Dec 11 2017| Leadership | Values

Purpose is a Three-Letter Word

The hardest question to ask is the most important one to answer.

by Phil Eyre Founder

Reflecting on an invigorating year which has seen us working with leaders of business, charity, military and government teams, asking ‘why’ has been the most provocative and challenging question that we have put to our clients.  

This seemingly simple and mundane question takes us straight to the core purpose of the organisation.

This question cannot be satisfied by reference to outputs or financial targets. Neither can it be answered by cut and paste objectives such as ’provide our clients with a high level of service’, however admirable those aims might be.

Purpose is why the organisation exists. Why anyone - employees, providers of capital, customers - would care. Successful organisations have a clear understanding of their purpose.

Simon Sinek makes a compelling case in his book, Start With Why. Without purpose, leaders will fail to inspire their people; without inspiration, performance flounders. 'What companies do are external factors, but why they do it is something deeper,' he says.

To Serve is Purpose

There is a further factor that makes for exceptional performance. Those companies that excel over the medium and long term understand that their purpose is to serve: to serve other people and to serve the natural world. Without service, there can be no meaning. Without meaning, there can be no sustained engagement.  

First, a reality check. It is absolutely possible for a leader or business to succeed over the short term with an entirely self-serving purpose. If the purpose of the individual or business can be distilled down to 'make more money', financial returns can be generated successfully. But this 'success' will come at a cost. High staff turnover, high employee burnout, environmental carelessness and customers being used rather than served are the likely outcomes of this approach.

If the 'why' is merely about money without any sense of meaning, toxicity is the inevitable result. That’s neither fulfilling nor healthy for anyone. (Read our article on toxic leaders).  

In contrast, an organisation that has a meaningful purpose at its core will naturally create a compelling environment marked by creativity, collaborative teamwork, commitment and agility - the key ingredients to sustained success.  

Leaders of such a business are propelled by a set of beliefs that there is a purpose to their work. These create more profound motivation than carrot and stick motivational tactics can provide. Such a business will always aspire to improve the lives of other people or nurture the natural environment.

Employee Engagement

A compelling purpose is a critical factor for employee engagement. A survey by Hays demonstrated the importance for employees to understand the purpose of their job.

94% recorded understanding their employer's purpose as ‘very important’ or ‘important’;

26% stating that they would leave if they could not understand how their job connected with the purpose of the organisation. 

The excellent Bersin by Deloitte Human Capital Trends Survey 2017 shows that the employee experience - culture and engagement - is a top 10 critical factor for global business. Management expert Peter Drucker once said of the link between life and work: 'To make a living is no longer enough. Work also has to make a life.'

It is this purpose at work that people need, but that need often goes unfulfilled.

Given that having a clear purpose embedded in an organisation is so critical, why is this often neglected? I suggest three reasons.  

1. Too Removed

Some businesses and workers are a few steps removed from the people whose lives are improved or from the natural world that is being nurtured. Not everyone is a zoologist or a midwife.

One of our clients manufactures components for medical equipment that is used in hospitals around the world. Their factory environment is far removed from the individuals who are being treated for serious illnesses, but without their work, people would suffer and in some cases would die.

Connecting the demands of meeting production targets with the ultimate beneficiaries - people whose lives are being saved - creates meaning and purpose, even on the factory floor.

There is nearly always opportunity to create meaningful purpose in any organisation. Banks can provide capital to a business that in turn serves communities. Insurance companies can instigate practices that prevent harm to the environment. Corporate lawyers can ensure high standards of protection for their clients. But these are choices; great leaders ensure that the business chooses purposeful objectives (not just financially rewarding ones), communicating these choices throughout the organisation frequently.

If you are removed from the people whose lives are improved by your work or from the environment that is being nurtured, take time out to remind yourself, refocus the organisation and communicate your purpose.

2. Complacency

Once a level of success has been achieved, some leaders are happy to settle and maintain the good results that they have achieved rather than continue to stretch forward. Having achieved stretching targets, enjoying the moment is important. But that’s all it should be - a moment - from which the business must continue to press forward with new, demanding goals. An added dynamic is that, as the organisation grows, it is common that new joiners are less aware of the core purpose or do not share it to the same extent as the founders.

Leaders see this when businesses are still using measures of success that were in place some years ago. Little energy is given to challenge, and a strong sense of purpose is lost in favour of a more inward focus. Inevitably, employee engagement drops, energy plateaus and high-potential recruits look elsewhere

3. Seduction

In short, money and power are seductive and if unchecked, will divert leaders and their organisations away from meaningful purpose. Volkswagen, meaning “people’s car', provides an illustration.  

In 2015, Volkswagen was at the centre of an emissions scandal, accused of deliberately fitting devices to its cars to dupe emissions tests. Not only failing the environment, the company was also failing the people it was founded to serve. Making a sale and maximising profits had suffocated their purpose.

As influence grows, some leaders can become more concerned about their own ‘press’ rather than the purpose of their organisation. Their initial outward serving focus can switch inward which in turn results in a redirection of resources towards meeting their needs. Pride and ego quickly supersede purpose and meaning. Trust is eroded, respect evaporates, results diminish. (Read more on building trust).

'Purpose is a Thing You Build, Not a Thing You Find.'

John Coleman, author of Passion and Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders says this: 'Purpose is a thing you build, not a thing you find.' We are responsible for making our work meaningful as well as taking meaning from it.

Here are a few questions that will help you. Take a moment to consider a typical week or month at work.

  • What do you love doing?
  • What aspects of your work energise you?
  • What would you do all day if you could?
  • What do you enjoy learning about?
  • How much of your week is spent doing those things?
  • What can you do to increase that percentage?

When coaching leaders, we often begin by helping them to explore what activities are the most purposeful at work and outside of work. They are then able to start to make changes to orientate their work towards more meaningful activities and overcome limits to doing so.

Some examples have included:

  • Becoming a mental health first aider;
  • Scheduling their most energised hours (usually the first few hours of the working day) for the most purposeful work rather than leaving this until the end of the day;
  • Initiating a culture-change programme to put employees at the centre of a growth strategy;
  • Decide to abandon appraisals in favour of a coaching approach to leadership;
  • Exiting a client that had little connection with the purpose of the organisation;
  • Choosing to speak at a conference rather than just attend;
  • Choosing to leave the office to get home and spend quality time (attentive and present) with family over dinner.

In our work, we believe that everyone has a unique purpose; unique skills and experience to serve the world and its people. Connecting meaningful activities with the work that we do makes for highly fulfilling work and life.

Why not take a moment to review your own CV and re-write it as a purpose-vitae; rather than list the jobs you have done and where you have worked, set out why you worked in each role; what attracted you, what of ‘you’ was expressed in each role? What was the purpose of each role?


If you have lost sight of the purpose of your work, now is the time to take stock. Otherwise, you and your organisation will be busy-tired rather than busy-energised. I see the difference on people’s faces when they’re under pressure. It’s the difference between despair and determination.

Our purpose is to help people to flourish at work and in life. It would be great to hear what your purpose is.

About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has sophisticated expertise in psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with, and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company in Guernsey, Collins Stewart (CI) Limited, now Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Phil has served on the boards of three charities, including BMS World Mission, a UK charity with over 80 employees and a global reach. Phil also ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and served as a non-executive director for Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil is a member of the NED Forum and the Institute of Directors.

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