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Mission vs. purpose: the what and why of doing what we do

Have you ever repeated a phrase so often that you find you’ve forgotten what it means?  In a group meeting this week, I referred to a company’s “mission” using a phrase that I’ve repeated for years.  A new member of the group challenged me and threw me off balance.  What I was really referring to was the company’s purpose.

Simon Sinek, author of “Start with Why” and a speaker whose TED talk is among the most watched in history (over 41 million views), reminds us that most people know what their organization does but few know why.  In simple terms, a company’s mission is an expression of what it is trying to accomplish, e.g. become a leading purveyor of luxury goods or become the leading beverage company in the world.  We can build metrics around those statements and define the strategies to achieve them.

Purpose, on the other hand, is the why of what we do.  Among my clients is Western New York’s largest solar energy installer.  That’s what they do.  They do it – as well as advocate for environmentally friendly policies – because they are on a mission to save the planet.  That’s why they do what they do.

On a grander stage, Pepsi focuses on water quality.  Like the solar installer, their initiative falls into the category of “shared value,” a term first defined and a business strategy first outlined by Harvard’s Michael Porter.  On Pepsi’s website, they point to the importance of water quality to their business but also assert “water is a fundamental human right.” Their focus and extension of corporate resources to ensure the availability of clean water around the world is a manifestation of their purpose and one that all its constituencies – shareholders, employees and customers – can embrace.  Used as a guidepost for all corporate decisions, a company’s purpose can improve its bottom line or as the protagonist in my book, The Reluctant CEO, puts it:

“Focusing on the needs of society will generate innovative approaches to reducing costs and create new revenue opportunities.”

Excerpt From: John Calia. “The Reluctant CEO.”

Today’s young workers, the Millennials and those that follow them (Gen Z), demand a sense of purpose in their jobs.  A well-defined purpose connected to action that supports it will attract both talent and customers.  It will provide motivation.  Remember the janitor at Cape Canaveral who reputedly told JFK that what he does is helping to put a man on the moon?

So, what should you do if you’re a corporate leader who believes your company should have a purpose? Well, first you need clarity.  If you can’t define your purpose, you don’t have one.  Then ask yourself what values and beliefs provide the foundation for that purpose.

Set aside time; take a step back from the day-to-day activities of your company to reflect on how you are achieving your purpose.  Involve your leadership team and challenge them to consistently demonstrate how their beliefs and actions support it.  Corporate culture starts at the top and filters down.  If you behave according to your beliefs, your employees will align themselves with you.  That’s why you must relentlessly communicate your purpose, challenging everyone in your company to act accordingly – including yourself.

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