TPC Leadership are delving into the topic of workforce engagement. In this mini blog series with TPCL Associate – Joe Aston, we explore why purpose needs to be prioritized by organizations, how it can be used as a tool to enable workforce alignment, and ultimately, how it can tap into the hidden capacity and energy of the organization and its leaders.

In this first of three blogs, Joe clarifies what we mean by purpose by referencing his favoured model,  which links purpose and values to an organization’s vision, mission(s) or strategic goals. The kind of clarity and definition described is vital for an organization’s purpose to be meaningful and credible enough to help align and engage an organization’s people.

Purpose is often used in the same mouthful as vision, mission and values – and sometimes these words are used interchangeably. At TPC Leadership, we find the frameworks in Collins and Porras’ book Built to Last helpful to bring clarity to how they all (purpose, vision, mission & values) fit together. In their book they define vision as:

So what about values?

Core values are the handful of beliefs, guiding principles or tenets that are absolutely non-negotiable within an organization. What does your organization really believe in? This will always ‘look’ like something in terms of behaviours. What criteria are used for tricky decisions that require trade-offs? What is celebrated, what is rewarded, and what stories are told. Perhaps most importantly, what behaviours are not tolerated?

“There is no universally right set of core values” and it is likely even some competitors will hold at least some of the same core values as you. It is important, however, to determine those values that your organization can hold to steadfastly. To test whether a value is truly core, Collins suggests asking whether you would want your organization to stand for this value in 100 years time and he even goes so far as to ask whether you would continue to hold this core value “even if at some point in time it became a competitive disadvantage?”

Joe acknowledges how Collins and Porras argue that values cannot be created but must be discovered. In our experience, there is a delicate balance to strike in terms of discovering, celebrating and championing existing values in the organization, while also uncovering and promoting emerging values that will become even more important to the organization in the future. Every culture is in a constant state of flux, because no culture exists in a vacuum. This is about harnessing and boosting the emergence of positive change. 

Collins and Porras also describe how visionary companies often had exceptionally bold and ambitious targets or, as Collins and Porras coined them, BHAGs— “pronounced BEE-hags and shorthand for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals”.

Unlike an organization’s core purpose, a BHAG has a clear finish line and an organization should be able to determine when that goal has been achieved. That said, for Collins and Porras, “a BHAG should not be a sure bet—it will have perhaps only a 50% to 70% probability of success”. However, an organization should nonetheless believe that it can achieve the goal, something that Collins and Porras came to call the “hubris factor”. To set BHAGs requires a “certain level of unreasonable self-confidence” or, at the very least, unreasonable ambition.

For Joe, these BHAGs are equivalent to missions, which describes what business the organization is in (and what it isn’t) both now and projecting into the future. Its aim is to provide focus for all leaders and all people. An organization might be pursuing multiple ‘missions’ simultaneously. Some might mean incremental change for the organization, while some might demand transformational change.

Along with values, purpose is about the core ideology of the organization.

Joe reflects that purpose can be described as the heartbeat or the soul of the organization. “It’s the organization’s most fundamental reason for being,” and it is aspirational – it should always be pursued. It’s a criteria by which all other decisions should be measured. Collins and Porras’ describe purpose as: 

“…like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached.”

Purpose guides and directs an organization, it determines who fits within an organization and who does not, it is the plumb line by which all other decisions should be measured.

To determine your or your organization’s core purpose, Collins and Porras suggest asking questions such as:

  • How could we frame the purpose of this organization so that if you woke up tomorrow morning with enough money in the bank to retire, you would nevertheless keep working here?
  • When telling your children and/or other loved ones what you do for a living, would you feel proud in describing your work in terms of this purpose?

In summary, when considering your organization’s purpose, we like to quote Professor Peter Hawkins, who provokes reflection on core ideology and envisioned future by simply asking, “What can you uniquely do together that the world of tomorrow needs?”

If you’d like to hear more about how TPC Leadership can support your organization or team to successfully clarify its purpose and engage its workforce in the process, please get in touch