Purpose statements have been used by large corporations and businesses for more than a decade. More recently, businesses looking to achieve sustainability (environmental and human well-being) speak of being purpose-driven. By contrast while many charities and small businesses have mission statements, fewer have purpose statements and often they are conflated. Is there a difference in the two words – mission and purpose – that matters? How might purpose affect the development of your organisation’s strategy?
The latter question was the subject of a recent Lunch& Learn session that I had the pleasure to run with Link UP London. The former question emerged as we all worked together. This blogpost summarises what we covered in the L&L and I hope might go some way to answering what I see as the difference between purpose and mission, and why thinking about it might be more than verbal acrobatics!
Gallup in 2015: A company purpose is a bold affirmation of its reason for being in business. It conveys what the organisation stands for in historical, ethical and emotional and practical terms…it’s the driving force that enables a company to define its true brand and create it desired culture.
So, your purpose answers the question: why are we needed to exist in a given context? There are values embedded in this response. For private businesses it can be the more-than-profit explanation. For non-profits it may emerge from an examination of a problem addressed. For example Link UP London’s website describes The Problem: “Communities are increasingly disconnected and struggle to make use of local skills and resources to overcome their distinct challenges”. (https://linkuplondon.org/about-us/) . The Solution might describe Link UP’s purpose.
|In my own case as a coach I see a need in the context in which I work: “All people need space to think without fear of judgement as they take decisions that will enable them to thrive in a complex and changing environment” www.tophatcoaching.co.uk||My purpose: TopHat Coaching coaches to support your thinking as you make sense and make choices for a future that needs you to act now. One step at a time, together we’ll move towards what matters with a safe, accessible and affordable coaching service.|
The statement of purpose is not worth the paper/screen/flipchart it is written on if it doesn’t permeate and inform every aspect of the organisation’s work. It may even be worse than no statement at all.
Shock at disclosures of abuse by police, carers, or teachers are often at the perceived departure from the purpose of these services to protect and support. Similarly, “Green washing” is the term used for organisations that espouse one thing (the promotion of environmental protection) and do another. This is not to say organisations don’t make genuine mistakes: in fact there can be no learning without it. I want to be challenged about how accessible and affordable my coaching spaces are; I want to engage with clients about what moving towards what matters for all of us means in practice
When purpose statement and purposeful action come together magic can happen, as the chart below adapted from Gallup describes!
These benefits are supported by evidence of higher staff engagement, customer loyalty and profitability.
As we discussed at the Lunch & Learn your strategy is the choices for action you make, given an examination of the regularly changing opportunities and challenges that exist in the context, alongside the changing and developing strengths and weaknesses within the business. Contrary to popular opinion, this SWOT analysis is an ongoing process, not a one-off every five years! How useful were strategies signed off in Feb 2020 just before the pandemic; or before major pieces of legislation radically impact your customers?
And at the heart of the enquiry of the SWOT is purpose. Don’t ask what are we good at, but, rather what are we good at in relation to our purpose? Don’t ask what opportunities are there for us to exploit, but what opportunities will service our purpose? If the Purpose is the signpost, the SWOT and the unfolding action plans is the weather vane.
The two words are often used interchangeably. Worrying about it should not get in the way of your planning! For me there is a small but important distinction that can be helpful when discussing with teams and customers how the work can be continually improved. The purpose is discovered in the outside context. It gives the company or organisation’s work a legitimacy that staff, customers, service users can identify and agree with. It can inspire and ignite interest. When stated with values, it explains further the approaches and behaviours that make up the culture that can be expected by those within and engaging with the organisation. It is everyone’s answer to Why are we doing this?
The mission, by contrast, is created inside the organisation and describes the aspirations of the organisation to make bold steps to meet the challenge described in the purpose. It is the What is the main thing we are doing? While it is important it may prove less flexible and resilient in the face of change.
Whether purpose or mission, the words and ideas behind them need to inspire action and coherence within the organisation and resonate with those served by the organisation.
Harriet Dodd is an executive and team coach and founder of TopHat Coaching Ltd. She works in partnership with clients using a professional, creative and non-judgmental and direct approach. An accredited Executive and Team Coach with three decades as a team leader, director, HR professional and small business owner, Harriet is also a founder member of the Global Team Coaches.
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