“The best companies are ones that attract and hire people whose individual senses of purpose align with the company’s purpose.” – Nicholas Pearce

The modern workplace is pressured and relentless. Workforces function on autopilot, powering through tasks, one after the other, with an endless string of activities. Most of them never really ask why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Employees are worn out, stressed out and zoned out. They are looking to leadership for a clear sense of direction.

The company’s reason for being should be at the core of all of its communications, says Graham Kenny, who specialises in strategic planning and performance measurement. It should be “a simple and inspiring message that is easy to relate to and understand.” Kenny believes that strategy-specific messages, which are linked to the goals of the company, are tools to help teams connect their day-to-day efforts with the aspiration of the business.

However, Sally Blount and Paul Leinwand, both Professors of Strategy, warns leaders to tread carefully here. They say that, as much as leadership may try to motivate employees with slogans or extrinsic rewards, they won’t achieve excellence if their people don’t truly know why they are coming to work every day or how their efforts contribute to the bigger picture.

Most leaders will follow the blanket approach to scrape an answer together: they refer to the company’s mission, vision, purpose and philosophy to answer this question. Kenny cautions leaders not to go that route.

He implores leaders to pull the blanket away from purpose and to define it as a crucial piece of the success puzzle.

The mission, Kenny says, asserts the organisation’s reason for being. A vision statement affirms the ideal destination a company is aiming to reach. The mission and vision drive all business goals, be it strategic or tactical. The method with which the business entity reaches its goals is determined by the corporate philosophy: the set of principles by which it conducts itself. Corporate values unpack the desired organisational culture.

In short, we can call this corporate DNA the company’s skeleton, heart, muscles and capillaries. It keeps the company alive, moves it forward and instinctively kicks in to protect it. It is these inner workings that tend to influence strategy, policymaking and behaviour at executive levels. It features a familiar inventory of terminologies, and each item means well.

However, employees tend to avoid making eye contact with a flat set of documents with which they cannot seem to connect.

To spark growth between the company and employees, leadership needs to breathe a soul into the company. Linking purpose to the company’s corporate DNA is how leaders bring the corpus to life.

It’s hard to imagine how your work teams can perform if they don’t appreciate the company’s purpose. How can they report for duty day in and day out to further the business if they don’t know what the company is trying to accomplish and how their outputs support those goals?

Yet, in a recent survey of more than 540 employees worldwide conducted by PwC’s strategy consulting business, Strategy&, only 28% of respondents reported feeling intrinsically connected to their company’s purpose.

Barely 39% said they could clearly see the value they create; a mere 22% agreed that their jobs allow them to leverage their strengths fully, and only 34% thought they strongly contribute to their company’s success.

More than half weren’t even “somewhat” motivated, passionate, or excited about their jobs.

All this adds up to a crisis of purpose, says strategy and business specialists: employees feel lost. Over time, a lack of direction saps enthusiasm. Key performers start backing away from the challenges required to achieve the company’s most important goals.

The good news is that purpose holds great potential to inspire. In the PWC research, employees considered it to be more than twice as important, on average, as traditional motivators such as compensation and career advancement.

At companies that have clearly outlined and communicated how their employees create value, 63% say they’re motivated, versus 31% at other companies. About 65% say they’re passionate about their work, versus 32% at other companies.

These purpose-driven firms reap substantial benefits: more than 90% of them deliver growth and profits at or above the industry average, according to strategy & research and analyses.

Respected leaders personify their company’s purpose, daily and practically, through their words and behaviour. Leaders must be the driving force behind the corporate purpose and help frontline employees to connect it with their day-to-day tasks.

However, says Robert E. Quinn, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, a top-down mandate won’t do the trick.

The real test occurs when leaders aren’t helicoptering over their teams to force compliance. A genuine indication of a compelling purpose statement is measured by the behaviour of teams when leadership isn’t lurking.

Over the past decade, ‘purpose’ has become a management slogan, says Blount and Leinwand. Yet, they add, a great purpose statement is of limited use if the business cannot execute on it.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, the research duo explains how people want to work for organisations whose missions and business philosophies resonate with them personally, intellectually and emotionally.

If a company’s drive is disconnected from their talent’s personal purpose, the outcomes that they’re working to achieve start to feel meaningless. If what the company expects from its people isn’t aligned with who they are and what they stand for, the talent pool will inevitably not give their best.

Leaders should know their teams so well that they can take the organisation’s objectives in the one hand, take the employee’s personal mobilisers in the other, and marry the two. Nick Craig, the founder of the Core Leadership Institute, calls this leadership approach ‘purpose-to-impact.’

Purpose-to-impact plans differ from traditional development plans in several important ways:

  • They start with a statement of personal purpose rather than a business or career goal.
  • They take a holistic view of professional and personal life, including family, non-work related interests and outside commitments.
  • They incorporate expressive and person-focused language to create a plan that speaks to the individual, not just to any somebody in that job or role.
  • They compel your team member to envision long-term opportunities for living their purpose and then help them to work backwards to set specific goals for achieving them.

Each employee operates from a slightly different set of assumptions about the world, the industry, what is or isn’t achievable. That individual perspective allows them to create high value and have a significant impact.

Equally important is that interlocking their personal beliefs with organisational purpose propels the company, the individual, the team and the leader towards success. The company morphs into an entity of excellence because everyone is willing to do more and go further.

Gerry Anderson, the CEO of DTE Energy, probably says it best: “If you want a company to be excellent you have to draw people’s discretionary energy, their extra energy. Well, what do you give your extra energy to? I give it to things I care about and believe in.”


Graham Kenny, 2014. Your Company’s Purpose Is Not Its Vision, Mission, or Values. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/09/your-companys-purpose-is-not-its-vision-mission-or-values

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, 2017. Stop Setting Goals You Don’t Actually Care About. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/12/stop-setting-goals-you-dont-actually-care-about?referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date

Robert E. Quinn & Anjan V. Thakor, 2018. Creating a Purpose-Driven Organisation. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/07/creating-a-purpose-driven-organization

Thomas W. Malnight, Ivy Buche & Charles Dhanaraj, 2019. Put Purpose at the Core of Your Strategy. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/09/put-purpose-at-the-core-of-your-strategy

Dan Cable, 2019. Helping Your Team Feel the Purpose in Their Work. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/10/helping-your-team-feel-the-purpose-in-their-work

Sally Blount & Paul Leinwand, 2019. Why are we here? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/11/why-are-we-here

Nicholas Pearce, 2019. Why People — and Companies — Need Purpose. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/podcast/2019/04/why-people-and-companies-need-purpose

Nick Craig & Scott A. Snook, 2014. From Purpose to Impact. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/05/from-purpose-to-impact

Gerry Anderson, 2018. Turning Purpose Into Performance. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/podcast/2018/07/turning-purpose-into-performance

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