Let's talk about purpose: One community, one shadow

Have you sometimes found yourself confused at best, frustrated or cynical at worst, by the vagaries of ‘mission, vision, values’?  The dilemma was captured by one CEO:

“… we need a vision to guide us, but I can’t get my hands on what ‘vision’ is. 

… heard lots of terms like mission, purpose, values, strategic intent, but no-one can give me a satisfactory way of looking at a vision … it’s really frustrating”

Today, purpose is the new black.  But purpose can trip you up, as evidenced in this exchange at the banking royal commission as reported in the Australian Financial Review (1 December 2018: Karen Maley):

 “The NAB Chief Executive Andrew Thorburn was asked what would stop banks from chasing short term profits, rather than looking after their customers.  ‘You’ve got to come back to why do we exist and what is our vision’ Thorburn explained straight faced.  But, surely the bank has always had a vision and a purpose, objected Senior Counsel Assisting Michael Hodge QC.

‘We never had a purpose’ Thorburn averred.  And our Chairman and myself led that work inside the company to work that out.  But you’re a bank, Hodge insisted.  Surely your purpose is to be a bank?

‘Yes, but … what is a bank, and what does it do?’ countered Thorburn.  Wouldn’t that be to take deposits and lend money, and to do both as well as possible, Hodge persevered with relentless logic.

Thorburn, however, was undeterred.  These were the ‘functional activities’ of a bank, but NAB wanted to inspire its people from their heads to their heart to living the purpose and vision’”

Daniel Pink talks of our yearning for some transcendent purpose.  He also observed: when the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.  Macquarie co-founder Mark Johnson argued in 2016 that the banks bonus structures were disconnected from the value equation.  The Banking Royal Commission connected the dots.  

One of the best frameworks to help guide leaders in this process is Collins & Porras (HBR: 1996) ‘visioning’ model.  It envisages two core constructs: a core ideology; and an envisioned future.  This remains a powerful framework if used well.  Let’s talk about core ideology. 

Core ideology comprises core purpose and core values.  For Collins & Porras, core purpose ‘reflects people’s idealistic motivations for doing the company’s work … it captures the soul of the organisation’.  This is about an organisation’s distinctive identity; it’s distinctive character.  It is the ‘look and feel’ of the organisation.

Core values are described as the enduring tenets of the organisation.  This is a far cry from the usual corporate value statements.  Some 90% of corporate value statements include ‘integrity’.  [Our four major banks all cite integrity – doing the right thing – as one of their values.] 

Typical value statements are too generic to be distinctive.  I prefer the language of core tenets, or guiding principles.  This language shifts the conversation from one of ‘normative values’ to principles that are intrinsic to the enterprise.  For example, one of my clients uses the language of ‘adventurer and explorer’.  This is absolutely expressive of their enterprise. 

The core ideology – the purpose and values (tenets) – should be expressive of the essence of the organisation.  It also permeates the essential brand proposition of the enterprise.

We have developed an approach to developing a ‘core purpose’ which we have used with larger groups (20-40 people).  The process breaks them into small groups where they work up a typical ‘mission statement’.  This becomes a jump off point for a deeper, more difficult conversation around the essence of ‘why we exist’.  The goal is to develop a ‘mantra’ which is 3-4 words that capture the essence of our purpose. 

In one recent example, we took the team from this:

 ‘work as one team with a single vision to provide suitable accommodation and facilities for the community whilst returning the land to the traditional owners.’ 

To this:

One community; one shadow

This is expressive of the essence of this particular group.  The goal of ‘one community’ is a defining element of this project.  And the project casts a single shadow over the community, regardless of which party (principal; contractor; sub-contractor) is involved. 

A good mantra should meet three criteria:

  • It should be authentic … this is not about a clever marketing tag line.  This is about the essence of who we are. 

  • It should have an emotional hook … emotion builds attachment beyond simple rationality.

  • It should invite conversation … it is through conversation we create shared meaning.   

Of course, this is just the beginning of a longer conversation.  In my next blog I will discuss the challenge of ‘an envisioned future’. 

In the meantime, ask your leadership group these questions:

  • Does our purpose statement meet the criteria of the mantra above (authentic; emotive; open)?

  • Are your values expressive of a distinctive character of the organisation, or a collection of ‘normative’ values?

  • Are these constructs an integral part of your leadership conversations?

Good luck