True story. It’s been years, but remains as vivid as yesterday: this memory, the spine-throbbing tension, dreadful corporate politics, and a lesson on the power of purpose.
A global company with many pet brands was conflicted about what insights were valid and which innovation platforms to commercialize. The Lord of the Flies syndrome took over: Those who screamed the loudest and made the most alliances inside the company were “winning” at that moment… but at what cost? The morale of the culture, the trust of their teammates, and the ability to listen to the real needs of the market were all at stake.
The debate reached a boiling point in the back room of a focus group. Each person was yelling to prove him or herself right. Sides were drawn. Careers were at stake. It was sickening, really, to see executives and professionals act so childish. Not much traction happens inside cultures like this one.
They were paralyzed. Co-workers couldn’t collaborate, reach consensus, or make a decision. Inside the focus group, meanwhile, we were facilitating a great conversation. The participants included several store managers from Hollywood Feed, Petco, and the local buyer of the pet section at Whole Foods.
As each new concept was unveiled, the store managers from Hollywood Feed and Petco responded whether they liked, loved, or didn’t like the concept, but added that they had little choice or authority in what they could buy for their stores.
It was a different story for the local pet food buyer from Whole Foods. He knew exactly what he’d stock and what he’d pass on – and why it worked for his store.
I had to know: How did he make decisions so easily? He said, “Our purpose is to be the healthiest grocery store in the world. I use our purpose to filter buying decisions.”
I pressed, “Healthiest for whom?”
He said, “For people, other species, and the planet.”
The embarrassingly loud debate in the viewing room went silent. The other store managers ogled in disbelief. The clarity was enviable. The lucidity of purpose provided context and authority to make decisions and kept wasteful politics at bay. As a pioneer in the field of corporate purpose, Whole Foods provided this clarity to each of its buyers and embedded it in every facet of its operations.
The contrast was stark: Rabid corporate politics eating one culture alive. Managers at stores with little authority where buying was centralized. They seemed a little less than, not fully functional in terms of what they could bring to the business or their own career.
Then, you had a local buyer from Whole Foods with a simple mantra of purpose that inspired, guided, served as a decision matrix, and allowed for him to use his own judgment to make important decisions quickly. In a quiet way, he exuded confidence and exposed the excesses and limitations of the others on both sides of the glass wall, whose companies did not have a formal, active purpose.
So, what is purpose? A lot of people assume purpose is an ideal or an aspiration, like a vision or mission. But nothing is further from the truth when an authentic purpose is embedded into the operating system of an organization. In fact, purpose can be your most pragmatic, cunning value driver, providing a last legal means of real competitive advantage.
Epic Pivot’s definition of purpose is how and why an organization creates value. Purpose can be called the life force of an organization, serving as a North Star in all actions and interactions. Authentic purpose drives decision making and behavior, inspiring a high-performance culture and cultivating a palpable sense of responsibility with all stakeholders.
Purpose: The Movement
Epic Pivot is not a lone prophet crying in the wilderness about the power of purpose. There is a whole international movement that sees purpose as the next evolution of business and capitalism.
Two firms focus exclusively on the Fortune 100. One is led by the former CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman. His great book, Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, is essential corporate purpose reading. BCG’s Brighthouse focuses on Purpose, too, for large, international companies.
Bright house CEO, Ashley Grice, explains the difference between vision, mission, and purpose:
“I’m not talking about your mission, which is what you do every day, or your vision, which is where you are headed. Both mission and vision are important corporate drivers, but they play a different role than purpose. And mission and vision will change with changes in leadership, corporate contacts, competitive landscape, merger and acquisition. Purpose isn’t that temporal.” (from: https://www.ted.com/talks/ashley_m_grice_the_power_of_purpose_in_business).
In a recent HBR article, What Is the Purpose of Your Purpose? by Jonathan Knowles, B. Tom Hunsaker, Hannah Grove, and Alison James, three types of Purpose were defined:
- Cause-based purposes: Doing well by doing good, where organizations push for positive societal change as an integral part of the business model (think Patagonia’s “in business to save our home planet”)
- Competence-based Purpose: Delivering on a value proposition through rigorous discipline (such as Ford’s “quality is job one”)
- Culture-based Purpose: To create internal alignment and stimulate deep collaboration with key partners (Consider Zappo’s “to live and deliver WOW”)
Other firms are starting to offer this service as well – and you will see and read a lot about this movement as the emerging human-to-human era of business evolves.
There is also the entire B-Corp and conscious capitalism body of work, which fit some organizations’ authentic purpose journey, but not all.
Epic Pivot focused on the mid-market and on privately held companies, as that is where we see the greatest potential for making the systemic changes necessary to activate purpose.
Warning: watch out for trend jumpers!
Some organizations will begin superficial purpose washing, and some unscrupulous consultants will take their money for creating anemic, aspirational purpose posters without doing the heavy lifting of helping to discern and articulate an authentic purpose and then helping adapt both the company’s strategy and structure to fulfill the purpose.
As with all good trends, there will be some poor executions of purpose. Make sure you get it right.
Purpose benefits: The benefits of embedding purpose are clear: Better engaged employees. Higher retention rates. EightX or more market share over profit-only competitors. Above scores on ESG initiatives. The rarest thing: successful transformations. Positive consumer brand appeal. Loyal suppliers. The list goes on. It’s just good business.
Reach out when you are ready to discover the power of purpose.
P.S. Here’s some of our key motivators:
Epic Pivot Purpose: Activate the inherent potential of every willing organization, helping them flourish.
Epic Pivot Mission: Humanize organizations so they can be a more effective source of value in the world.
Epic Pivot Vision: Business acts as a force of healing in the world.
A proven record of success
We have led more than 250 successful engagements in transformation, innovation, insights, and strategies. We’ve worked with Fortune 100 corporations to small businesses, nonprofits of all sizes, military service branches, municipalities, and private equity groups. We’ve touched many sectors in 15+ years of running. Check out highlights from our portfolio and industries served here.