Light a Fire In Your People with a Purpose Statement Built for Them

Jim Brown
Partner & Principal Consultant

Let’s start with an example:

Achieve superior shareholder returns. 

Does this purpose statement make you want to jump out of bed and get to work? Does it speak to you? Energize you? 

No? I can’t imagine it does for anyone. 

Of course we want our shareholders, clients, end-users, etc. to achieve excellent returns and results. But it isn’t what ignites the fire in us—and it is most certainly not what stokes the flames in our teams. 

Feeling like you’ve “checked the box” on purpose with a statement that isn’t well understood, that no one stands behind, and that doesn’t say anything with clarity does your organization a great disservice. A purpose statement is about more than corporate mumbo jumbo, branding, or S.M.A.R.T. goals, and leaders are due for a re-examination of what the point of this little sentence even is. 

Your Raison d'Être

Why do you exist? No, we’re not waxing philosophical! This is what your purpose statement conveys: It is the why, while your mission statement is the what and the for whom

If your eyes just started to glaze over, catch yourself: it’s remarkable how often this gets convoluted or lost. 

In our strategic planning sessions with organizations, we’ve heard a myriad of purpose statements. Such as: “Provide the most innovative and efficient avionic engineering solutions in North America.” In talking it through, however, leaders begin to realize the sobering truth that no one cares about that other than them

Sometimes, not even them. 

It’s unreasonable to expect employees and managers to be inspired by a goal that only reflects the company’s image as “successful,” or that doesn’t touch anyone outside the C-suite.

So what will affect your team’s lives? What is the organization going to accomplish in the world? What do we all want from our work here? We begin to tackle the discovery of companies’ purpose statements using the central question: Why do we exist? Really? 

The answer could be more about your team than it is about what the business does. That’s fleshed out in mission statements and strategic plans. A purpose captures your raison d'être, your reason for being.

Most purpose statements are little more than dry mission statements. Nearly none are inspiring. Nearly all fail to appeal to the heart of employees. We can change this. We need to change this.

Purpose Statements with Purpose

Here are some important questions and answers regarding purpose statements (we’d call them FAQs, but the reality is that they are not frequently asked, much less answered!).

Who's the Audience of a Purpose Statement? 

A purpose statement is for the employees that work with you and the prospective talent that you want to work with you. It’s not a PR statement, a motto, a pithy tagline, or a marketing gambit—it’s an internal statement of why.

What’s the Point?

The purpose statement makes it crystal clear why anyone would want to work for your organization. When it resonates, this makes it easier to attract and retain the right people.

Why Is It So Important?

Folks, we are in the biggest talent war the world has ever experienced; the cost of finding and keeping good people is staggering. Those who feel like their work matters are more fulfilled and have higher levels of job satisfaction. When they’re happy, they’re productive. When they have a shared basis for why they are all here, they work more collaboratively. 

What Does a Great Purpose Statement Look Like? 

It’s short. Such as: “To fill our careers with impact and joy.” Or, as a recent client wrote, “To feel valued in building solutions in a team environment.” It is easy to say and understand. It appeals to the heart of those at your company and those you want to be there. A great purpose statement is not a promise (or a bribe); it’s a concise description of how decisions are made and how people show up every day. It’s not what we aspire to be; it’s what we are.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We’re not in the business of casting stones, or throwing shade, as the younger generation might say. But highlighting what works—and as importantly, what does not—can help us as we seek to create purpose statements that resonate. That said:

The Truly Terrible

  • Achieve superior shareholder returns 

As we led with, this is not a strong statement. Nearly no employee in the history of the world wanted or wants to do this! It is not only uninspiring, it can come off as truly offensive.

  • Powering global investments to help our clients succeed

This is a mix of mission and PR. It’s not going to make people want to work there. It speaks to money, to success gauged by external measurables — not to the heart or needs or daily experience of employees.

The Not Great

  • We are dedicated to conducting our business in an environmentally and socially responsible way, taking action to protect the health and safety of workers, customers, and neighboring communities. 

It’s not terrible. It’s just painfully long. Rather than clarifying purpose, it seems to virtue-signal. Where’s the passion? The connection? It paints a nice picture, but rings false.

  • We empower people—our colleagues, our clients, our communities—to change the world. 

They’re almost there but just don’t have that gutand heartlevel pull, nor the clarity and conciseness.

The Great

  • To create world-changing technology that enriches the lives of every person on earth.
  • Nourishing families so they can flourish and thrive.

  • To help all families discover the joy of everyday life.

  • Connecting people. Uniting the world. 

Short. Clear. Compelling. Captivating. Notice that their business’ work doesn’t make a big difference here; these are why they do what they do. It’s compelling, even without a name. These purpose statements resonate and help align the organizations’ people in pursuit of common goals, values, and beliefs. This… this is what starts the fire and keeps it burning.

Do The Work

What’s your purpose statement? What category would it fall under? Most importantly: Who is it for? Has it been written for your shareholders, or for your people? If it isn’t for your team, and won’t resonate with them, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and try again. With a clear purpose statement in hand, you will attract better-fit employees and develop deeper engagement, because everyone will know exactly why they are here.

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