Best Managed Companies

How to change the trajectory of your business—instantly

Defining your company’s purpose will change everything

Presented by CIBC

Group of four employees around a desk.

Photo: Stocksy

When it comes to establishing a new business venture, there is a time-honoured checklist of boxes a budding entrepreneur generally needs to tick: You’ve done your research and come up with a killer idea that will set you apart from the competition, taken that business plan from back-of-the-napkin to solid blueprint for success, and done more paperwork than you thought was humanly possible. You’re ready to open your doors and take on the world! 

Or are you?

If you haven’t defined your company’s purpose, you’re missing out on one of the most crucial–if often overlooked–parts of the success puzzle. Not gaining clarity on the “why” of your business–which is, in a nutshell, all a “purpose” really is–could be the misstep that, three years down the road, sees your big idea run adrift or even aground. On the flip side, knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing could be the guiding force to success in perpetuity. 

“It’s your North Star,” explains Stephen Forbes, Executive Vice-President, Purpose, Brand and Corporate Affairs at CIBC. “While strategies may change, your purpose will usually remain constant.” In the era of intense competition, endless options and an uncertain global climate presenting daily opportunities to make knee-jerk, reactionary decisions, a rock-solid, well-articulated purpose can keep you on the path to success–and help you pivot without losing the essence of why you started all of this in the first place. 

The best news? It’s also never too late to define a purpose for your business (but you definitely shouldn’t wait until you run into trouble to do this essential exercise either.) So whether you’re a rookie turning a side-hustle-into-a-start-up or a seasoned business owner with a reporting structure taller than Mount Everest, this is your step-by-step guide to finding your purpose. Existential crises and meditation retreats not required. 

#1 Understand what you mean when you talk about your “purpose”

While discovering our own personal “why” might require delving into the meaning of life, nailing what that means for your company is a little bit more straightforward. “Purpose defines why an organization exists and the role it plays in clients’ lives,” says Forbes. “Purpose is the lens through which business decisions are made, the way products and services are developed, the way employees act with one another and the ways an organization interacts with its clients.” 

#2 Understand what purpose is NOT

“Purpose is not a marketing tagline,” cautions Forbes. Sure, it might inform consumer-facing messaging and shape how you talk about your business with the wider world, but your purpose should be evergreen: It lives beyond a single campaign, isn’t seasonal, and doesn’t tie to a particular service, product or phase of the business. If you successfully hone in on your mission, your business should have the same purpose statement in 25 years (although, of course, there is always room for evolution). “In contrast, your business strategy may change with the operating environment. It’s important to know which is which when making changes to your approach,” says Forbes.

#3 Defining your purpose should be a collaborative exercise

As Forbes puts it, “purpose creates a common focus and binds a company together and sets it apart from competitors.” That’s why you should do your best to consider (and even involve) as many stakeholders as possible in this development process. That can look like anything from creating a cross-functional task force from across the business and gathering them for whiteboarding sessions, or even informally surveying some of your most loyal customers about why they choose your business over and over again. After all, as Forbes says, “Clients want to feel valued for their business and appreciated for their loyalty, and they want to work with a company that they trust to act in their best interests.” 

#4 Your employees should know your purpose

So often the company’s purpose can end up buried in the depths of the HR manual, never to be repeated beyond orientation day. It’s a shame because the right purpose can energize, empower and even inspire your team. “Purpose is the reason they come to work everyday,” says Forbes. If your employees really understand your purpose, it can make them more productive, more nimble and more cohesive as a group. Having a well-socialized and aspirational purpose can also help you attract top talent, says Forbes, because “more and more employees are choosing their employer based on the desire to do meaningful work at a company with values that line up to theirs.” 

#5 Your purpose should be a living, breathing part of everyday operating procedures

Having a purpose is not a one-time exercise in corporate reflection. Your purpose should be something that influences your business daily. You–and your employees–should constantly asking yourselves if a decision aligns with your purpose. More importantly, it should be shaping your company culture, the way each person who draws a salary there behaves, day in and day out. “A purpose-driven value proposition can only be delivered by people,” Forbes underlines. “When a team is fuelled by the inspiration of a singular purpose, they can make a real difference for those they serve.”