Purpose is the final frontier

27 September 2022
5 min read

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

This was the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise. It was also Star Trek's purpose – a purpose so compelling that it underpinned 852 episodes over 43 seasons of television. In his book, A Vision of the Future, 'OG Trekkie', Stephen Poe observed: "Never in the history of any entertainment medium has there ever been a story, an idea, a situation, a set of characters, or a theme that has approached the magnitude or impact of Star Trek."

Clearly, purpose has the power to transcend galaxies. It should be mission-critical for all enterprises, not just starships.

Mission-critical…and misunderstood

According to Purpose Brand, as of 2021, 424 of the Fortune 500 had a mission statement, but less than one-quarter had defined their raison d'etre or their 'reason for existence'. Why is this so?

The difficulty with 'purpose' is that it's a misunderstood concept. Plus, there's little consensus about what distinguishes a mission statement from a statement of purpose. A popular school of thought is that a mission statement references what a company does and for whom, whereas a purpose statement provides the reason why the company exists.

To illustrate, compare Apple's mission statement:

"To bring the best personal computing products and support to students, educators, designers, scientists, engineers, businesspersons and consumers in over 140 countries around the world."

with its purpose:

"To create products that enrich people's daily lives."

Others argue that mission and purpose are essentially one and the same – that a mission statement should describe an organisation's reason for existence. This attitude is supported by many of the world's best-known brands. Marrying mission and purpose is a popular approach:

  • Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow (Lego)
  • Inspiring Digital Innovation – improving the lives of our customers daily (Starhub)
  • To help all families discover the joy of everyday life (Target)
  • To empower people and create economic opportunity for all (eBay)

Ultimately, how a company articulates its 'why' is less important than whether and how it turns intention into action. Saying so doesn't make it so. Purpose should not be an empty platitude.

As Hewlett Packard co-founder, David Packard, eloquently noted back in 1960, purpose is a perpetual pursuit: "I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company's existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it's like a guiding star on the horizon ‒ forever pursued but never reached."

Yet although purpose itself may not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realised means that an organisation can never stop stimulating change and progress.

Let purpose be your North Star

In 2020, at the early stages of the COVID pandemic, McKinsey observed that companies with a carefully-honed sense of purpose "will find a foundation and set of values that can guide critical and decisive action". Purpose should inform strategy and align with culture, values and behaviours.

CVS Health is an acclaimed example of purpose-driven leadership. In 2014, while transitioning from being a drugstore to a health company, CVS announced it would stop selling cigarettes, because doing so conflicted with the company's 'just cause' of 'helping people on their path to better health.'

Wall Street analysts predicted that CVS would lose market share and profits, which it did: CVS's share price fell by 7 per cent on the day of the announcement. Remarkably; however, within 18 months, the share price had doubled in value. CVS's key stakeholders – its employees and customers – recognised that the strategic decision aligned with the company's purpose. And, because they perceived CVS's purpose to be authentic and coherent, they rewarded the company with their loyalty and support.

Hard data shows CVS's decision to go tobacco-free also inspired many Americans to quit smoking. Imagine how much difference we could make in the world if various industries let their core purpose and values lead the way.

Design, engineering and advisory companies should have a distinct advantage when it comes to defining and demonstrating their purpose. The work that they do is often tied to today's monumental and urgent social and environmental challenges. Furthermore, people who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) tend to be intrinsically motivated by a higher purpose.

"Bringing ideas to life, to imagine and co-create with our clients a better future for people and the planet" is Aurecon's clearly defined purpose and North Star.

As explained by Aurecon CEO, William Cox, "our team of thinkers use every atom of their technical excellence to find the best solutions to every problem. It's never about simply getting the job done – it's about the potential to benefit the whole of humanity by using our skills to innovate, and imagine a better world."

Communicate to unlock the power of purpose

Of course, purpose must be visible if it is to be understood.

In contemporary society, stakeholders demand to know a company's purpose so they can determine whether it aligns with their values. To quote leadership guru Simon Sinek: "People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it."

Corporate communicators play a critical role by "linking the organisation's internal identity to its external actions", promoting how purpose is aligned to the business strategy, clarifying how purpose contributes to decision making, and inspiring action. It is a subtle and not-so-subtle art.

In 2022, Trekkies the world over mourned the death of actress Nichelle Nichols, best known for her role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek series. Nichols was an early role model for girls who aspired to STEM careers: her iconic character is thought to have had expertise in spatial navigation, cryptography, and a futuristic form of computer engineering.

And, fittingly, as a communications officer aboard the starship Enterprise, Lieutenant Uhura was a pioneer for purposeful communication.

"In our century, we've learned not to fear words" ‒ Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Star Trek.

Danielle Bond
Written by
Danielle Bond

Danielle often wishes she had a digital twin to juggle her professional and personal workload.

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