Conversation on Purpose

A Conversation on Purpose

Insights on what drives extraordinary organizational performance

Roy and Haley, I just finished reading for the second time your wonderful new book, It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For (Portfolio Publishers February 2009). This is by far the best book I’ve ever read on how to clarify and communicate the purpose of an organization in ways that generate better sustainable business results. You touched on many important details regarding this topic, and I want to explore a variety of areas with you that I believe will be of practical value to executives and managers in a variety of organizations.

On page 10 you gave the best definition of a purpose I’ve read. You said, “A purpose is a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world.” What practical suggestions do you have for dealing with people in a meeting who say, “Purpose talk is touchy-feely. It’s pure fluff. When you’re ready to talk about real business issues, then I’ll listen in and contribute.”?

Roy Spence and Haley Rushing:

If they want to talk about performance, we can talk about all of the studies that have been done, not the least of which is by esteemed scholar and author Jim Collins, that validate the correlation between high-performance and great purpose.

If they want to talk about employee productivity, we can talk about the link that The Gallup Organization has identified between employee engagement and feeling a sense of commitment to a mission or purpose of the organization that is important to the employee.

If they want to talk about operational and strategic alignment, we can talk about the power of having a Purpose as your organizational North Star to create alignment with both the head and the heart of a workforce.

Fortunately, our own direct experience with Purpose has been more than validated by the best business strategists of our era and we find ourselves having to convince fewer and fewer business leaders of the power of Purpose to drive performance in the marketplace today.


How does a group of people craft a purpose statement that is both noble and necessary? How do they make it both aspirational and operational? In other words, how does a group make sure that a purpose statement affects the heads and the hearts of the people in the organization in ways that both inspire people to take meaningful action and conduct the right actions to grow the organization successfully? For example, on page 94 you talk about Whole Foods and the way in which their purpose affects the heads and hearts of managers, employees, and customers. How can any organization make this happen?

Spence, Rushing:

There’s a great quote from Aristotle that can help answer that question: Where your talents and the needs of the world meet, there lies your calling. Your Purpose. When you start on the journey of discovering your Purpose, start by analyzing the real talents of the organization. What does the organization do better than anyone else? Where does the organization really shine? What has the organization accomplished that people are most proud of. This is about determining the facts of the matter. Then turn to the marketplace and see where those talents can best be put to use. Where is there an unmet need in the marketplace? What segment of the market is poised to benefit from the talents and gifts that your organization has to offer?

When you pinpoint the intersection of your strengths and the world’s needs, a Purpose that is both inspirational and operational begins to emerge. Take Whole Foods Market. When they began over 30 years ago, the world needed a reliable source of natural and organic foods. John Mackey had the talent, passion and vision to create a new kind of grocery story—one that not only served the needs of the burgeoning segment of organic and natural food enthusiasts, but also served the communities in which it operated (by building community engagement into the business model) as well as the planet at large (by operating in sustainable ways). Their purpose continues to inspire each new generation of Team Members who are passionate about finding new ways to fulfill the purpose of providing choices for nourishing the body, the community and the planet.


How do you write a purpose statement that affects senior executives as well as front-line, hourly workers? Oftentimes front-line workers can be at odds with senior executives. Yet the organizations that have a clear, meaningful purpose that hits home with people throughout the organization seem to get the best results over the long term.

Spence, Rushing:

When you’re operating in the realm of Purpose there is no ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’ What we’ve found is that if you ask a frontline employee or a Senior Vice President to discuss what they’re most proud—in terms of their work—their answers will not vary as much as one might think.

When we were working with Wal-Mart, store level Associates were able to talk passionately about the pride they felt in seeing a mother say ‘yes’ to their child—able to afford the things that their families wanted and needed because of the everyday low pricing Wal-Mart is famous for. They could relate to the value of Wal-Mart on a very personal level as they were shoppers too. The executives at Wal-Mart were equally motivated to serve the customer who was trying to make ends meet, trying to afford a better quality of life for their families. At the end of the day — the cashier and the CEO could all buy into the fundamental purpose of Wal-Mart: To save people money so they can live better.

By focusing on the difference that the organization makes in the lives of the people it serves, an organization can find common ground on higher ground.


In Chapter Two on page 35, you talk about how to discover the purpose of an organization. A lot of what you’re writing about here reminds me of anthropology. Haley, you studied anthropology in college, right? How would you compare anthropology, which is the study of human beings and their culture, to finding an organization’s purpose?

Spence, Rushing:

Isn’t it obvious how a background in cultural anthropology would ultimately lead one to a career in Purposology?! I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior—particularly what motivates people to do what they do. Just like we study consumers to find out what drives behavior and what makes people engaged with a brand, we can study organizational or employee behavior to find out what motivates and inspires the individuals within an organization.

We use the same kinds of ethnographic techniques inside an organization as we do with the organizations’ customers. We discover what their values are, how those values express themselves in unique behaviors that you wouldn’t find in other cultures, we identify what their passionate about, we audit the unique strengths of the tribe—once we know everything about what the organization stands for, we can then find the segment of the market with similar values and motivations and let them know that there is an organization that is committed to creating real value and making a real difference in their life.


In Chapter Three you write about articulating the purpose of an organization. This seems to be more of a high level art and less of a formulaic scientific approach. Based on your book, it seems that the parameters a great purpose needs to operate within are for it to be not too short and not too long, noble enough to inspire but not so lofty that it seems lost in the clouds, and idealistic enough to move people to action but not so vague that people don’t know what business they are in. What are your thoughts on the making of a good purpose statement?

Spence, Rushing:

You touched on many of the basic principles in your question. Here are a few simple guidelines to follow in crafting a great statement of purpose that will inspire and rally your employees.

STAY FOCUSED. A great purpose is single-minded and focused. Prune away multiple ideas that can end up cluttering and sucking the life out of a great purpose. One of my favorite ‘focused’ purpose statements is from The Hilton Family: Be Hospitable. That’s it. It’s crystal clear. It’s concise. It’s memorable, repeatable and, most important, it’s highly relevant to the needs of the market they serve.

KEEP IT SIMPLE. A great purpose statement should be immediately understandable and easy for anyone to repeat in an elevator without the aid of cliff notes. After developing what I thought was a wonderful articulation of Wal-Mart’s purpose— To improve the quality of life by lowering the cost of living; my Wal-Mart client pressed me to make it so simple his younger children could understand it. That’s how we arrived at: To save people money so they can live better. Much simpler. Much better.

AIM HIGH. A great purpose statement should feel like a lofty and noble goal worthy of putting your life’s work into. Understand that this is the ultimate reason for your existence and not a wholly accurate assessment of all of your current operations. If you have sufficient evidence to prove that you can get there, then go for it. One great example: Transforming lives for the betterment of society. One student, one discovery at a time. That was the Purpose we developed for higher education. Do they transform ALL lives for the betterment of society? Probably not. But when they are at their best they certainly do and now everyone from faculty to administration to parents understands that is the ultimate objective.

AIM HIGH BUT DON’T END UP IN THE ETHER. A great purpose statement should have enough definition that people readily understand what it is you’re actually doing. To change the world or to make a difference, for example, aren’t sufficient.

Those four guidelines should help any organization craft a clear and compelling statement of Purpose that anyone from a frontline employee to a c-level executive can understand and embrace.


When I was a high school math teacher I used to tell the parents that there were two keys for their child to get an A in my class, and those two keys were creativity and grunt work. They had to do the grunt work in terms of asking questions, taking notes, doing their homework, and studying for the tests. But on the day of the test they had to be creative and be able to solve a new problem.

In Chapter 4 you talk about “find the thrill,” which is the thrill that people at purpose-based companies find when they are trying to make a difference. In Chapter 5 you talk about “have the will,” which is determining how the people in the organization must behave in order to fulfill the thrill in a meaningful way. This reminds me of creativity and grunt work.

How can an organization establish a purpose statement that generates effective grunt work and creativity and does so over a sustained period of time?

Spence, Rushing:

An organization’s purpose is informed by understanding “the thrill” for the organization and assessing “the will” it has to make it happen. Your description of the combination of Creativity and Grunt Work is spot on. What gets an organization’s creative juices flowing — what’s “the thrill” for the organization? What is the organization genuinely fanatical about? Some of the organization we covered found the thrill by: serving underserved populations (Wal-Mart), creating new paradigms (Whole Foods Market), fighting for noble causes (The Air Force), Enlightening and Empowering people (Charles Schwab), or seeing what others can’t see (Apple).

Once you have an idea of ‘the thrill’ for your organization, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and determine what must be done to accomplish it—it’s time for the “grunt work” as you put it. What products/services/experiences need to be created? What pricing models could be developed? What procurement strategies could help? What R&D investments need to be made? What employee programs would reinforce the direction?

A great purpose statement captures “the thrill” for an organization and should do so in a way that inspires everyone to get to work to fulfill it in meaningful ways.


Most of the examples in your book are about existing businesses that you then helped to clarify and articulate the reason why they exist. On page 46 you talked briefly about establishing a purpose for a new organization. I would like for you to expound on that a bit. If Tom and/or Mary Smith come to you today and say that they have secured financing for a new business and want to start setting everything up, what suggestions or questions would you have them consider before they hire any employees or rent any office space?

Spence, Rushing:

Be crystal clear about the passion and motivation for starting your business. What difference are you ultimately trying to make? The great entrepreneurs we’ve known did not endure the pain and hardship of starting and building a business just to make money. And in this economic environment, entrepreneurs will face more negative forces and naysayers than you can imagine. If you don’t have a passion that will keep you going through the difficult times, you probably won’t make it.

On the upside, the world is full of problems that need solving. Find a problem that grabs you by the heart and taps into your talents and give yourself completely to creating a business that can solve it.

Blake Mycoskie is one of these passionate entrepreneurs. Blake was inspired to start his company after spending time in Argentina and identifying a problem that he felt he could solve: poor children in need of shoes. His business model: for every pair of shoes sold, TOMS Shoes donates a pair of shoes to a child in need. He is in his third year and his company is going gang busters. His passion is contagious, his Purpose is clear and his business is thriving… even in this environment.


The economy right now is like a tornado slicing through people’s homes and ripping them out of the ground. This is true for large, mid-sized, and small businesses. It’s true regarding for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Even if companies don’t change their names, they will almost all be very different companies heading into 2010 than they were heading into 2007. In the midst of this tornado, what advice regarding purpose would you give to people who want to regain a sense of stability and a strong foundation to build on for the future?

Spence, Rushing:

In times of great turmoil, purpose is your anchor. It doesn’t prevent you from being battered about by the storm, but it will keep you afloat while others are capsizing all around you.

Companies that have a Purpose benefit from customers who will stand by them and employees who will go the extra mile when called upon. I can’t imagine any two factors more critical for weathering the current storm that we’re in.

So, if you find yourself grasping for straws or searching for silver bullets, we would advise that you stop, take a deep breath, and before you do anything else, get everyone on your ship on board with the fundamental purpose of the organization. Once you do that, those ever scarcer resources can be allocated in a much more efficient and impactful way. If an initiative furthers your purpose, you do it; if it doesn’t, you don’t waste time, money and energy on it. Your workforce can begin coming to work motivated to contribute to something they can believe in. And your customers will begin to notice the difference that you make and will reward you with their loyalty.


Congratulations on making it to #6 on the Wall Street Journal Business Bestseller List. That is exciting. On February 23rd, the Wall Street Journal printed a wonderful panel discussion on entrepreneurship. Steve Demos, chairman of Next Foods Inc., talked about the perseverance required to work for twenty years before developing his massively successful soy milk product called Silk. He said, “When you are committed to delivering a message, time is irrelevant. It is the fanaticism that drives you forward… I doubted my tenacity, sometimes, but not my product. Not my mission — never with the mission.”

As I read that, I thought about your wonderful book. In your careers, where have you seen a meaningful purpose help people in organizations sustain their efforts through long dry periods and carry them through to ultimate success? What do you think are the lessons we can all learn from those stories that we can use in today’s economic environment?

Spence, Rushing:

We had the good fortune of meeting Bill Strickland last year. He is a total maverick and pioneer who has spent the last forty years building one of the most amazing job training centers in the country in the heart of a Pittsburgh ghetto—The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. He was frustrated with well-intentioned programs designed to help lift people out of poverty that didn’t look or feel like anything anyone would want to aspire to; they’re often under-funded, under-staffed and un-inspired programs that don’t do anything to lift human spirits in need of serious transformation.

In his wonderful memoir — Making the Impossible Possible — he talks about the struggles and setbacks he faced as he tried to convince the world of his vision. And his vision is extraordinary and simple at the same time: Simply put, he believes that if you build beautiful environments, you get beautiful people. You build world-class culinary centers and you’ll get world-class chefs. Build a jazz concert hall and you’ll inspire a love of music as well as a cure for mental health. Create an art gallery and you’ll create artists. Build a greenhouse and you’ll create master horticulturists. Over the decades he’s been able to convince world-class sponsors to get involved and co-create the most innovative and inspiring job training centers in the country. But raising millions of dollars to build an architecturally stunning facility in the heart of the ghetto and building world-class facilities for people most of society has given up on was no cakewalk.

The lesson to be learned from Bill goes back to one of the central points of our conversation — if you have a Purpose that you are passionate about you will have the fortitude to overcome seemingly impossible odds and create extraordinary value in the world. Passion and Purpose, as Bill has proven with his life’s work, can Make the Impossible Possible. An important lesson to remember in this seemingly impossible economic environment we’re all struggling through.

Roy Spence is founder and CEO of GSD&M Idea City, co-founder of The Purpose Institute, and author of It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For (Portfolio Publishers 2009). Roy can be reached through

Haley Rushing is the Chief Purposologist at GSD&M Idea City, co-founder of The Purpose Institute, and co-author of It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For (Portfolio Publishers 2009). Haley can be reached through