The Elephant In The Room

Chapter 10

Here’s a simple point about purpose: if your organization has not declared one, or its beliefs and actions do not align with the one it has declared, then it’s ignoring the elephant in the room.

Declared Purpose vs. Real Purpose

As I write, I am reminded of a global company whose senior leaders are resigning by the day because they have interpreted the direction and an action plan recently declared by the board and CEO as completely contrary to their implicit beliefs about the purpose of the company.  Exit interviews reveal sentiments like, “this is not who we are…” and, “if that is the direction, then I want no part of it!” This illustrates a hidden truth about purpose: it is implied by the actions of every organization. Even if a company hasn’t declared a purpose, it has one.

This means that there are two kinds of purpose.  The first is the one that is desired and declared. The second is the one implied by actions, is believed, and is, therefore, real. In some cases, they align nicely, and in other cases the incongruence is obvious.

For instance, a food company I know well, wrestling with the consequences of stalled growth, finds itself needing to reset its global footprint to better reflect demand.  Seems like a sensible thing to do, on the face of it. Just close some capacity in one place and open more where the customers are.  Many North American businesses are dealing with the same re-distribution of consumer demand.  The trouble is, to do so breaks some long term and cherished social contracts, and that raises an unanswered question: why is this company in existence? Does it exists merely to chase consumer demand wherever it is, or does it have some purpose related to the communities that have once served it well but who no longer offer sufficient business growth.  Or again, in another business I know that serves both consumers and other businesses serving the same consumers, the stated purpose is sufficiently at odds with the quarterly financial focus that the corporate ambition may fuel more cynicism than inspiration.

Although a purpose statement may be inscribed on marble floors or letterhead or business cards, it will not make any real difference until it is written on hearts and carved in the desires and beliefs that together form the collective will of an organization. Because if it’s not real and true, it’s not a purpose, it’s a lie. And in the age of transparency and a million Davids that lie will become a millstone around your company’s neck in the blink of an eye.

Famously, when Johnson & Johnson leaders and employees acted to initiate a massive, nationwide recall in response to the deadly 1982 Tylenol crisis in Chicago, they acted because they believed their Credo was true: “put the needs and well-being of the people they serve first.” J&J demonstrated a congruency between declared purpose and the real, believed, purpose. Their actions during that awful time had memorable and trust-building results that nurtured belief (for both employees and customers) and built expectations for the future.

As J&J proved, purpose is what has always been there. It must be listened to and watched for. If you ask, “what do you believe this company is for?” you may find the answer quite revealing. The real purpose could turn out to be a troublesome white elephant—that unarticulated thing below the surface that has always sort of bothered you or your customers. Or, the real purpose might turn out to be quite compelling and deliver far more meaning than the declared purpose that has been quoted robotically for years. No matter what is uncovered, such an exercise of listening for purpose must be done regularly.

Purpose, Belief and Action

A CEO recently expressed to me his opinion that if he could just articulate two things—the purpose and the opportunity that lies ahead for his business—and show that they were endorsed by customers, then his employees would believe it.  If that happened, the marketing challenge of re-positioning his business would resolve naturally.

His instincts are right. In their important model suggesting a framework for organizational development, Warner Burke and George Litwin describe the transformational and transactional variables that an organizational system includes.  They posit three transformational variables, one of which is “Strategy—that set of choices that define the focus of any organization.” Note that strategy is composed not of what is said, but of what is believed. Until a declared purpose is accepted and believed to be true by the employees, it is not the strategy.

Every organization, then, is continually engaged in the choosing and tending of a purpose through the interactions of its various members that together foster a common belief in the nature of that purpose and suggest the actions to match, creating observable evidence for others. An organization’s real purpose exists as a composite of the beliefs that those inside and outside hold about the purpose of the organization and the way they act upon those beliefs.  In other words, purpose is not something that a corporation can get. It is what it finds has got hold of it.

Look for that elephant named Purpose—she’s in your company somewhere.

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