In my research into the origins of organizational purpose one thing impressed me about those leaders in the social service sector.
When asked to define the purpose of their organization they could rattle it off in a flash. For example, one educator told me it was to improve the ability of children to learn, another in health care told me it was to improve levels of access and quality, and another from the military told me it was to bring all his troops home safely.
Each of these knew their purpose and there is a reason. Each was living in a culture where vision, mission, and values were crystal clear. And so when thinking about the purpose of an organization is good to take a moment to define it. Not as an exercise in thinking, but as a means of discovering it so that it can be put to good use.
Defining purpose is a straightforward proposition. In its simplest form, purpose is the organization’s reason for being. As I explain in my newest book, Lead With Purpose, it is a combination of vision, mission, and values.
To define the purpose, you want to ask three questions:
What is our vision? This question is aspirational. What do we want to become. Just as young people ask this question upon choosing a career, organizations need to do the same. Vision emerges from the sense of purpose. It forms the why, but it also embraces the future as in “to become” the best, the most noted, the highest quality, or the most trusted.
What is our mission? Very often this is the easiest to answer because all you need to do is look around at what you are doing. Your mission is the what of an organization. For example, if you work in mental health facility, your mission is to care for and provide therapy to those who suffer from conditions that inhibit their ability to learn, study, work, and get along with others.
What are our values? Neither vision or mission mean much if they are not reinforced by strong values. Values shape the culture—that is, the way people behave toward others. Ethics and integrity must be a given. But people want more than good behavior; they want to work in a place where cooperation and collaboration are norms. They want also to know their work matters and they will be recognized for it. Values enforce the behaviors that employees cherish.
Now that you know the questions, what can you do about it? Make time at staff meetings to discuss and debate. Some organizations find it valuable to create off-site meetings around purpose. The intention of such gatherings is to find out what colleagues think. Leaders have influence over purpose but they do not define it nor sustain it. Only when employees embrace ownership of purpose will it matter.
Answers to these questions will provoke thinking and discussion. Defining purpose, if one does not already exist, is an exercise in leadership. It is a means by which an organization comes to grips with how it sees itself.
True purpose does not exist in a vacuum. It must be put to good use. Leaders communicate it as a means to fulfilling the vision, mission, and values. It also points people in the right direction so they can achieve results for the organization, for the team, and for themselves.
The majority of this piece was excerpted from John Baldoni's book, Lead with Purpose.