Purpose Explained

What makes a good Purpose statement?

A Good Purpose Is Hard to Find

I’m often asked to coach senior executives and startup CEOs on how to sustain a strong, cohesive culture. At Undercurrent, we argue that Purpose is an essential building block for any business, and that Purpose should be visionary instead of commercial. A visionary Purpose provides a true north for the culture. People work harder, smarter, and longer when they know their efforts are in service of something bigger than themselves.

That’s much easier said than done. I find that for many large and small companies, their purpose often hinders a healthy culture.

In large corporations, purpose statements express truthiness rather than truth. Corporate purpose statements are usually the product of big efforts that involve consultants, and committees, and focus groups. However, most are met with skepticism by employees — “Make the world better? That’s bull. All they want to do is make money.” Few established companies have been successful at establishing a helpful purpose; I look up to Southwest as perhaps the best example. Southwest states its mission as “dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.” More important than its down-to-earth and clear values is the fact that SouthWest often credits its financial success on employee’s willingness to adopt and work for their purpose.

In the startups I’ve advised, I found that purpose skews towards being exceedingly aspirational. Startup purpose statements frequently resemble “disrupt healthcare” or “democratize data.” There’s a difficult balance between framing a moonshot and being abstract or unclear. The risk is that employees disconnect from the mission and connect to tactical realities: “my job isn’t to disrupt data, it’s to build this feature into our app.”

Below, I’ve written my three requirements of a good company Purpose. As you read the rest of this article, use Google’s purpose as a benchmark:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

I haven’t heard that much praise for it, but looking at it through the three lenses I’ve laid out below, it’s close to perfect. As an investor, user, and even a potential employee, I find it inspiring and engaging — and that outcome matters more than anything.

A Good Purpose:

1. Is durable: will excite a team for a 100-year mission.

If our mission were to deliver good quarterly earnings, we could all go home at the end of the quarter — we’re done. A good purpose makes it easy to see how each person and each day of work add up to a grand vision.

2. Is fractal: can be unpacked and individualized for each org level and team.

In large organizations, a good purpose should enable each team and person to find a non-overlapping place for themselves in the mission. For example, if you’re an HR leader at Google, you might state your purpose as “Finding and developing the best talent to organize the world’s information.”

3. Is clear: can enable teams to make decisions based on their purpose.

Every manager should be able to justify a decision on purpose. Every engineer should be able to tell if any line of code they’re writing is helping the company move closer towards its purpose. A clear purpose helps individuals and teams break ties and settle debates.