• February 2014

Is Your Business Driven By Purpose?

What does your company stand for? Helping clients identify and articulate their purpose has long driven Roy Spence, CEO of GSD&M Idea City, an ad agency he founded in 1971 whose client list includes Southwest Airlines, BMW, John Deere, the PGA Tour, and MasterCard.

In 2009, he and co-author Haley Rushing penned, “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why every extraordinary business is driven by purpose.”

“Our agency helped Wal-Mart define its purpose—saving people money to live better—and helped Southwest Airlines realize its true purpose of democratizing the skies,” Spence explains. “Purpose-driven companies like these are the ones that can survive and thrive in any economy, because they have a reason for being that their companies can’t live without.”

Spence believes a company with purpose is a deeply satisfying place to work. “You can sense it in the assuredness of front-line employees, the passion of leaders, and the satisfaction of customers. Innovation becomes easier, and there’s stability even in tough times.”

Following is our Q&A with Spence and Rushing.

Be Inkandescent: What’s wrong with simply having a company that makes money, but doesn’t strive to have any other purpose?

Spence and Rushing: In a company without purpose, people have no idea what they’re really doing there. They often look to the competition to decide what to do rather than navigate by their own sense of what’s right. With a purpose in place, an organization knows its reason for being and is driven to perform and innovate. Purpose sets you apart from the competition, authenticates your brand, inspires passion in your people, and helps you achieve the impossible.

Be Inkandescent: Is a lack of purpose part of the reason why so many companies have been failing during the recent financial crisis?

Spence and Rushing: We’re all paying the price right now for companies that stood for nothing but emptying our pockets. This led to their inevitable downfall and should sound an alarm to all of us in business about the importance of purpose. Those companies that have it will survive and thrive, and those that don’t will inevitably fail.

Be Inkandescent: How and why can having a purpose help companies survive a downturn?

Spence and Rushing: During a downturn it is critical that your workforce be united toward a common goal and motivated by a common ideal. Without that, they’ll inevitably suffer from high anxiety and low morale. When you have purpose, even your most budget-conscious customers will stand by you if they believe in what you are doing and find it important instead of expendable. To get through a recession, we think identifying your company’s purpose is far more important than cutting your expenses or any other strategy.

Be Inkandescent: How do you know if your organization has purpose?

Spence and Rushing: The best way to answer that question is to ask yourself a few more questions. Would your customers mind if you ceased to exist? Do you feel like your work matters? Do you have a North Star that guides you on what to innovate and how to make important decisions? If you don’t, then it’s time to start finding your organization’s purpose and transforming everything you do around this—from your branding to management to human resources.

Be Inkandescent: What do you say to entrepreneurs who need help discovering their company’s purpose?

Spence and Rushing: Look to your organization’s heritage and the reasons why it was founded. Ask yourself why you do what you do. Why does your organization matter? What are you passionate about? What can you be best at in the world—something that your competitors can’t?

Also ask yourself what you are not willing to do. Southwest Airlines was founded with a document that listed seven items they were not going to do—they would not fly anything but 737s, they were not to going to issue conventional tickets or seat assignments, etc. What you would never do can help you discover your values and priorities.

Lastly, talk to your employees, your customers, and your heart. If you listen carefully, you will find your organization’s purpose. [For more help articulating your organization’s purpose, scroll down.]

Be Inkandescent: How is articulating your organization’s purpose different from and more effective than writing a mission statement?

Spence and Rushing: Most mission statements don’t provide a mission, let alone a purpose. A purpose is a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world. It is not a tagline. It’s for internal guidance. When you try to get too clever or creative with your purpose statement, you risk minimizing the clarity that’s necessary for it to be truly meaningful and effective. So keep it simple and stay focused. And aim high, but don’t end up in the ether.

Be Inkandescent: Why do you say organizations have to find “the thrill”?

Spence and Rushing: Purpose-based companies feel “the thrill” because they are passionate about making a difference. Whether they were born that way, stumbled into it, or had an awakening along the way, the drive to make a difference is what fuels the company. It’s the thrill of being in business.

To find “the thrill” at your organization, you can look for signs of fanaticism in your employees, for new market opportunities unnoticed by others, for a noble cause, or most often, a unique way to improve the lives of your customers.

Be Inkandescent: How does purpose help guide decisions?

Spence and Rushing: Leaders driven to fulfill a purpose will make decisions to ensure that the purpose is never violated. For example, if a decision comes to the table and it violates the core purpose of Southwest Airlines’ ability to keep costs down and fares low, it’s thrown out. If a piece of automotive technology is presented to BMW that does not support the core purpose of enabling people to experience the joy of driving, they discard it. If some idea is put forward at John Deere that might compromise their quality, commitment, innovation, or integrity, it will be passed over. If any compromise on design is put on the table at Kohler, it is ignored.

Be Inkandescent: What’s the goal of your book?

Spence and Rushing: It’s the job of CEOs, boards, and senior managers to steer companies in the right direction and guide decisions. Nothing can do this better than purpose. Marketing and branding executives will find much to learn about how to articulate their organization’s purpose to their customers. HR professionals need to motivate employees and make “people decisions” with purpose.

We’ve also included chapters and many case studies for executives at nonprofits and higher-education institutions. While not in the business of making money, these organizations depend on effectively communicating their purpose to drive fundraising, awareness, motivation, and achievement. Whatever your job is, choose and evaluate it by asking yourself if it matters and gives you a sense that you are making a difference.

Be Inkandescent: How did you first discover your own company’s purpose?

Spence and Rushing: We were talking to author Jim Collins about the concept of purpose, which he touched on in his book, “Built to Last.” We asked him what he thought we could be the best in the world at. He helped us articulate what we have been doing for 35 years, but that we didn’t have a name for—delivering visionary ideas for companies that actually have a purpose. Ever since, that conversation has shaped everything we do as a company, including our founding in 2002 of the think tank called the Purpose Institute, and the writing of this book.

Five Steps to Developing Your Organization’s Purpose

  • Step 1: Revisit your heritage. Talk to the founding fathers of your organization, review the founding documents, and find the motivation that’s been present since the inception. For example: Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart to save his customers an extra dollar, the foundation of today’s “Save Money. Live Better” campaign.
  • Step 2: Ask why. Look at the major initiatives under way at your organization and start asking: “To what end?” “For what purpose?” “To make what difference?” Also ask what you won’t do. For example: A founding document of Southwest Airlines insisted that it was not going to fly anything but 737s, and it was not going to issue conventional tickets or seat assignments.
  • Step 3: Find the thrill. Consider what you and your employees are already genuinely passionate about and what you can be the best in the world at. For example: AARP discovered that its passion comes not from giving out discounts on car rentals, but on championing positive social change that will enhance the quality of life for all of us as we age.
  • Step 4: Talk to your customers. Find out why you are essential to them. For example: BMW researched its customers and found that they valued ideas and creativity over conspicuous consumption and driving fast. So BMW changed its branding strategy to emphasize ideas by celebrating the world-class architecture of its manufacturing plants, and by sponsoring a TED Conference.
  • Step 5: Articulate your purpose. Don’t just write a mission statement. Instead, create a clear and simple purpose statement that will guide every decision your organization makes. For example: The American Legacy Foundation was able to communicate both of its missions—to help teenagers reject tobacco and to help smokers kick the habit—with one wonderfully simple purpose statement: “To build a world where young people reject tobacco, and anyone can quit.”

Learn more at www.itsnotwhatyousell.com.

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