What is your purpose?

Products and profit are not enough: to be a great business, you need to understand your purpose in this world, says Ashgrove’s Terry van Rhyn

Uncovering the real reason why people do what they do is what I love about my work. Whether that’s assessing shifting consumer behaviour patterns, or uncovering the true reason why a business exists.

In my world of brand marketing, you are constantly searching for that one unique thing that will set a brand apart and allow you to tell the story in a compelling manner that will resonate with its audience.

Any marketing plan will advise on the desired target audience, key value propositions, positioning statement, competitive landscape, SWOT analysis, etcetera. But my natural starting point is finding the truth of what a business stands for – why do they do what they do. The rest is technical.

You can usually only determine this “truth” if the business owner or leader opens up and allows you to uncover their ultimate goal and purpose.

Sometimes, it has to be said, it appears they are not always 100% sure themselves what this is. Their focus is more on delivery of results, measured by performance, and the creation of value amongst all stakeholders, including executives, employees and shareholders.

Whilst I appreciate this is important, all the performance metrics are standard baseline stuff. There has to be a higher purpose.

Any business serves a community, be it a small town or multi-national locations. It will employ, operate and function from within that community and therefore it’s not only about the widget produced or the service provided – it’s about making a positive social impact.

Think about the purpose a Branson, Jobs, Musk, Brin/Page, Schultz or Gates had when they all started out on their journeys. I bet that driving profit was not the only – or even primary – focus as they worked on their dreams in basements and garages. They had a bigger purpose and that was to solve a problem or create something completely innovative that will change the way people live or work.

There are many famous quotes by Peter Drucker, often known as the father of management thinking, but this one relates well to this topic: “The purpose must lie outside the business itself. In fact, it must lie in society, since a business enterprise is an organ of society.

“Leaders are responsible and accountable for the performance of their institutions, and that requires them and their institutions to be concentrated, focused, limited. They are responsible also, however, for the community as a whole.”

I also find this quote by David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard, appropriate: “I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being.

“As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist…to make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental.”

If you are in any doubt about this, consider also the emergence of the more thoughtful millennial consumers who want to associate with brands that have a relevant corporate social responsibility at the core of their existence. This caring mind set will continue to trend more strongly over time and it’s already evident that they are influencing older generations to shift their thinking.

Employees and consumers alike want to “feel” something from a business or brand, and few organisations personify that feeling better than Virgin. This quote from Richard Branson sums it up: “I think if the people who work for a business are proud of the business they work for, they’ll work that much harder, and therefore, I think turning your business into a real force for good is good business sense as well.”

In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of businesses in the financial and corporate services arena. I’ve always found it very rewarding to help shape a compelling message that will cut through the boring ho-hum clutter and confusing jargon in this sector.

When you are dealing with people’s wealth, investments or savings, you are at the sharp end of life. You therefore have to demonstrate competence, nurture trust, instil confidence and deliver results and do so in a believable manner.

For this to work, you have to rise above the basic deliverables and find the higher purpose of why the company exists. Sure, you still have to prepare to be challenged at board meetings to justify your business plan and financials, and you still have to deliver the goods. But while exploring the “softer” issues are often not an easy topic in a boardroom environment, they will serve as a reminder to the leadership of the higher purpose and real reason of their existence.

This is best captured in a quote by Dee Hock, of Visa: “Money motivates neither the best people, nor the best in people. It can move the body and influence the mind, but it cannot touch the heart or move the spirit; that is reserved for belief, principle, and morality.”

So what’s your purpose – and how well are you serving it?