Our Purpose: The Thread that Binds Us All

Flawless execution, focus on the customer, leading with values, knowing your mission, partnering with stakeholders: all pieces of the cloth critical to the success of any organization. With these, a leadership team can build an excellent company. Today though, it may not be enough. There’s one more element that can raise performance a significant notch higher: an integrating thread of purpose woven among many pieces.  Why are we doing what we are doing?  How does what we are doing bring meaning to our work on a daily basis?  How do I as a leader take our purpose and empower others to express it through channels no one might have dreamed?  


Here’s an example. Larry Webb, my long time friend, is the CEO of New Home Company, which just went public on January 31st.  New Home builds beautiful production housing and is known for extremely happy buyers who love not only their home but the experience they had in buying it. In the CNBC interview on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Larry said, “We build homes, and for each of us at New Home Company we see it as a noble purpose. To provide a new home for a person is to provide a future of wonderful experiences.” I spoke with Larry after the interview and he said, “Many builders try to push flawless execution or operational excellence, but you can only push this so far. I’ve found that if we talk about a higher purpose in our work, people bring more meaning to their job.  They know they can’t do shoddy work and if they do, it will defeat the noble purpose of what we are about. Our people really believe we are doing something important and they evaluate their decision making based on this.”  

Larry understands the power of purpose. As my friend, Dick Gochnauer, the former CEO of United Stationers, a Fortune 500 business products wholesaler says, “A leader’s role is to to weave all of the pieces together under a broader purpose. A leader shows people how the purpose can create alignment with all of the other elements. Purpose plays an incredible role in creating motivation.”

Larry Webb

Larry Webb

Here’s another example. Last week Satya Nadella was appointed the new Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, replacing Steve Ballmer. Satya wrote a memo that went out to 100,000 employees. The memo did not focus on the need to work harder, be more creative, or execute more carefully. Instead, it outlined the purpose Microsoft serves in the world and why, through this purpose, employees can drive the values and ideas necessary to support a dramatic shift at Microsoft. Here are some excerpts of what Satya said:

Why am I here?

I am here for the same reason I think most people join Microsoft — to change the world through technology that empowers people to do amazing things.


“To paraphrase a quote from Oscar Wilde — we need to believe in the impossible and remove the improbable.  This starts with clarity of purpose and sense of mission that will lead us to imagine the impossible and deliver it.”


“We need to prioritize innovation that is centered on our core value of empowering users and organizations to ‘do more.’ ” 


“Finally, I truly believe that each of us must find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know that it's not just work, but something that will improve other people's lives. This is the opportunity that drives each of us at this company.”  

Satya Nadella gets it! Frankly, with this kind of leadership Microsoft may reassert a leadership role in mobile and the cloud.  With Satya’s leadership, we may see massive value added to the company. Financial value creation is the result of a clear and powerful purpose. In other words, the power of leadership, by weaving purpose into everything you do, can accomplish amazing things.  

So what is your company’s purpose? You may already have it down clearly and now it’s a matter of finding ways to express this purpose through your team’s behaviors and attitudes. If you are still pondering your purpose, I suggest you don’t rush in quickly with an answer. The question is complicated. Purpose needs to link to your strategy, your mission, your values, and your tactics.  Purpose supports strategic execution. Here are some questions and suggestions to help you along the way:

1.  What do you do that contributes to a better world?  

2.  If you are successful, who will benefit and why?  

3.  Write down 10 things you do that benefit others. Is there an integrating theme here?

4.  If you are successful in your efforts, how will all of your stakeholders benefit?  What do you see as the underlying purpose here?  

5.  Test out ideas. Don’t jump the gun too quickly. Form an idea, get a dialogue going, and then enhance the idea. You will be surprised at what you learn.  

I’ll be giving more examples of companies who lead through a well defined, inspiring purpose statement. Why? Because purpose is at the roots of leadership. It involves moral judgements. Purpose is aspirational and inspirational. It focuses on the future and what role a leader plays in that future. If purpose is defined clearly from a moral foundation, it can redirect an entire company and for that matter, an entire world.


* Picture of Larry Webb courtesy of Bay Area BIA