Above all things, humans seek purpose.
It’s why The Beatles went to India, why Thoreau lived in the woods, and why so many of the rest of us read books , go to church, have children, join clubs, pursue careers , donate to charity, write blogs, or cheer our favorite sports teams. Your purpose doesn’t have to be larger than life. It just has to be bigger than you .
Obviously, pursuing a genuine purpose isn’t a prerequisite for being a living, breathing person. But it sure is hard to name a truly great human who didn’t have one. The same is true for today’s companies, which must serve a principle greater than the bottom line if they hope to make a mark with today’s fragmented and socially aware consumers.
It’s well-established that purpose-driven companies attract more intense levels of consumer affinity and have a higher return on investment than those merely cranking out widgets. However, far less attention is paid to how a young company should set out finding its purpose–and how to ensure that it consistently serves that mission during every step of its growth. Here are some guidelines I’ve found useful in growing my own purpose-driven company during a time fraught with challenges and ripe for opportunities.
Tackle a global problem.
There used to be a simple, one-question litmus test that smart entrepreneurs would apply when considering whether to start a new business: “If this succeeds, how will it impact our industry?” But for anyone pondering whether to launch a company these days, the better question is: “If this succeeds, how will it impact the world?”
Affixing your company’s “why” to a global need will not only serve as a North Star for your culture and policies, but will bleed through in ways big and small to everything you do–from how you run meetings to the kind of employees you want to hire.
Tesla, for example, didn’t just set out to make cool electric cars; that’s far too flimsy a raft for the journey they’re on. They have a bigger goal : to help save the planet by electrifying the auto grid. Behind it all, that’s what they’re really about . And if you’re one of the thousands of people who proudly spend thousands more to buy a Tesla than an electric car from Ford or Chevy, it’s likely because you piqued to the larger change they’re trying to enact in the world. It doesn’t hurt that their cars are extremely cool, of course. But that alone isn’t enough to inspire the kind of following they’ve been able to achieve.
Adhere to a human value.
In the past, demonstrating your corporate values meant overseeing sporadic outpourings of goodwill, usually tied to a holiday. Encouraging your employees to plant a tree on Arbor Day. Making a big Christmas donation to charity.
Both are wonderful sentiments with undeniably positive impacts. But these days, even gestures like this need to be connected to a higher meaning or they’ll lack true resonance. It’s the difference between hearing a stunning rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow on a singing competition show, or hearing that same rendition at the funeral of someone you love. One is compelling; the other will become part of you.
This is why a company’s founders need to ensure that every step in their growth is tied to a specific human merit. Creativity, knowledge, security–all of these are core values as espoused by some of the world’s top companies.
At my company , we considered our core value–fairness–so central to our mission that we put it in our name: Fair. Our larger purpose may be to eliminate the global cycle of auto debt, but making that happen will depend on our ability to bring the human value of fairness to every aspect of how people get and pay for cars.
Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.
Just like your business model, your purpose may go through the occasional shift–or you may adopt an entirely new one around which to rebrand your company. That’s totally fine, as long as it’s genuine and consistently shows up as a hallmark of how your company engages with the world.
Pepsi spent decades locked in a war to be the biggest cola company in the world. When that didn’t happen, they set their sights on another goal: to be one of the biggest water companies in the world. Recognizing that a lack of access to clean water is one of our biggest societal problems, Pepsi dedicated itself to a global calling nobody might have ever predicted and has achieved both stunning success and untold depths of global good.
When Toyota came of age in the ’80s as an affordable alternative to the more expensive American gas-guzzlers of the day, nobody would have thought of the company as a paragon of environmentalism. But then they debuted the Prius, which came complete with its own stated purpose as the world’s first “green” car–a concept so powerful that it almost wasn’t even seen as a Toyota at all; it was a Prius. Think about it: If Larry David had driven any other model of Toyota in Curb Your Enthusiasm , people would have been awfully confused. “Why is Larry David driving a Toyota? He’s rich!” But because Toyota so effectively communicated the vehicle’s purpose, everyone understood exactly what Larry was saying by driving one.
Your culture isn’t your purpose.
Remember when Google providing free gourmet food to employees minted it as a company that really cared about its employees? Believe it or not, that was a pretty novel cultural move at the time which helped cement Google as a place where the world’s best talent wanted to work. But it had nothing to do with the company’s far more strident purpose : to organize the world’s information and make it accessible for all.
Make no mistake, culture and purpose are both elemental to a successful business. They’re dueling leadership demands that even a company like Google continues to reckon with . Your purpose may be what gets you out of bed every morning, but your culture is how you and your team members conduct yourselves in your interactions throughout the day.
A purpose-driven startup that fails to tend to its culture gives you the Death Star. A culture-driven startup without a purpose leaves behind a lot of squishy chairs when it goes under after six months.
See it through.
Sitting on the sidelines of a cultural or political debate used to be an unquestioned commandment of any smart business leader. After all, speaking up on such matters could only unnecessarily alienate customers and hurt the bottom line.
Nowadays, of course, many companies have social ideals to protect alongside their profits, leaving them with a unique quandary: Should they avoid a divisive issue that borders on their cultural turf or should they put principle potentially above profit and wade into the matter?
In fact, many companies are diving headlong into even the most contentious societal debates in cases where they feel silence would compromise the conscious promise of their stated missions. Companies as wide-ranging as Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Yeti have famously taken political and cultural stances they felt were right for their brands, but that they knew would lead to boycotts and viral videos of their products being destroyed by angry customers on the other side of the issue.
Even companies long known for their principled social stands are pushing their efforts further when they feel their purpose warrants it. Patagonia, no wilting daisy when it comes to corporate activism, even took the unprecedented step of endorsing two Democratic political candidates in the recent election cycle.
Such actions are not as risky as they sound. In fact, in an age where purpose-driven companies are clearer than ever about what they stand for, the customers drawn to them for those very reasons may, in fact, be turned off if that brand avoids a fight and fails to hold the cultural high ground it set out to claim.
After all, when you set out on a mission, you have to be prepared to fight for it.
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