take on all of the pitfalls above in your rollout, perhaps the timing just isn’t right. Now, please know that my goal here isn’t to scare you off (after all, doing this stuff is a large part of how we pay the bills here). On the contrary! I want you to engage in this conversation with your teams. It’s a hugely important and valuable process, and that’s what I want to help you with. My intent is to inspire some truly transformative change within your teams and organizations, and the best way to do that is to clear these big stumbling blocks and potentially detrimental mindsets out of your way. If you can do that, you’ll be set up to affect your employees, customers, and the world in a hugely impactful and positive way. Oh, and you’ll likely inspire some true loyalty (and likely $$) in the process 😉