When work is connected to what we deeply desire, we can tap into energy and creativity we don’t even know we have. But to reach that seemingly effortless productivity, it’s not enough to simply have a vision of what we want to accomplish; our work also must have a purpose that is significant to us.
Jesse Stoner and I have written extensively on the creation of an effective vision, which is comprised of three elements: a significant purpose, a picture of the future, and clear values. Today I’m going to focus on that first element, a significant purpose.
Zeroing In on Your Significant Purpose
An organization can begin to find its significant purpose by answering the question, “What business are we in?” If your first thought was, “We’re in business to make money,” you’re missing the point. As author and speaker Simon Sinek says, “Profit isn’t a purpose.”
A significant purpose is bigger than what your company does. Rather than simply explaining what you do or what products you provide, your significant purpose must answer this question:
Your significant purpose must clarify—from your customer’s point of view—what business you’re really in.
For example, a mattress company with a significant purpose doesn’t simply sell mattresses and make profits; it’s in the business of providing people with a good night’s rest. An insurance company with a significant purpose doesn’t simply sell policies; it’s in the business of giving customers peace of mind.
A couple of real-world examples include Tesla, whose significant purpose isn’t simply to sell cars; it’s “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Technology Education and Design—otherwise known as TED of TED Talks fame—has a simple yet powerful significant purpose: “Spread Ideas.”
The CEO of outdoor apparel company Patagonia, Rose Marcario, beautifully articulates the concept of a significant purpose. “If you want to retain great people and have a great company, then you have to inspire the people to a greater, bigger purpose than themselves, and for us it’s saving the planet,” she says.
Patagonia’s significant purpose—saving the planet—seems to be working well. Since Marcario took the helm, the company has quadrupled its revenue and profit while setting the standard for sustainable clothing production. The company’s significant purpose overrides the traditional economic model of growth at any cost; Patagonia encourages customers to get their gear repaired rather than buy new things. The company’s purpose also guides decision making: Last year, Patagonia announced it would donate $10 million from the recent tax cuts to grassroots environmental organizations.
A Significant Purpose Must Inspire
The fact that Patagonia is succeeding financially points to a key element of a successful significant purpose: it must inspire people’s excitement and commitment. The key word here is “inspire.” If people are not fired up by your significant purpose, the words you use to describe it—no matter how lofty—won’t matter.
Too many companies make the mistake of having a purpose that merely describes their products and services or promotes a meaningless assortment of cringe-worthy platitudes. If people can’t make a heartfelt connection to the meaning behind the words, your significant purpose will be worthless. But if you work together to find an inspiring purpose, those words will fuel everything your company does.
Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance in developing a significant purpose. Back in 2004, our company helped Petco Park—the newly-built home of the San Diego Padres—to find their “why.” Rather than merely providing customer service to baseball fans, passionate employees rallied around their new significant purpose: “to create Major League memories.”
Did it make a difference? It sure did. People connected to the vision and found all kinds of creative ways to wow their customers. That summer Petco Park got 7,500 unsolicited notes and letters from fans telling stories about how they’d been blown away by the service they’d received.
Now, I call that a grand slam.