What is the core purpose of an organization? Why does it exist? For many for-profit organizations, the answer is simple: to create wealth to return to their shareholders and pay their employees. While this may be enough of a motivating purpose for some, the wide adoption of mission statements since the 1980s demonstrates an acknowledgement of the value of corporations moving from being perceived as amorphous, inhuman institutions to humanized organizations with purpose and embodied values that people can connect with.
It is commonly understood that a vision statement captures the description of the world that an organization hopes to create. The mission statement is how that organization plans to uniquely contribute to creating that vision and serves as a building block in branding, communication, and strategy. Value statements are guiding principles the company intends to embrace in carrying out their work and give key groups of people a shared set of values to revolve around. Developing this string of value-driven declarations clarifies and orients organizations to a deep purpose, or a connection to the reason why the business really exists. Businesses can create more value if they successfully understand and orient around this existential core.
Despite this revisioning of the purpose of business, there are three traps that tend to inhibit organizations from identifying with their deep whys. When an organization defaults to profit as its core purpose, it is stuck in the profit trap. When organizations focus only on the product or service they provide, they have fallen into the product trap. Finally, when organizations point to their competitive advantage to explain their organizational purpose, they are in the differentiation trap.
Business leaders can fall into these three traps, each diminishing or obscuring the power of a deep purpose, before or after developing vision and mission statements because of the way people are generally taught to think and talk about for-profit firms. When firm leaders fall into one of the mission traps, they are not seeing or communicating the full potential of their organization. However, understanding and revisiting an organization’s deep purpose will help a business to integrate their entire organization around the kind of richly resonant mission that will connect executives, employees, customers, and shareholders to a powerful sense of purpose and identity. Virtuous organizations thrive in understanding and orienting to their deep purpose.
Many businesses understand that their organization and market exists to fill a need that an individual can’t meet on their own. This understanding is commonly reflected as part of a business problem statement or a statement of need.
The deep purpose goes beyond needs. It is an organization’s belief about why meeting that need will help a person reach their full potential, or in Maslow’s language, self-transcend. Additionally, it is based on an understanding that an individual cannot reach self-transcendence on their own; they must connect with a community of people or an organization (and its people, products, processes, etc.) to reach that goal.
Seeking the deep purpose invites organizations to create a vision—a dream of the world they want to see. For example, a health and wellness company’s deep purpose may be the belief that obtaining a maximum level of health will help people to live their best lives, full of happiness, freedom, and connection with others. Thus, they will envision a world in which every person has obtained their maximum level of health. This vision serves as a driving and unifying force within the organization and among stakeholders. The health and wellness company can then derive their organizational mission from their vision—for example, to use their unique understanding of technology and coaching to help people of all ages obtain a maximum level of health. This focuses the organization on the positive influence it wants to have on the world just by existing and performing its usual, day-to-day tasks. For the virtuous organization, objectives shift from a mission emphasis on profits, products, and differentiation (traps) to focus on an organization’s deep purpose—in this case, helping people obtain their maximum level of health.
After developing a vision and mission, an organization may try to capture and communicate their vision and role in achieving it through succinct vision and mission statements. To differentiate between the purpose of a vision and mission statement, William Drohan writes, “A vision statement pushes the association toward some future goal or achievement, while a mission statement guides current, critical, strategic decision making.”
A strong, focused mission statement brings the unity and clarity essential to the success of a virtuous organization. It shapes a culture that embodies the values of the organization and gives direction and focus to the goals of the company. Inside and outside the company, the brand will gain credibility, influence, and opportunities to make a measurable difference. Everyone from the front line employee to the CEO to the shareholders connect with why they show up to work every day. If they are tuned into the mission, they will be coming for far more than just a paycheck.
The virtuous organization assertively and effectively incorporates the mission into every aspect of the company. Consider the following statements contrasting the virtuous mission perspective with the three mission traps.
Profit trap: People pay you because of your mission; your mission is not to get paid.
Product trap: You have a product because of your mission; your mission is not to produce a product.
Differentiation trap: You differentiate because of your mission; your mission is not to differentiate.
Ultimately, visions and missions that fall short of connecting with deep purpose have less capability to motivate organizations toward virtue, while visions and missions that illuminate the deep purpose will orient an organization’s executives, employees, customers, and shareholders to a common (sometimes even universal) problem and a shared need. This connection and shared purpose move an organization toward greater virtue and value creation.