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Can You Lose Your Purpose?

Saturday Spark #2

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

One thing I love about my job is that I get to interview different people about their unique cultures at work. So last week, it was rather unusual to have eerily similar, very honest, almost heartbreaking conversations: I don’t really know how or why, we just seem to have lost our way and our sense of purpose.

Both interviews were with relatively new CEOs. Both ran innately purpose-driven organizations solving big problems in health and energy. Both face fundamental changes to the economics of their business, but believe if they focus more on purpose, their business will be better off. But both were at a loss. How do you re-find your purpose?

While I just listened, a huge part of me wanted to take off my professional researcher hat, put on my fellow CEO hat, give them a hug and say, “Believe me, I have BEEN there. It really, really sucks.”  I felt their pain personally because WeSpire went through a period a few years ago that was brutally hard. We knew we needed to expand to support more engagement programs, but we weren’t aligned on which ones. The gap between vision and reality was wide. Cash was tight. An acquisition fell apart and an important partnership ended unexpectedly. We had to shut down a project and lay off people. In the midst of that, an anonymous review was posted titled: “Company fails to live up to its mission or its values”. For someone who believed our strong sense of purpose would get us through, ouch. That really hurt.

What helped was learning from other leaders who faced similar challenges. I got particular inspiration from a friend, John Pepper, the Founder & CEO of Boloco, the burrito chain, who has been very transparent about their struggles. John bought back the chain he founded when it was losing millions of dollars, as he says, “kicking and screaming”. Slowly but surely, he and his team turned it around. A big component involved recommitting to their purpose, even going through the hard process of becoming a Certified B Corp. Despite their financial troubles, they continued to pay some of the highest wages in the industry. They stayed committed to high quality, healthy ingredients and environmentally friendly practices like composting and recycling.

From his turnaround story, our own journey, and what others have shared, I’d offer the following perspective to anyone leading a team, a company or a volunteer group who has a nagging sense they’ve lost their purpose.

  1. It’s rare to lose your purpose altogether, but it’s very easy to lose sight of your purpose.

We know that employees look very closely at what leaders talk about. If they don’t regularly see conversations about your purpose, then they don’t think it’s important. So to keep purpose front and center, I started to put it at the top of the All Hands Agenda and at every board meeting in what we call “A Moment for Mission”.

  1.  The people that will help you re-find it most likely already work with you.

John hired a CEO and chose to part ways just four months later. I did the same thing in a critical head of product role. Where we’ve both succeeded is when we looked internally and gave big stretch roles to really solid people who, most importantly, shared the commitment to our purpose and our impact.

  1.  Add purpose and impact to your scorecard

One of my favorite sayings is you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want purpose to be prominent, you need to measure it. We changed one of our key metrics for measuring user impact and frankly, it’s a much higher bar that drives better decisions. We took on investors who hold us accountable not just for financial performance, but also environmental, social and governance impact. John’s team goes through their B Corp certification process and gets a literal score to measure their progress.

Our journey is a work in progress and there will always be room to improve. But I do feel like putting purpose back front and center has been a key factor driving our recent growth and success. The important part now is to ensure we never lose sight of it again.

 

Quote of the Week:  Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.  ―John F. Kennedy
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What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

 
Read Previous Week’s Saturday Spark: Finding the Signal Through the Noise

Read Following Week’s Saturday Spark: How Cleaning Your Closets Can Change Your Culture

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