Insight

The Purpose of a Purpose

An Interview with AvreaFoster's VP of Strategy, Andrew Skola
7 . 2 . 2018
Kenny Osborne

Strategy

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vreaFoster’s VP of Strategy, Andrew Skola, shares his perspective on an often misunderstood but crucial element of brand and business strategy: the purpose statement. Over the course of his career, Andrew has helped companies large and small clarify strategic objectives and discern core brand attributes. He focuses on how organizational decision-making drives clarity, both in terms of articulating value offerings and achieving operational efficiency. Below, Andrew gives his thoughts on how to devise an effective purpose statement and what pitfalls to avoid.
First off, what’s a purpose statement and how does it differ from a mission statement?

Most companies have a mission, a vision and a set of values. Each of those messaging components are designed to solve a different strategic need. Your mission statement defines how your company delivers your product or service. Your vision outlines your future state — where you see your company in 10-20 years. And values help orient your company’s behavioral compass.

A purpose statement is something entirely different. It defines “why” you are in business, your reason for being. It should be inspirational and reveal your company’s journey — not a pitch about a specific product or service.

One of my favorite quotes about purpose is from Sherry Hakimi, a proponent of purpose-driven leadership. She said, “An organization without purpose manages people and resources, while an organization with purpose mobilizes people and resources.”

What common mistakes do companies make when developing their purpose statement?

Organizations often confuse one or more key aspects of their culture or business objectives as their purpose statement. The result is an ambiguous or overly ambitious paragraph that tries to be all things to all people.

We see a vision statement passing as a purpose, or values getting conflated with strategic principles. Words and phrases are added merely to secure stakeholders’ approval. That’s a recipe for confusion.

Though a seemingly minor misstep, the consequences can be far-reaching. Each of these core attributes should focus employees’ efforts and drive operational imperatives, and when they’re poorly calibrated they can generate confusion, inefficiency and misalignment between departments.

The team involved in developing the purpose statement should have a broad, empathetic understanding of a company’s internal and

The idea is to identify your organization’s value holistically.
external relationships and industry impact. Even seasoned leaders can exaggerate or misrepresent a department’s contribution to the bigger picture, so be certain that no one division of your business hijacks the statement and omits other key contributors. The idea is to identify your organization’s value holistically, so focus on the final outcomes your company aims to deliver, not tactical procedures.

How do you help organizations narrow the search for a purpose statement?

Designing a smart process for development is as key as the final product itself.

It helps to remind what a purpose statement is not intended to achieve before seriously weighing suitable candidates. A purpose isn’t any of the following:

  • What a company does.
  • An internally-focused message.
  • Revised frequently.
  • An ideal used to measure completed tasks.
  • Operationally focused or driven.
What is a purpose statement’s true function?

A purpose statement should define the impact of company’s offering over the long term — what it provides its customers and larger community — or why a company opens its doors. It should satisfy the following criteria:

  • Provide a reason why an organization exists.
  • Focus outwardly and be empathetic.
  • Be permanent and unchanging.
  • Be aspirational and inspiring.
  • Apply broadly across all organizational boundaries.
Can you provide some examples of good purpose statements?

A few high-profile examples include Ernst Young: “Building a better working world;” Disney: “Promote and spread happiness;” and Unilever: “Making sustainable living commonplace.” As these cases illustrate, an organization’s purpose adopts the mindset of its customers to gauge their needs and ambitions, then expresses a commitment to empowering those goals.

Why should companies consider recruiting external assistance when drafting their purpose statements?

As mentioned, some organizations struggle to concisely articulate how they provide value to their customers. An external party can often better assess a company’s unique contribution and distill that value into an action-oriented purpose statement. If your organization is wrestling with how to articulate their core offerings, teaming up with a strategic brand consultancy can help orient your team around a unifying vision while delivering your customers a powerful reason to connect.

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