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Why every company needs a corporate purpose

By Ben Hunt-Davis, MBE, Olympic Gold medallist, is co-founder of leadership consultancy Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

Purpose has definitively entered the global vocabulary of business. American business thought leader Simon Synek has been urging us for years to find our ‘Why?’. While the US Business Round-table made a seismic shift in 2019 away from their decade-long creed of ‘shareholder primacy’, and the UK Institute of Directors called last year for businesses to have clear purpose statements. Research into human performance, engagement and resilience in sport, military and business all confirms the important role that purpose plays.

Create a Connection

Ben Hunt-Davis
Ben Hunt-Davis

You think we’d have become good at it now we know it’s crucial, yet often our systems and processes keep us focused on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’. Our calendars track deadlines and short-term targets without tracing how those relate to the longer-term impact that we want to have.  Everyone should come to work easily able to know how their efforts that day will help move the company a step closer towards their purpose, but how many do?

What can be done to place purpose at the heart of the workplace? It certainly can’t be ‘fixed’ in an away day or two. What’s needed is an ongoing narrative about the impact you want to have beyond the office walls and how that fits into your daily work. New generations entering the workplace are hungry for these conversations, arriving with a strong sense of purpose to protect the environment, address inequalities and make a positive impact on local communities.

Set a Goal

The first step is to define your purpose in a way you can continue to build and bring alive at work.  Define an overarching goal and a clear path to connecting everyone within a company to that goal. There’s no need to get hung up on labels, whether it’s a ‘crazy goal’, purpose statement or mission statement – what’s important is that it refers to a longer-term positive difference that you want to make to the external world beyond your own organisation and that everyone understands how they can play a part in it.

The process of defining a crazy goal is as important as the outcome – there is huge potential to create a connection, to involve others in deciding what criteria are important and relevant. Be clear about what the real issues are, speak with a range of employees, share views about the major upcoming opportunities and challenges. Know what’s unique about the company, and where can you work together to make a positive difference to the world beyond the office doors.  This sets the foundations for the crazy goal. It can only be brought alive, believed in, and passionately executed if everyone knows how they fit into it.

Your staff need to be as clear as the janitor who met JFK on his visit to NASA.  When asked what he did, he said ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’  This is a great example of engagement and emotional connection to your purpose. It highlights the need to develop layers of connection, or ‘Layered Goals’.

Focus on Teamwork

Knowing the purpose is one thing but understanding what you can do today to move you and your team a fraction closer to it, is another. This is a crucial element for leaders to invest in. The ‘marginal gains’ approach built on this daily across all the Olympic sports, where everyone was encouraged to find ways to do things 1% better. No matter whether you were the nutritionist, the coach, the athlete, trailer driver or manager – everyone had a role to play to do things 1% better. When everyone across a team is doing that, the performance levels you reach collectively can be astounding. Team GB showed us that in London 2012 winning 29 gold medals and finishing 2nd in the medal table in Rio 2016.

Defining the purpose of an organisation is not a quick process and shouldn’t be a static one. Goals and purpose statements need to be reviewed as the external world changes, new people join the organisation and you learn new ways to have an even bigger impact. Bring the purpose alive and connecting others to it is a continuous process. It should form a story that everyone can weave into their daily lives, every meeting and every project should be easily connected to it.  This develops a stronger sense about what your purpose means to each individual.