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The Transformative Power Of Purpose

2022 July 3
by Greg Satell

Wherever I go in the world to speak and advise organizations, I always get the same question: “How can I get people to listen to my ideas?” The truth is that no one wants to listen to your ideas unless they solve a problem that is meaningful to them. So many initiatives fail because leaders get so focused on their passion for an idea that they fail to communicate it effectively.

People already have enough going on in their lives with their own responsibilities, ambitions and dreams. They have families to take care of, friends that they want to spend time with and their own ideas that they want to pursue. The status quo always has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully.

The truth is that good ideas fail all the time. In the two decades I have been researching and advising leaders about transformation, what I have found is that few have trouble coming up with new concepts. The hard part is to get others to buy in and work together towards a common purpose. That can only be done in the context of shared sense of values and mission.

Why Occupy Not Only Failed, But Could Never Succeed

On September 17, 2011, #Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park, in the heart of the financial district in Lower Manhattan. Declaring, “We are the 99%,” they captured the attention of the nation and then the world, eventually growing to encompass protests in 951 cities across 82 countries.

The protesters were angry and rightly so. A global economic elite had bilked us out of trillions and then gotten off scot-free. However, despite all of the self-righteous indignation, they offered no alternate vision of how they wanted things to be. There were no proposals for legislation, alternative business models or anything else really, just anger and frustration.

As Joe Nocera noted in the New York Times, the Occupy movement “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive’ power of corporations,” but “never got beyond their own slogans.” It’s never enough to merely point out what you don’t like — you need to put forward a clear idea of what you want instead.

When General Stanley McChrystal sought to transform military operations in Iraq, his mantra was “it takes a network to defeat a network” and he built his strategy for change around that one basic principle. Lou Gerstner pulled off one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in history by refocusing his organization from its proprietary “stack” of products to its customers’ “stack” of business processes.

A sense of grievance is never enough to bring change about. You need to put forward an affirmative vision of tomorrow.

How The Mission Drives Your Strategy

We usually think of strategy as a rational, analytic activity, with teams of MBA’s poring over spreadsheets. We often forget that strategy has to have a purpose and that purpose is almost always personal and emotive. Great strategy starts, not with analysis, but from defining and committing to a mission.

Strategy is never created on an empty canvas.  While we can make rational assessments about whether we want to pursue a strategy based on low costs, differentiation or an attractive niche. We can, through investments and divestments, fill in missing pieces on a PowerPoint chart, but the fate of a strategy ultimately hinges on personality and ambition.

The success of Apple can’t be separated from Steve Jobs’ ambition to weave technology and design into products that were “insanely great.” Southwest’s dominance in the travel industry is a direct consequence of Herb Kelleher’s mission of being “THE low cost airline,” which drove everything he did from the planes he bought to which routes he competed on.

As Adam Michnik, one of the key intellectual leaders behind the Solidarity movement in Poland, put it, “Start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.”

Any vision for the future needs to be rooted in desire and desires are essentially personal. They are deeply entrenched in our sense of self.

The Value Of Values

The 2008 financial crisis posed serious challenges for every business. With sales taking a nosedive, companies had to make painful cuts to rein in costs. In the vast majority of cases, that meant layoffs and millions lost their jobs. It’s one of those understandable misfortunes.e No one likes it, but few see alternatives.

The steel giant Nucor, however, had pledged never to lay off employees and it cost it dearly. In 2009, the company lost $294 million dollars. At the time, many saw the move as quixotic and impractical. Yet the results speak for themselves. Today the company is valued more than 30% higher than its closest rival ArcelorMittal, with significantly higher profit margins and twice the return on equity.

In The Good Jobs Strategy MIT’s Zeynep Ton tells a similar story about Mercadona, Spain’s leading discount retailer, when it needed to cut costs in 2008. Rather than cut wages or reduce staff, it asked its employees to contribute ideas. The result was that it managed to reduce prices by 10% and increased its market share from 15% in 2008 to 20% in 2012.

Values are how an enterprise honors its purpose. Yet living up to them involves certain costs. You can’t say you value employees and then lay them off at the first sign of trouble, just like you can’t say you value innovation and obsess about quarterly earnings. You can’t commit to a purpose without making hard choices.

We Need To Start Asking Different Questions

When the Business Roundtable issued a statement in 2019 that discarded the old notion that the sole purpose of a business is to provide value to shareholders, many were dismayed. Some thought it was just another example of misguided altruism by “elites.” Others saw it as a cynical and disingenuous ploy.

The truth is that the whole idea of shareholder capitalism was a copout. It gave leaders an excuse for not making choices because it implied that whatever the stock market valued was somehow more relevant than human agency. The anonymous collective of the market was primary, while individual choice was considered to be less consequential.

The ascendant concept of “stakeholder capitalism,” unfortunately, isn’t much better. Surely we can’t value all stakeholders equally. So which communities should we choose to serve? Which consumers do we value over others? Which partners do we choose to get in bed with? What standards should we insist that our suppliers meet?

None of these are easy questions. If for instance, we stop working with suppliers who don’t meet certain environmental or governance standards, we take away jobs from certain communities and run the risk of diminishing our ability to serve our customers. So we need to be thoughtful and offer intelligent standards making tough and uncertain choices

The reason so many organizations find themselves unable to pursue a purpose isn’t because they don’t want to, but because it is hard. Purpose doesn’t begin with a single step, but with a diverging path. We must choose one direction at the expense of another, or stay mired and lost, unable to move forward.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Michael Heuser on Unsplash

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