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Without purpose and vision your company is going nowhere

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Purpose powers everything. The most important thing a leader can do is to set direction and communicate it in ways that connect and compel others. Nothing commands attention and commitment quite like the right purpose and vision.

Unfortunately, mission statements are often long on statement, short on mission. For that reason, instead of mission I prefer the words purpose and vision. They're more specific and focused.

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It's not business – it's personal

Most organizations meet employees' basic needs and expectations. The right purpose and vision meet deeper needs such as a sense of belonging, of being connected, and of doing the kind of work that stimulates creativity. Employees, inspired by seeing a clear direction forward, can better align their full energies and resources to achieving progress.

In the book The Progress Principle, authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer cite a major study that reached this surprising conclusion: "Of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important – by far – is simply making progress at meaningful work."

How then do we formulate purpose and vision in ways that motivate people to achieve beyond what they thought possible?

Start with 'Why?'

Purpose answers the question "Why." Purpose is a statement of the difference or impact you're trying to make in the world, other than making money. As one astute observer put it: Money can buy you a dog, but you have to earn the wag of its tail. Purpose answers the question: Why should I devote my creative energies to this organization and not another?

Human beings perform better in the context of higher purpose and meaning. The right purpose releases energy and provides focus and relevance to a brand and to everyone who represents it. Start with an idea that makes a real difference in the lives of customers, clients, members or stakeholders: Disney's purpose is to make people happy. And if you've ever had a Disney resort experience you can feel that purpose present in everything they do.

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Pressure test it

I have 10 test questions to help organizations find the right purpose: Here's a sampling:

Is it short, sharply focused and easy to remember?

Does it mean something important to almost everybody in the organization?

Would it help you decide the things worth pursuing?

"Purpose isn't everything," as the authors of the book It's Not What You Sell, It's What You Stand For point out, "but it trumps everything else."

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Then ask 'Where?'

A sense of purpose alone is not enough. Vision answers the question "Where?" Vision is a shared picture of the future – guiding people toward a far-reaching yet attainable future, perhaps five to ten years out. While purpose can be abstract, vision should be bold, vivid and concrete.

Consider the concreteness of John F. Kennedy's sixties declaration of "… the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." There's nothing ambiguous about "man" or "moon" or "decade." All that's left to do is to get busy, or get out of the way.

Or consider something closer to home. Take Mayor Gregor Robertson's vision for the City of Vancouver: the world's greenest city by 2020. Again, it's hard to imagine engineers or city planners quibbling too much over the words "world," "greenest" or "2020." And you can't help admire its sheer boldness, even if you may secretly resist the call for more composting or bike lanes at the expense of car lanes.

Test your vision

Does it provide a catalyst for action? Is it something that forces you out of a comfortable routine? Does it have emotional resonance? Can employees' actions align with the vision?

If you don't think your vision has the power to gain attention and compel action and alignment – fire it, and hire a new one. Bring in a facilitator to help steer the process so that people think farther than their own projects. The goal is to get them to see something to make them feel something, so they can do something out of the ordinary.

Be the change

Alignment – everybody pulling in the same direction – is critical to the success of any vision and purpose. The where of vision drives the how of behaviour. Vision becomes the lens through which decisions, operations, and customer experiences are determined. When your people see first-hand how purpose and vision translate to decisions, actions, and customer experience, they become true believers. Customers soon follow.

Just as a strong brand makes selling easier, a strong purpose and vision help attract people – employees and customers – to your cause. And if you think your business, or practice, or soup kitchen is too insignificant to have a purpose and vision, remember the wise counsel of 19th-century U.S. supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Every calling is great, when greatly pursued."

Doug Mollenhauer (@dougmollenhaur) is founder of Vancouver-based Manifesto Branding, specializing in helping organizations formulate purpose, vision and values. He can be reached at

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