Turning Purpose into Profits … how to move from “inspire the world” ideologies into purposeful, practical and profitable business impact

March 6, 2020

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t everyone favourite philosopher, but the drop-out student who spent his Harvard years playing around with FaceMash as a way to find a girl, was recently back at Harvard talking about finding a more inspiring purpose. And he made a lot of sense:

“Today I want to talk about purpose. But I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials. We’ll try to do that instinctively. Instead, I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.

One of my favorite stories is when John F. Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness.”

Roy Spence, a little known guy, who was the creator of much of Southwest Airline’s journey to become one of the legends of customer service, describes purpose simply:

“Purpose is a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world.”

Of course Simon Sinek, and his “Start with Why” circle, is perhaps the best known descriptor of purpose and why it matters. Here’s his logic:

“All the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers — they all think, act, and communicate the exact same way and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it. It’s probably the world’s simplest idea and I call it the Golden Circle. Why? How? What?

This little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others are not. Let me define the terms very quickly.

Every single person and organization in the planet knows what they do 100%. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiating proposition or proprietary process or USP. But very very few people and organizations know why they do what they do. And by why I don’t mean to make a profit — that’s a result. It’s always a result. By why I mean, what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?”

From Purpose to Concept to Strategy … from WHY to HOW to WHAT

The real question most people then struggle with is, is how to turn an inspiring but fairly intangible purpose statement into something which is a meaningful strategy for the business. The key is to turn the aspiration into something practical, her called a strategic concept, before going on to define the practical actions, prioritised and delivered.

Step 1: Define your inspiring purpose … the WHY

The framework starts with purpose. For example, Starbucks’ purpose is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit”. 

As the core of purpose are three questions we need to answer:

  1. Who do we serve?
  2. What do we do for them?
  3. How does this enable them to achieve more, or be more?

Step 2: Interpret this as a strategic concept … the HOW

What is the big idea which will enable your business to deliver this purpose in a distinctive, better way? What is the strategic concept that will enable your inspiring intent to become real?

A concept is the core activity that sits about your day-to-day operations and allows you to deliver the purpose. In creative or brand agency parlance, this would be called the creative concept – the big idea.

For example, at the core of Starbucks are two things: coffee and human connection. Starbucks this concept more simply as the third place.

Step 3: Develop your purpose-driven strategy … the WHAT

A great example of this is the transformation agenda Starbucks created in 2008 to turn the company around. The agenda stated seven big moves:

  1. Be the undisputed coffee authority
  2. Engage and inspire their partners
  3. Ignite the emotional attachment with their customers
  4. Expand their global presence-while making each store the heart of the local neighborhood
  5. Be a leader in ethical sourcing and environmental impact
  6. Create innovative growth platforms worthy of their coffee
  7. Deliver a sustainable economic model

Indeed as demonstrated by Starbucks, a good way to articulate strategy is to come up a list of bold moves that will enable you to move dramatically and distinctively towards achieving your purpose.

Another great reference for strategy is Elon Musk’s Master Plan for Tesla. (Part two of their master plan is here.)

Tesla starts with an inspiring purpose, “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” (not just to make cool cars, or even to become a global leader in electric cars – that is just part of its internal mission, on the way to a more inspiring purpose).

  1. Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
  2. Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
  3. Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car

The Master Plan provides a clear road map (a series of steps) on what needs to be done.

What about mission, vision and goals?

Good question. Does the purpose sit above these statements or replace them?

MVGs are about the business itself – its what it seeks to achieve for itself – whereas purpose is what a business does for the world. Mission is what the business does itself, vision is a description of the future state when success is achieved, and goals are the specific things to achieve on the way. MVGs are insular, self-serving. Purpose is about engaging with the world, to make it better in some way (which might be in a positive way, contributing to society, which could be anything from fighting climate change, to spreading happiness).

Purpose by contrast is about business engaging with the outside world.

It defines what a company contributes to the world, why it exists, and how the world would be a lesser place without it. It is emotionally engaging to the audience – ideally to all stakeholders, employees and investors, as well as consumers – because it is what the business does for them, how it makes their lives better. Because it is more engaging, they pay more for it – be it in terms of price or loyalty, hard work and productivity, capital investment and support.

Profit follows purpose – but it’s the purpose not profit that is the WHY – and a surplus profit can be divided in a fair and forwards-looking way – used both to reward stakeholders for their roles in achieving it, but also invested in doing better, achieving more purpose.