I’m distressed about purposelessness.

The serious companies with whom we consult worldwide have all spent time, and usually a lot of money, crafting a “vision-mission-values” statement. There seems to be some confusion about why. Sometimes, it seems, they’ve made one because that’s what everyone else does.  Something’s just not “clicking” – or maybe I’m just on another planet with this issue?

Clearly it’s difficult for a large organization to stay focused when people don’t have a shared picture of where they’re going.  What are we in business to accomplish?  To avoid confusion, let’s call this the “What.” Most mission statements I’ve seen have some clarity around the What:  To be the best bank in someplace.  To deliver world-class hospitality.  To deliver technology solutions supporting key government programs.

Then it seems valuable to at least have an idea of strategy – how we’re going to do that (but in my experience good strategy changes rapidly with changing circumstance).  This is the “How.” How sounds like: By maximizing lending through blah blah.  By touching the heart.  By integrating robust services for rapid deployment.  These are interesting, sometimes important, but rarely powerful.

The tragically missing ingredient is the WHY.

I am most often invited to do leadership programs for senior executives or for high potentials (upper level but usually younger managers being groomed for senior leadership positions).  Occasionally I get to work with both groups in the same organization, and it’s fascinating to see how these groups each relate to the mission-vision-values statement.  Often the senior leaders are excited, they’ve been involved in the creation and it has meaning, significance, to them (though sometimes it’s “just something HR did”).  I’ve never seen a group of high potentials likewise touched by these documents.

Some executives, particularly finance types, seem very excited about phrases like “being the best in,” and perhaps that is a big enough WHY for them.  Perhaps encoded in that phrase is something deeper than financial gain?  But it doesn’t seem to translate to a compelling purpose for middle managers, and it certainly leaves me flat.

One of most powerful human drives is to belong to something worthwhile; so perhaps leadership is about enrolling people in a truly significant purpose.  To tap this power, we need two ingredients:  significance and belonging.

What constitutes significance?  A start is “value above and beyond utility.”  Something can have non-utilitarian value because it’s beautiful or impressive or makes us laugh.  A great statue, an impressive building, a winning team or a compelling story all have value above and utility. That’s part of the human experience from time immemorial and not a bad touchstone for motivation. Maybe “being the best,” if it really happened, would have significance.   I suspect that companies that change their domains, like Apple has done with mobile computing, carry significance because of that groundbreaking experience.  But there’s still something deeper: meaning.

If significance is about value, then meaning is about purpose. “Purpose above and beyond utility.”  In other words, a real answer to WHY.

I suspect that I’m a bit of an extremist in this regard.  For me, “to make money” doesn’t qualify because that’s not above and beyond utility.  “To be the best” doesn’t qualify because that’s not a purpose (it’s a recognition of something).  “Giving 1% of profits to charity” doesn’t work for me because that’s a byproduct of the organization’s success, not the focus in and of itself.  When I seek meaning, I am looking for a profound commitment where the work of the organization is threaded in the very fabric of life.

In itself, this kind of purpose, a “real WHY,” is tough to find.  But even more difficult is keeping it real in a growing, dynamic organization.  I’ve heard there are some that have done this, but in the hundreds of companies where I’ve worked, and in the many thousands my colleagues and I have touched, I’m hard pressed to think of more than two – and both of those are nonprofits where the WHY is clear, but their HOW isn’t!

How depressing.

Or maybe – what a great opportunity for us?

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