It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. 

VSP Global, the health-focused vision care leader that serves 1 in 4 people in the U.S., had just undertaken a process to articulate its purpose when the pandemic hit. Was there time to get pensive when each day demanded tough decisions?

“We were already knee-deep in change,” says Wendy Hauteman, chief marketing officer at VSP Global.  “From recent acquisitions and leadership transitions, to accelerated product development and increasing competition, we had plenty of change to manage. And then COVID hit.”

At about the same time, Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why made its way to an executive as a gift from an employee who was uninvolved and unaware of the purpose work underway. With it, a note that said, “I want to help inspire my colleagues to be more innovative and creative, not just show up to work - help me understand: What’s our why?”

It couldn’t have happened at a better time.

“You might think it would be a distraction in the middle of COVID,” Hauteman says. “But it wasn’t. Everything happening at once pointed to the need for one thing: Clarity,” she says. “And employees were as committed to it as we were."

VSP seized the pandemic as time to reflect and ask, “Why do we exist?” Months of process and discussion followed. The result? Six words that became a simple imperative, a beacon for behavior and a filter for decision-making to better unify its business: “To empower human potential through sight.” Even as VSP navigates the still-churning waters of world events and industry changes, the new purpose statement leaves nothing to chance.

VSP’s purpose is its own. But the truths it uncovered along the way belong to all of us. Here’s what its leaders and employees learned.

1. Naming things makes them real

A name is a handle that lets other people grab on. But naming a thing also allows you to identify similar things. If you think of VSP as just being in the business of vision care, then you may only look for opportunities in the category of vision care. If you understand it to be in the business of healthcare, then the scope of your associations broadens. And now “human potential”? Well, now your strategy can expand significantly. When your purpose is a part of your vocabulary it becomes even more top-of-mind, which is where it needs to be to inform strategy.

2. Employees crave closeness to the cause

Purpose is useful only if every person in your organization knows and feels it. Employees want to know their work is meaningful. Your purpose answers not only the question, “Why are we here?” but also the question, “Why am I here?” For VSP, that means giving employees the chance to connect with its purpose beyond their day job. In fact, employees directly help increase access to vision care for people in need by volunteering at its mobile clinics outreach events through VSP Eyes of Hope. There’s no closer connection to the “why” than making a pair of glasses for someone disadvantaged by income, distance, or disaster.

3. The footprints of purpose are everywhere

Don’t settle for the obvious or you may miss some magic. Comprehensive eye exams that not only correct vision but can detect early signs of chronic disease are not a surprising connection to empowering human potential through sight. But, especially in large organizations, the test is whether purpose permeates the enterprise. VSP had each business unit go through its own process to vet, discuss and define how its specific operations align with, and unlock, the power of the organization’s purpose.  As new lines-of-sight are established from operations to purpose, the tether that grounds the organization to its ultimate "why" grows stronger. 

If “purpose” is a child of our times, “paradigm,” is its ancestor. Paradigm was once the buzz word of leadership and communications but it has lost currency in recent years. That’s too bad, because while the word may have become a cliché, the concept remains profound. A paradigm is a map. It is the sum of your values, dreams and beliefs, and the result of your experiences: fights won and lost and knowledge both welcome and unwelcome. It is through this point of view that you assess all that your business is and could be. 

When you identify your purpose and it thrives not only “in your bones” but in your heart and hands, in what you plan and what you do, your purpose becomes your paradigm. It is the lens through which you see everything.