It is sometimes hard, as a business leader in this modern, interconnected world, to know where our priorities should lie. Many of the terms that we hear being banded around – particularly in strategy documents – can appear to be interchangeable. Is there really any discernible difference between ideas like ‘vision’, ‘mission’ and ‘purpose’? And if there is, how do they all interlink? And which, as modern business leaders in charge of often disparate, far-flung global teams, should we prioritise?
Well, clearly there is a difference between these terms, and it’s probably worth quickly reminding ourselves of what each one means before I talk more about how I focus on one of them – purpose – when I’m working with my own teams. A company’s vision is generally aspirational and often transformative – it is the big, industry changing thing that everyone, however humdrum their day to day responsibilities, can look at and use to remind themselves why they’re doing the job in the first place. A ‘mission’ on the other hand is a little more prosaic – it is what the business actually does, and often who it does it for. Rather than expressing a grand vision to reach for, a mission statement is more likely to explain simply how the business benefits its customers.
The importance of purpose
So, where does the idea of ‘purpose’ fit into all of this, and why is it so important to create a shared sense of purpose in our teams? For many organisations, their ‘purpose’ is defined as being the reason or reasons they exist – as opposed to their mission which is more practically focused on what the business does.
But for me, it’s a little more than this. I also like the idea of a purpose being an animating influence on my teams – in a way, this sense of purpose is the oxygen that fuels the fire that your people need to work to fulfil the vision of the business. A sense of purpose, as I see it, is the element that brings your company or team vision to life for your people and drives them to action.
In a way, having a purpose is the most important of the these strategic terms. Why? Well, because without a shared sense of purpose, I believe, it is unlikely that any actual work will be done to try and achieve the vision you’ve set yourself. Without a coherent sense of purpose, the fact that you have identified and communicated a set of clear benefits for your customers almost becomes irrelevant – because that driving force, that engages your people and makes things happen – is missing.
Creating purpose in teams
So, a sense of purpose is a crucial element in delivering any strategy. But how do we make sure that we actually create it in our teams and our individuals? And how do we do this when we have to bring together a team – perhaps one like mine, which is spread around the world? Well, it is a tough challenge, but it is one that I believe is possible.
For me, the process of creating a real, shared sense of purpose has to begin with good, consistent communication. Of course, if you have a far flung team this has become a lot easier in recent years. Thanks to cloud technology we can collaborate remotely on shared projects. We can talk ‘face to face’ using video streaming, and stay connected wherever we are thanks to mobile smartphone technology. So, technology has big role to play – but simply putting these communication channels in place alone won’t build a sense of purpose in your teams.
Instead, I think it is essential to create an expectation of regular, productive communication – to make talking and sharing ideas with each other a regular habit that people can commit to, build into their schedules and look forward to taking part in. Why? Because I firmly believe that our teams – in fact any employee – wants to feel that whatever it is that they are doing is in some way contributing to the progress of the company – and this crucial to having a sense of purpose.
So, whether they are simply getting on with their daily tasks, or having their regular virtual team meeting via Skype, it is essential that your teams understand how what they are doing is consciously purposeful. No one wants to feel like they are wasting their time, or acting in a way that ultimately will go unacknowledged, or is irrelevant to the grander ambitions of the company they are working for.
In this sense, this is why it is so essential for us as business leaders to make sure that we always act purposefully – in a way that has meaning, and that is clearly connected to achieving all of the aims we set ourselves. I believe we should only ever ask our teams to do the same thing too.