What's your company's higher purpose? If your answer is something like "maximizing investor return," watch out--there may be trouble ahead. That's the word from Lisa Earle McLeod, author of Selling with Noble Purpose, and a consultant who's helped many companies large and small discover the higher motivations behind what they do.

Companies that lack this idea of purpose are likely to lose their way, she says. In fact, she believes this question of purpose is so important that--paradoxical as it seems--companies that stop focusing on purpose in favor of such matters as maximizing investor returns are doomed to fail in the long run. It's the sense of purpose that brings in customers and money, she adds. If you've lost that sense of purpose you will lose your customers too--it may just not have happened yet. "Revenue is always a lagging indicator," she explains. "It's a report on what people thought, felt, and believed about you a year ago."

How do you get--and keep--that sense of purpose? Here are some steps McLeod recommends:

1. Define your purpose.

This is an exercise she often does with companies, and it's something most any leadership team can try. "You need to answer three questions," she says. "How do you make a difference in the lives of customers? How are you different from your competitors? And on your best day, what do you love about your job?"

She recently went through this exercise with Thompson Dehydrating Company, a family-run business that supplies industrial dryers. After listened to family members describe the fires and other mishaps their equipment helped prevent, she teased out their higher purpose: Their products made these industrial environments safer. And so their Noble Purpose Statement became, "We make the world, and our customers, cleaner, safer, and more prosperous." Note that your purpose does not need to be philanthropic, or address one of the great social issues. On the other hand, it should explain how your product makes your customers' lives better.

2. Make it pithy.

When you've got your purpose figured out, try and put it in words as succinct as those, McLeod recommends. "Keep in mind, it doesn't need to be a description of your products and services. It needs to be a succinct description of the impact of those products and services, and it usually begins with 'we.' And it should speak to your highest aspirations, it doesn't need to be something you're delivering on 100 percent today."

3. Tell the world.

Once you've got your purpose defined and succinctly stated, it's time to share it with your employees, your customers, and the world at large. But begin by sharing it with employees. You'll need their buy-in and their cooperation before you take this message to your customers.

4. Share it with prospective hires.

One of the biggest advantages to having a purpose is that it should help you hire bright, passionate, and engaged employees. "I have a daugter who's a Millennial," McLeod says. "She's graduating from college and interviewing at big companies, and she says, 'I talked to them but they have no bigger purpose.'" And all our research about Millennials says they won't work without one."

5. Make sure your organization's leaders all share your purpose.

It's a common failing for small companies to drift away from their purpose as they bring in professional managers to keep things running smoothly, especially if the company has grown. Her solution is simple: "Don't let anyone into your C-suite who doesn't share your purpose."

6. Be vigilant.

Most new companies start out with a sense of purpose but then it gets lost along the way as they focus on such issues as revenue streams, McLeod says. Make sure this doesn't happen at your company by watching for red flags, she adds. One such potential flag is what she callse the "narrative" of your meetings.

"If you talk about revenue but not customers, if you talk about product pipeline, but not the impact it will have on customers, if you spend more time looking at spreadsheets and less time talking about customer experience--these are all signs you're going to have big problems a year from now," McLeod says.

6. Don't let anyone tell you that purpose and money are enemies.

"Don't allow a false dichotomy in your business," McLeod says. "Make sure your employees and your customers know that making a difference and making money are not two separate things. They are closely related. And you are going to do both."

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Published on: Nov 12, 2014
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