How to find your purpose (a sceptic’s guide)

Simon Sinek’s bestseller 'Start With Why' hit a nerve in 2009 with a message that was both revelatory and obvious.

Simon Sinek’s bestseller Start With Why hit a nerve in 2009 with a message that was both revelatory and obvious: great businesses and great leaders are not determined by what they do or how they do it; what mattered was why.

Purpose duly became the business buzzword of the following decade, no doubt helped by the global recession: it was a good look to have a reason to exist that went beyond profit.

Sceptics raised their collective eyebrows as leaders fell over themselves to explain how their industrial valve business or digital marketing agency was driven by a noble desire to save the Earth.

Of course it was important to be in business for the right reasons, the sceptics said. It always had been. But surely taking profit and growth out of the equation was a step too far, particularly when those remained the basis for executives’ fiduciary duties?

It’s true that some purpose statements completely fail to pass muster. At their worst, they can be vague (‘we provide the best solutions for our customers’), artificial (in other words, devising a purpose that fits what you already do), grandiose (I once met the owner of a small restaurant whose purpose was literally to become ‘the world’s greatest company’) or downright hypocritical.

However, the problem is never having a purpose per se, but badly thinking it out.

Having a well thought-out and earnestly-meant purpose beyond profit can work wonders, giving you vision as a leader, helping you to create a winning strategy and helping you stick to it. Look at Patagonia, a brand truly dedicated to sustainability, to the extent its founder Yvon Chouinard handed ownership to an environment-focused trust. Customers love them for it.

Or Halma, a FTSE 100 group of health and safety focused companies, which has grown year-on-year for nearly 20 years through M&A. What has stopped it becoming a directionless conglomerate is a clear focus on making the world a healthier, safer, cleaner place. That enabled them to pick the right acquisition targets in diverse sectors, and to run them as something greater than the sum of their parts.

How to find your why

What if you don’t know your purpose? It isn’t always easy to find, but there are two good places to start.

The first is clarifying your values. In her book Unleashed, Harvard Business School’s Frances Frei talks about her time at Uber, where she was brought in to – successfully – fix an infamously toxic culture. She knew that, like purpose, culture depends on values, which can be hard to change.

Frei’s gathered all employees into groups of 20-50 people to discuss the company’s values as currently understood. Some were agreed immediately, others were added, and still others got people stuck.

By discussing these freely, a truer picture of existing and ideal values – and the barriers between them – emerged. New lists of values were circulated and revised until consensus was reached. Only at a late stage did iterating the values become the preserve of the senior team.

Once you have your values sorted, you can look for your purpose in earnest. No one can tell you what this is, but the Japanese concept of ikigai might help you figure it out.

Broadly, ikigai means ‘reason for being’. It can be imagined as four circles: what you love; what you’re good at; what the world needs; and what you can be paid for. Your purpose will live somewhere in the overlap between these four circles, which means it will be commercial, consistent with your values and will go beyond just delivering a service or making money.

If you rephrase the four statements as questions, you can then test your purpose and keep it honest.

So if you are a small restaurant, no one will pay you to be the world’s greatest company, and – sorry – you’re probably not up to it anyway. But the world does need feeding sustainably, and you do love bringing people together over a meal, and your cooking is great, and people will pay for that.

The purpose you settle on may not sound that glamorous, but it’s not a competition – if it rings true for you, your employees and your customers, then it will guide you well.

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