When I was re-writing my biography about 18 months ago in preparation for a job search, I sent it to a friend who was at one of the largest international consultancies at the time to see what she thought of how I was selling myself. Her feedback was largely glowing, with one notable exception. It seemed that a ‘key word’ was missing from my vernacular – I had failed to describe my expertise in helping companies locate and articulate their ‘purpose’.
Although I had heard this phrase being bandied about a fair bit over the previous year, I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which it had become the de-facto description for what I believe had previously been referred to as ‘a vision statement’.
There is, however, something altogether ‘loftier’ about the term ‘purpose’ – don’t you agree? Something that implies an intrinsically altruistic or ethical stance? Something that the old-fashioned ‘vision statement’ perhaps lacks?
These semantics set me thinking about whether or the distinction is an important one.
Back in the early 1990s, when I was working very closely with Microsoft on its corporate communications and positioning, I remember one of those famous Bill Gates memos being circulated to our agency. The memo was momentous, because it outlined a critical update to the company’s long-standing stated vision – which had been “to put a PC on every desk”. Now, Gates declared, Microsoft’s vision would be “to put a PC on every desk, and in every home”. The subtle change marked the end of the company’s primary focus on selling its products to businesses, and was amongst other things a declaration or war on Apple in particular, who had until that point dominated the market in home computing. But more importantly, it represented something more fundamental – it marked a shift Gates was predicting for computer technology, which was that it would become a universal consumer good.
The fact that the vision Gates articulated not only came true, but in many ways exceeded original expectations by kick-starting the revolution of universal access to technology which has led to more mobile phones per capita in Africa that there are TVs or other ‘consumer goods’, is testament to its validity. However, purists from today’s ‘purpose’ revolution may argue, I suspect, that the Microsoft vision had one key element missing – it had no explicitly articulated social or environmental benefit. What is often missing from vision statements are the consumer or end user’s perspectives. The ‘enabling’ aspect that demonstrates not only what the company is going to achieve, but how the world is going to be enriched as a result.
So you can imagine the purist’s response to Gates’ vision if he put it forward today – What, only a PC in every home? No curing cancer? No halting climate change?
One Chief Strategy Officer of a multinational FMCG company I was consulting with not long ago made this comment when we were discussing the possible creation of a new uniting ‘purpose’ for the organisation: “You make us sound like a religion – since when was it a company’s role to fulfil this ‘higher purpose’ – we are surely here to do create a great business that give consumers products they want, and anticipate their needs”.
Perhaps he has a point. I have witnessed many companies struggling to meet this ‘higher’ challenge and frankly coming a little unstuck along the way. The purpose of an organisation cannot be wallpapered over its original mission, or airlifted in from a higher plane. It must be authentic, original and demonstrable. I sometimes fear that the pressure on companies to demonstrate such lofty raison d’etre may result in a mismatch between its true corporate mission and its desired perception. There has to be a win-win for the business and all its many stakeholders – a core purpose can only succeed if it’s inextricably linked with the company’s future financial and strategic success.
But I do worry when companies appear to be trying to be all things to all people. Whilst a great company should always know where it’s heading and therefore have a strong vision, as well as provide a compelling sense of purpose to its own staff, is it a little far-fetched to expect it to solve the meaning of life as well?