What’s “purpose”? Is it something we’re told that we’re meant to feel or can we really intensely feel it?

by Thom van Wijk
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You can hardly have a working existence without frequently coming across the subject of “Purpose”. The one with the capital P. Whether you are a company (re-)shaping your brand or thinking about how to futureproof your business, or if it’s you personally who wants to find more meaning in (work-) life or in a more spiritual sense: find out why you are here. 

And then, whether you’re a business owner, or you work for a company – on whatever “level”: should everyone understand, really feel or align with the company’s Purpose? And if so: how does that work?

Diving into the matter of Purpose for your company seems inevitable, when you want to grow your business or in life. So we might as well dive into it right away, and have a look at what Purpose is again. Shall we?

Purpose for your business

To put it simply: It’s the “Why” question. Why do you do what you do, and why does it matter? It may seem like a simple question, but many companies find it to be one of the toughest questions to answer. Sometimes because the answer is: to make money. And to make money to make a living is a fair enough story. But to make money just to – endlessly – make more money: that’s too short of a story. 

And you need a story to appeal to current and future generations of workers and customers. You need not just a story, you need a good story and it needs to be true. So why are you in business? And why do you think you deserve to stay in business?


Purpose on a personal level

On a personal level we can sum up “Purpose” with the words of Mark Twain:

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”.

It’s not important to agree on if there is any reason to why we are born and why we are on this planet. Even if the matter of “Why” is too spiritual for you on a personal level, there is some advantage to understanding why it may be important to others. Especially to many from the generation dominating the work force right now, and maybe even more so to those of the future. Purpose is about finding meaning in your life. One important way of finding meaning is by doing good, doing the right thing or at least doing things for the right reasons. And as we spend a great amount of time on our jobs over the course of our lives, work is an important place to look for meaning. It’s already how Millennials and Gen-Z* operate so being a purpose driven company may be the only way to go. So we get back to the “Why” question: why do you do what you do, and why does it matter? 

>> * We wrote a piece about the six simple principles for attracting Millennials and Gen-Z.

The Why

When you think of the “Why” in business, probably the first who comes to mind is Simon Sinek. And perhaps with good reason: he has inspired many leaders towards becoming purpose driven companies. With Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle”, you don’t start with what you do, or how you do it: you “Start with Why”. 

Take Tesla for example. They don’t just make cars, operating on batteries. That’s no story, nor is it an exciting reason to get up in the morning. It’s about their Why: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”. It’s a good story, and it’s a true story.

When you look for the purpose of your company, ask yourself: why does my company exist? What problem do I (help) solve? What value do I add? If you cannot answer this question, it can make it all the more difficult to do well on your job, whether it’s your own business or a business you work for as an employee.


Why do we need Purpose?

Work is much more meaningful when you can make an impact; an impact on the world, a specific community or even just one other person. What we do should matter to someone or benefit a certain meaningful cause.

To have everybody signed up to a common purpose, can be of great value to a business. The sense of meaning that workers derive from their purposeful work, helps elevate their levels of engagement with the company. If employees are not engaged, it’s easy for them to switch to another – more meaningful – job if the benefits are the same. And with Millennials and Gen-Z, studies already show that they are willing to give up a share of their salary to be able to do more meaningful work, preferably work that helps solve social problems. 

If your employees can easily make that switch: how about your customers when they find a brand or business with a better story? 

How does your Purpose translate to employees?

So how do you get an entire company to really feel or align with the Purpose? A good story helps. Good in the sense that it’s one that everyone understands and that’s true. But better yet: good in a sense that your business is helping solve a (social) problem. If this is true for your business, you “just” have to show employees how their work has meaning to the greater good.

To quote Elon Musk: “Putting in long hours for a corporation is hard. Putting in long hours for a cause is easy”

Let’s take it easy!