If you don’t have a purpose you don’t have a prayer

Alan Siegel

Alan Siegel

By Alan Siegel

When I came across a press release from this year's Cannes advertising festival issued by HP touting how they are activating their brand purpose statement, "create technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere," it failed to articulate a distinctive, believable and authentic higher purpose. It's just another simplistic, empty attempt to jump on the purpose bandwagon.

An organization's purpose is its reason for being in business, the calling it answers from the marketplace and the problems it seeks to address. Producing a concise purpose statement creates of sense of coherence for employees and explains what the company stands for beyond making money. It is the driving force replacing traditional and predictable mission and vision statements to drive strategic decisions and establish a challenge for employees to invent and advance the organization.

A compelling purpose, according to Simon Sinek, the author of WHY, "sinks into the collective conscience. The culture changes, the organization begins to perform at a higher level. Processes become simpler and easier to execute and sustain. People start looking for permanent solutions rather than stop-gap measures."

Military leaders have provided some added perspective on the impact of building a penetrating purpose. General Stanley McChrystal, in his recent book, Team of Teams, emphasizes that employees will actively support organizations with a purpose that has meaning and values they can embrace and share. In his words, "purpose affirms trust, trust affirms purpose, and together they forge individuals into a working team."

It is essential to point out that purpose is frequently confused with corporate responsibility programs where companies fund sustainability, education, and research programs or take a stand on social issues. The HP press release, for example, states that its purpose statement provides "the only way you're able to navigate all the social, economic issues we're facing today." Finding and living a compelling purpose statement provides the framework for making decisions, fashioning value propositions, creating a unified, clear voice, and fostering an inclusive culture.

There are two critical, demanding requirements for defining and implementing a penetrating purpose program. Leveraging the intellectual firepower of the organization to generate a unique purpose program that challenges the organization's intellect, not depending on market research where you depend on their predictable ideas. "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do," Steve Jobs said, "we hire smart people, so they can tell us what to do." The other critical ingredient in our increasingly complex world is the need to have a leader with a personal will, courage, compassion, and the willingness to take responsibility and actively lead this program.

Building on this last point, General McChrystal noted in his book that the most potent instrument of leadership for this type of program is the CEO's behavior. For the branding program to have authenticity, he emphasizes the need to maintain a consistent example and message. Communications should reflect not only their thoughts but their Voice. To demonstrate the culture, he is striving to build; he mounted a daily video teleconference.

The ground-breaking identity mounted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice to aggressively promote and dramatize its transformation from a "cop college" into a fully developed liberal arts program emerged from the purpose statement we created for them. It has inspired the Board, students and their families, current and prospective faculty, alumni, criminal justice leaders, politicians, and the media;


Being a lifelong advocate of simplicity, I whittled that statement down to four unforgettable words:


That purpose statement, those powerful words, were displayed in 20-foot-high letters throughout their striking new building. It drove the development of an upbeat, fearless brand voice (inspiring, bold, human, dynamic), a powerful new logo and design system, and a communications program for an aggressive fundraising campaign.

With this dynamic and upbeat crystal-clear call-to-action, there was no need for a training program to implement the new identity for the college. It just naturally took hold under the leadership of its president, Jeremy Travis, who championed this positioning and took whatever steps were required to use it as a lever to build the college's visibility and reputation.

When this new identity was implemented the number of student applications increased dramatically, donors gave generously and repeatedly but what dramatized for me that this purpose statement worked was how it became embedded into the culture of the institution.

When President Travis was interviewing a distinguished professor for a position at the college, the professor said: How can I not come to an institution that lives by the credo "Fierce advocates for justice?"

It had become such a part of the institution's identity that when a group of students mounted a campaign to change the name of the institution, they adopted the corporate advertising campaign as the Voice of their messages.

When a disabled student was unable to get special ramps for her wheelchair, she wrote to me that she realized she indeed had become a fierce advocate for justice while mounting a campaign to correct this. She was successful.

John's Jay's purpose statement taught the organization of who they are. Moreover, the organization always reminded itself to be true to its purpose.

Another great institution reinvigorated with a powerful purpose statement was the Urban Institute.

Caught in a crossfire, the Urban Institute, known for its academic rigor and real points of view, was losing influence and donors to more partisan institutions. David Brooks, the op-ed columnist for the New York Times, put this in perspective when he wrote, "Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters." Faced with this dilemma, they developed an engaging purpose as the foundation for a program to raise its relevance and reputation for intelligent analysis of today's most urgent problems—ELEVATE THE DEBATE.

This purpose statement fundamentally changes how the Urban Institute translates its research to make it more accessible to the public. It involved developing interactive maps, long-form essays, producing videos, and posting blogs that address current issues in the new cycle. They have moved from an academically oriented communications firm to provide consistent, compelling, and resonant communications.

Their president, Sarah Rosen Wartell, commented that "the Urban Institute's new narrative is distinctive and captures our essence. It reached more places than I would have expected and lived in the day-to-day management of the organization'.

In "Creating A Purpose Driven Organization" in the July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review the authors discussed how KPMG internalized their organization's purpose—to help clients "inspire confidence and empower change." The article noted that these five words "evoked a sense of awe in the firm, but KPMG's top executives avoided the temptation to turn them into a marketing slogan. Instead, they set out to connect every leader and manager to the purpose statement."

The article goes on to describe how the company mounted a program where employees were asked to share how they were making a difference in a program called 10,000 stories difference. Twenty-seven thousand people produced 42,000 posters that helped these employees identify with its "collective purpose." Follow up research showed that this "pool of positive energizers" had a positive impact. Employees' pride in their work increased, and engagement scores reached record levels.

It's no wonder it worked for KPMG, for The Urban Institute, for John Jay and for any organization that has a powerful purpose statement.

Since the dawn of life, humans have looked to the skies and wondered why am I here? What is my purpose? It's something that all humans and all members of every organization want to know.

It's in our DNA. The eternal question: What is our purpose; has plagued philosophers and product managers for generations.

In Aristotle's Ethics, he considers it the most vexing question that humanity confronts: What is the purpose of life? Friedrich Nietzsche famously claimed, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." Great leaders seem to understand the power of purpose innately, and John F. Kennedy reminded us that "Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction."

So, I'll add my name to the list of people down through the ages who have exhorted the world. Find a compelling purpose statement, then once you've found your purpose add passion and make your mark on the planet.