Why your business needs a clearly-defined purpose

25 August 2017

Dr Rodney Howard

Dr Rodney Howard is an organisational consultant, facilitator, author and coach.

A core ingredient necessary for staff and stakeholders to become fully engaged with an organisational journey is purpose, for the simple reason that deep within our human psyche, we need to know why.

Your vision describes where your business wants to head in future years; your corporate values tell the story of how you want to be with each other as you enable that vision; and your strategic objectives detail what specific short-term targets you want to achieve. These traditional pillars of an organisation’s story inform where, how and what.

However, missing from this triangular framework is a core ingredient necessary for staff and stakeholders to become fully engaged with an organisational journey. That ingredient is purpose, for the simple reason that deep within our human psyche, we need to know why.


The role of purpose is to articulate a greater sense of meaning that cannot be met simply by a set of objectives or financial targets. We yearn to connect with meaningful experiences in our collective pursuits, as this provides a tangible reason for our personal endeavours and becomes deeply enriching and fulfilling. Once clarified and embedded within organisational culture, purpose can transform an employee’s experience and engagement with their work.

Organisations that combine an architectural pillar of purpose with a clear vision, well-defined values and a tangible strategic direction, resonate a compelling story from the inside out. This drives customer connection and loyalty, particularly when that story becomes infused within the organisational brand. This has the potential to drive growth, productivity and higher shareholder return over the long-term.

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

A journey of transformation

Identifying and embedding purpose within an organisation is not a simple tactical initiative to be delegated to a senior executive within your leadership team. It is a journey of long-term organisational transformation that will need to be led by your CEO and require executive sponsorship for a lengthy period of time.

If it is not led with sustained dedication and commitment, it will almost certainly become another failed corporate initiative that promotes skepticism and mistrust in leadership. When done well, it has the potential to transform the experience of everyone connected with the business in a positive and meaningful way.

So how do organisations do this?

1. Commit

Only your CEO has the authority, credibility and influence to sponsor purpose in an organisation. It is essential that your CEO, supported by her/his executive leadership team, are fully invested in purpose and committed to leading through every stage of the journey. This leadership commitment is a critical enabler of success and may take many months to gain. If this is not achievable, it is best not to begin in the first place. The investment you make up-front in ensuring and building commitment will pay dividends for many years to come.

2. Discover

Purpose is a journey of discovery, as you define the essential reason for your organisation’s existence and the contribution you wish to make to your people, clients, stakeholders, industry and community at large. This is a grand endeavour. Your aim is to engage every person and stakeholder connected to your organisation in this exercise. Inclusivity and participation are hallmarks of success. Utilise every means available: discussion sessions, online questionnaires, social media and digital chat forums. Ensure that your people in every location and office are able to contribute.

3. Engage

Once you have defined your organisation’s purpose, you need to engage your people as advocates. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Find creative ways to engage staff and stakeholders in conversations, so they make purpose their own: town hall discussions, team meetings and departmental forums. Dialogue and creativity are critical here. This is not about corporate videos that are streamed remotely. Instead, find ways to seep into every nook and cranny of your organisation, so people feel it’s their story.

4. Embed

This is where the ‘real’ work begins. It takes many years to embed purpose within any organisation, and requires and ongoing commitment from the CEO and leadership team over a sustained period of time. Create initiatives and projects within all levels of your organisation that encourage participation and discussion. Embed purpose within the structures, processes and decision-making frameworks of your business. Your aim is to embrace purpose so that it informs strategic decision-making, is expressed within your marketing and recruitment activities, and becomes part of the normal daily conversation within your business.

Purpose is a critical enabler of engagement and an ongoing journey of corporate transformation. While vision describes where you are going, purpose explains why you are going there. It defines your reason for being and the deeper you embed it within the culture of your business, the greater will be the rewards.

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