News and Views

Finding your purpose

Guusje Bendeler
November 12, 2017
News and Views

Finding your purpose

A workshop

Organizations use many terms to define who they are, what they stand for, and where they plan on heading — terms like mission, purpose, vision, values, etc. At thinkPARALLAX, we like to think of purpose, an organization’s aspirational reason for being beyond profit, as the ultimate and archetypal descriptor. A well-defined purpose, or “North Star” as we often call it, will serve as the ultimate guide point allowing your organization to navigate both difficult challenges and new opportunities.

This workshop is designed to give you the tools and knowledge to:

  • Create a purpose statement for your organization
  • Discover why purpose matters
  • Assess how purpose-oriented your organization is
  • Unveil potential examples of purpose in action
  • Identify stakeholders and illustrate channels to activate and communicate your purpose

Watch the above video or read the transcript below to learn more about the “Finding your Purpose” workshop.


Guusje: My name is Guusje Bendeler. Thank you, you did a great job of pronouncing it. I used to tell my students at San Diego State University, “Just remember ‘who’s your daddy’ and then you’ll know how to pronounce my name. Because when you see it written, it’s like you don’t even know if I’m a woman or a man, right?

In this session, we’re going to shake things up a little bit. Today was really inspiring, especially the fact that we are here with all women. Some of the sessions really got me thinking, and that’s what I want to do with you, too. I want to talk with you about how to find your North Star. When I talk about North Star, I talk about how to define your organizational purpose, how to articulate it, and then how to bring it to life.

How many of you believe that you do really meaningful work? Raise your hands. I expected quite a bit of hands, I expected more hands, actually! And how many of you think you know the organizational purpose, the reason for being, of the company that you work for? Let’s see some hands. Okay, that’s pretty good. For some of you that’s really clear, if you’re an entrepreneur or a sole proprietor, then I hope you’re really in sync with your own purpose. But sometimes it’s a little bit complex for a company. It might be really clear to your leaders, but not so clear to all the other employees.

I want to help you to define that in a speed that is crazy fast. We only have 40 minutes together, and I also wanted to talk a little bit about how you can activate that purpose. I’ll give you some ideas. There’s a worksheet in front of you with some information that is helpful to bring with you and start some conversations back at work. There are also pens and if you need more, or if somebody doesn’t have a worksheet, I have Leah, Will, and Jonathan who can help you.

We’re going to get busy here. I call it a purpose primer. By the way, we are a B Corps. I think it’s really important. My personal purpose is that I wish for every single organization and business in the world to be a for-benefit business. That’s really my goal. How am I so intrigued with purpose? Our roots really lay in strategy and creating strategies, communications, and implementation for sustainability, and that’s where we felt we could make the biggest impact as communicators. We have been doing that for large companies like Southwest Airlines, International Paper, Sempra Energy, Polycom, you name a few. This has been really satisfying work to help them push the envelope, doing good or a little better. And really, what’s most important is how you connect the sustainability strategy to the business strategy.

Sometimes we bump into the situation, but not always, that with the long-term business strategy in place, you realize – do you actually really know what your purpose is? When I talk about purpose, do you know the purpose beyond profit, the aspirational reason of being for your company beyond profit. When we realize that it’s is not always really clear and that it’s sometimes really hard to connect the sustainability strategy to the business strategy, that made me think, how can we create more impact as communicators and help people to do more? That’s why we’re now really big on trying to help others define their purpose and then start articulating it, embedding it, and then really bringing it to life.

What is purpose? There’s a bunch of definitions that go around and the definition that I use is purpose is the aspirational, the reason for being beyond profit. That’s the shortest definition. That’s the one I gave you in your worksheet, easy to remember. EY has a bit longer one, and I’ll read it to you, and they say, “It’s the organization’s single underlying objective that unifies all stakeholders. It should embody its ultimate role in the broader economic, societal, and environmental context for hundreds or more years.”

You can see that the sustainability part comes in play right away, so there’s the connection, right away. Then there is this idea that needs to be really aspirational and meaningful for a very, very long time. In order for it to be a North Star, it needs to be a goal so far away that it’s aspirational but not attainable within a few years.

Why is purpose importance? As I was talking about it, it’s really important to connect the dots. It’s really important for long-term strategy. It’s important for innovation. It’s important as a differentiator. If you don’t have to react to customer demands and instead can create consumer needs, then you’re ahead of the game, right? It helps tremendously with employee engagement; having every employee in your organization really know why you’re here and how their day-to-day work helps to work towards that North Star makes your work more meaningful. It helps with retention. It helps with recruiting. It helps with risk mitigation. It helps to build resilience. It helps to really build your reputation. And there’s a few more on your worksheet so you can read a little bit more.

What I think would be really good to do with you is to try, in a really mini way, to define your purpose. Maybe you already have a purpose, but maybe you feel it’s not aspirational enough, or maybe it is hidden. In an exercise with you, I’m going to guide you through how you can define your purpose. Honestly, it’s going to be a bit of a brainstorming session for yourself or for you and your coworkers if you’re sitting at a table together, or for your neighbor just to talk about and to try to get your thinking going. Okay?

Let me read you a few examples of purpose statements of some other companies that you will know to kind of understand how to start thinking. For example, 3M’s purpose is “to solve unsolved problems innovatively.” So you can understand more or less what they’re doing. It’s a bit more practical, but at the same time it has an aspirational tone to it, right? Merck, the pharmaceutical company, is “Our purpose is to preserve and improve human life.” Now there are two, and they’re quite aspirational, quite North Star. If we build a strategy on that purpose statement and start setting our priorities, then we can know what our actions can be.

Zappos’ purpose is a little bit more practical, but really true for them, too. They say, “To inspire the world by showing it’s possible to simultaneously deliver happiness to customers, employees, communities, vendors, and shareholders in a long-term, sustainable way.” So, more practical, but they even mention for who they’re doing it, for all their stakeholders. And they are trying to share what the impact is that they want to have. That’s what I want you to start thinking about, too.

I gave you two lines here. It’s way too little, obviously. So you have a little notepad to use and to start brainstorming. I’m going to give you a couple tips, and then start just writing away, but think through a few things. Think of the fact that it’s an aspirational reason for being and that it should go beyond profit. It’s hard, but try not to think of your products and your services because it goes way beyond that. Think of the impact that you want to make and the change that you want to achieve. Then try to really think of it in the largest form possible, in the largest context possible, and try to think of a broad a group of stakeholders. Who are your stakeholders and how do you want to impact them? What is hard of course, is try really make it inspiring. See if there can be a call-to-action in it. Last but not least, make it timeless.

I want to give you a few minutes, and I invite you to talk with each other and ask what does the purpose feel for you? If you already have a purpose, do you feel that that purpose is true and that that purpose functions well and is being used all the time in your company? Is it? How many of you feel that you have, and you already raised your hands, that you already have a purpose? Now talking about it, use that as a starter but see if it can be improved. Does anybody have any questions? All thinking caps on? Yeah? Think of why you exist, for who, and what impact you want to make.

Do you feel like you’re getting somewhere? All right, as much as I would like to really use the rest of the time for this and walk around and help brainstorm with you, there’s really no time. I didn’t say this before, but please come to me afterwards if you have questions or you want to talk with me. I have lots more information about this. I’d love to talk with you about it. You can also email me at This is a conversation starter. This is what you should bring back and talk with your colleagues about.

Now, let’s get to the next step. We also want to know, within your organization, in what stage of purpose-embedding you are. How is purpose embedded, how is purpose articulated, and how much is purpose already being brought to life? We have many skills in between, but we very roughly have about three stages: hidden purpose, surface purpose, and raised purpose. On the backside of your sheet, there’s a tiny little ladder we call a purpose ladder, but what I want to do with you right now is have you do a little self-assessment so that you can use it for yourself. Of course it’s not scientific and this doesn’t count for your whole company, but it’s your idea of how purpose-oriented or how purpose-driven your company already is.

On right side of the first page here, there are ten questions. Read the statements carefully thinking of your work, of your company, and then if you believe the statement really rings true for your company, rate it a 10. If you absolutely can’t find your company in the statement whatsoever, then it’s a 1. And then, of course, there are all the gradations in between. After you’re done, you can tally up your score and then I’ll tell you, roughly, in what stage you’ll fall. Yeah? You want to take a few minutes to do that?

The interesting thing about these statements is that when you rate them really high, you understand that purpose is activated in your company. These also give you ideas of how purpose can be put into action. Have you been able to fill out those questions? Did you score yourself? Yeah? No?

Maybe what I should do is start explaining what the three different stages are of purpose. The first one is a hidden purpose. Hidden purpose is a nice word for saying that there is no purpose. That can be the first one and if your company truly is just only thinking of creating short-term value for your shareholders, period, and you feel the daily pressure of that a lot, and you have a hard time making your leaders understand how sustainability needs to connect to the business, because they see it as a cost. They say, “Okay, donate some money to this wonderful cause over here, and then we do great and we make more money.” Right? That’s what they’re concerned about.

Most of the times, though, there is a purpose, but often it’s a little bit hidden. For example, it was created at birth and the founders felt very strongly about it, but slowly but surely it became kind of a plaque on the wall and it wasn’t really done much with. Maybe it wasn’t timeless enough. Maybe it just for some reason stayed with the talk and less with the walk. That is probably not company-wide. It probably doesn’t touch many stakeholders.

Roughly if you scored up to 30 points, then I’d say you’re probably in the hidden purpose stage. Now the surface purpose I think most of the companies are in, and that is the stage where you actually already have a purpose and the leaders are talking about it, for example, but they feel really inspired and they are like, “Okay, you guys, let’s go for it!” But then it kind of stalls right there. There’s a discrepancy with what they say, what they believe the purpose is, how purpose-driven your company already is, and then what they ask actions to be of the employees. It probably really is not yet connected to any long-term business strategy. It doesn’t yet function as a North Star. It might not even be used, for example, for R and D or risk mitigation, and there are lots of reasons why – maybe it hasn’t been inspirational or aspiring enough yet, or maybe it’s also just not timeless enough. It was too easy to be reached.

If you’re in that middle area, roughly from 30 to 60 or 70 points or so, or actually 70 to 80 points I should say, you probably are in surface purpose. Now, raised purpose is where your purpose is already really very well articulated. It’s embedded throughout the organization in all different dimensions within the organization, not just sustainability and, for example, HR, which are your typical areas of the business where you care a lot about purpose. It goes beyond that. It’s important for performance as well. It’s important for governance. It’s important for leadership. It really means the purpose is really brought to life for all stakeholders and really put into action. Anywhere above 80 points or so, I would say you’re really doing a fantastic job.

Why is it important to know what stage you are? If you believe that organizational purpose can be a real helpful tool and motivator to rally people around and to try to start implementing, it’s helpful to know and be realistic about where you are. Because if you think you’re in hidden purpose but you don’t really know and you want to go right to raised, and you start thinking of all kinds of actions that can help to bring purpose to life, that middle area of bringing everybody along, embedding it carefully, and making sure that it is company-wide embedded, is not there yet. Then it’s bound to fail. So you need to be realistic and just move your way up slowly. It’s a multiple-year plan, creating the internal buy-in, then creating the ambassadors for it, and then really get to work. First you’re making it work internally, and then bringing it externally.

I’m actually curious to know, how many of you did rate assess your company’s purpose as a hidden purpose? Nobody? That’s sort of wonderful, unless nobody made actually the score. How many of you did have a surface purpose? Yes, very good. And how many of you felt like you had a raised purpose? Wonderful. Good, thank you very much for doing the assessment. I hope it’s helpful for you to start thinking about where you’re at.

If you think that it is indeed helpful to have a purpose and to make it your North Star, then it’s helpful also to know that the perspective that you have is only one angle, right? If you look at the little 360 purpose on the backside of your sheet, you see there a circle. In the middle it says raised purpose, and around it, it talks about the seven different dimensions of purpose. Sorry, seven dimensions of it within the workplace. One of them is innovation, performance, leadership, governance, workplace itself, everything HR-related, citizenship and sustainability – and all of those are really important to make sure that purpose is going to become company-wide.

If you’re in the sustainability area, you’re only one pie of that full circle, and maybe that’s how you feel, “I’m working so hard to do all these things and other leaders don’t get it, or they don’t care for it.” So just realizing that you’re only one piece of that pie, and then realizing, wherever you are on the stages of purpose, is that you first need to get other friends in the other dimensions that start to believe it too, and that will rally with you because you’re only you, right? That is the first step to do – convince others, make a very good plan, and, as in the last conversation here on the podium, make it relevant for them. Speak their language and help them to understand, for their dimension, how purpose is relevant and how purpose is important. Once you have more people rallied around you and you can convince your CEO, then it can start trickling back down again. That’s when tbottom-up, top-down starts to work. Not necessarily an easy task, but definitely something that I feel really passionate about.

The last part of this workshop is that I want you to start thinking about what kind of actions you can take to bring purpose to life. Let’s actually go back to the front side of your sheet and go to the purpose tree. Imagine yourself – what is one of your favorite trees when you grew up? Just see it in front of you, visualize it for a moment. Then think of all the leaves that are on there and how pretty the branches are and how big and strong the trunk is. Depending on what kind of tree it is, maybe you actually see the roots, too, because some trees have these gorgeous roots all down the tree. Other trees don’t, but there’s still an enormous amount of roots pretty much as big as the actual foliage or the branches of the tree itself. That’s with purpose, too. Purpose are really the roots. Together with the ethics and values of your company, they form the roots of your company. Unless those roots are really healthy, fed daily, and have the nutritions, that foundation cannot function. Then your strategy, your priorities, and your actions – which we have kind of said that the trunk is your long-term strategies with your sub-strategies, your branches are your priorities, and your actions are your leaves. So it all has to be there. The leaves will not survive if the roots are not really healthy. Same for the trunk and the branches.

In this exercise, think about what actions, what purpose actions, can you think of? In all honestly, of course, you will need to know what your strategy is and you’ll need to know what your priorities are. That might be really a lot right now to go through, but what you can think of, is maybe your stakeholders and the priorities that relate to your different stakeholders. On the backside of the sheet, we have a little open area with these gray bubbles, and feel free to jot down different stakeholder groups in there that matter for your company, that care, or are concerned with your company. Typical stakeholders are your employees obviously, your customers or consumers, investors. Another stakeholder group, a really important one, is the community. You probably all deal a lot with regulators and policy makers, governments, agencies, how about NGOs? Those are all kinds of examples of stakeholders that care about your business or are concerned about your business, company, or organization.

Now, start to think of keeping your purpose in mind. Start to think, what kind of actions are we already doing to bring purpose to life, or what kinds of actions could we do to bring purpose to life and to go beyond the daily things of just only being concerned about profit? What else can we do? At the same time, don’t be scared of making good profit, right? That’s the for-benefit model. It should create value for all your stakeholders, not just the community, the consumer, the employees, or the investors.

A couple of examples – for employees, for example, once you have defined a purpose, say, “Let’s make the purpose a part of your review, and in your professional development plan, let’s talk about how you work towards achieving that purpose.” If that purpose statement is a bit much, try to bring it down a couple notches and have each employee really talk about, “Well, this is in my daily life how I work towards this purpose.” This is a great way for people to feel like they have meaning ] in their work, right? For consumers, random example – you cut out the middleman. You ship now directly to the consumer instead of through a middleman; you are decreasing all kinds of cost, and you are also minimizing impact on the environment. That is an example of a purpose action and so your customers will care about that and the investors will care about that. Those are a couple examples of what certain purpose actions can be.

Maybe you can come up with a few yourself and just kind of brainstorm, “what things can I do?” There is a list of examples here, and that’s really not meant to be your examples of putting purpose into action, it’s kind of just to get your creative juices going. Have any questions?

Maybe I should explain a little bit more that right now purpose is kind of a fashionable word, right? You hear it everywhere, and it’s connected to cause-marketing campaigns, which we talk about it in a really negative way by saying we’re putting lipstick on a pig. That’s not the right way. The holistic purpose is what we are all about. But to talk about purpose but then not do anything – to talk the talk but not walk the walk – is not okay, right? In the end the most important part is that you actually make operational changes, try to really create behavior changes, and trigger a mind shift, that it really becomes a part of your culture to always think about how we create value for all shareholders … sorry, stakeholders. Freudian slip.

The actions are the most important. As you see in the purpose tree, it’s really important that they are rooted and there is a plan how to do that, to give your actions meaning, because they need to be relevant to your business. If they’re not, then it will die a natural death really quickly. It’s not authentic. Your consumers and your end users will feel that; they don’t understand it because they don’t understand how that relates to your business. So make sure that the actions really are relevant to your business and to your reason for being. If you are able to activate really well, that’s when you can have the most meaningful impact.

The last part is, of course, that you can have great actions but then as a communicator, it’s super important that you talk about it, and that you share with the stakeholders through right channels what you’re doing so that you can inspire others, that you can be a role model, that you can show how you’re doing it so that others can follow, or that they can see, “Hey, I can trust you,” or “I understand what you’re about. I know what you stand for.” So the last part I want to close with is knowing what communication vehicle to use for what stakeholder and what kind of story.

I wrote a bunch of vehicles, as I call them, on the backside – the corporate website, animation, the reports, signage, speaking engagements, contests – there’s all kinds of different ones. The last part of your little exercise – think of a certain action, a purpose action, that you have connected to your stakeholder group, and to close the loop – in what vehicle or what channel do you talk, create a dialog or share stories about your doing? It’s important to understand, and it’s probably really relevant for you, is when you are, for example, creating a sustainability report, dumping every single thing in that report including all kinds of human interest stories, you realize, even though it is for all our stakeholders, well it’s not really working. So now we think more carefully about what channel do I use to communicate what kind of information? The hardcore data obviously belongs in your report. It’s the backbone for what you’re doing; it’s what shows the progress of your company towards all the efforts that you put in towards reaching that North Star. At the same time, the real storytelling belongs in channels like your website, videos and social media.

There are all kinds of other vehicles that you should be using, and other channels that you shouldn’t use. You can finish it up with jotting down some vehicles that you feel are perfect for your stakeholder and your action. I hope this got you thinking and that you want to bring it back and talk with your coworkers to see how purpose is already functioning in your organization or not yet and what you can do to help to bring it to life. If you have any questions, please come to me, Leah, Will, or Jonathan; we’re happy to answer any questions or give you any more information to keep reading, and to keep learning, and to be inspired.

Thank you very much, everybody, and have a good rest of the afternoon.

Finding your purpose
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