Podcast | What is the Purpose of Business?

Purpose, vision, and mission often get bantered about in board rooms as if the words held magical powers.  They don’t. It’s the passion and action behind those words that matter.


During this podcast, my friend and colleague John Dame didn’t waste any time tackling one of the biggest concerns we hear from executives and small business owners when we ask “what is the purpose of your business.”  The reaction we get suggests we are asking a trick question. Of course the purpose is to make money. Isn’t it?

Unfortunately for companies today that philosophy doesn’t help attract enthusiastic customers or acquire and retain talent. “Few if any employees,” John explained, “want to come to work for you to help you make money.”

When studying many of the most successful and sustainable companies, the one thing they have in common is that making a lot of money is the outcome of a great vision, purpose, focus, and clarity for what the future looks like. “If you just come to work to make money,” it will be more difficult to grow your business and attract and retain talent going forward.

Has it always been this way? Does purpose seem to be more important today than it was just a few years ago? Are the Millennials responsible for this greater emphasis on purpose?

For those answers you’ll just have to listen!

Many factors have altered our perceptions about work. One significant change is that our grandparents and parents lived to work. They expected to work at the same company for their entire career. That just is not going to happen today.  Employees are much more mobile and organizations seem to be evolving, reorganizing, and merging continuously disrupting what was once very predictable career paths for its workers.

What is an example about how purpose transcends the paycheck.

During my interview with John he shared that a CEO client of his meets with his workforce and says, “this morning we helped educate a whole school of children in Vermont. We helped keep them and their teachers safe and warm.” How did this happen?  He continues, “a janitor in that school turned 10 valves at 6 AM to allow heat to travel from the boilers to the classrooms.” The CEO is not the superintendent of a school system or executive in an educational foundation but the head of a not-very-sexy valve manufacturer. And yet despite what seems like a big disconnect between manufacturing values and education, his employees, mostly laborers with only high school diplomas, are connected to a bigger purpose than a paycheck. Their work has meaning! These same employees were told they also saved three lives that day when the values worked perfectly in the operating rooms of a large hospital.

What is different with the Millennials today is that many of them, and especially the entrepreneurs, give back to the community or a personal cause beginning with their first paycheck or sale.  This differs from the Baby Boomer and older generations who worked hard all their lives, retired, and then began to volunteer and give back.  We’re not talking about small contributions either. John shared the story of a popcorn company that made just $75,000 in its first year of business but donated $10,000 to a local charity.  That’s a lot of money for any small business, especially a start-up. Purpose seems to be part of the fabric and DNA of the Millennial.

The bottom line is that work can be boring. Purpose gives meaning and importance.  But it can’t just be a statement or a line-item deduction that you made a donation. You can’t just pick a charity off the shelf and that becomes your purpose. Purpose is a lifestyle. It is a by-product of personal and organizational values. It is woven into the fabric of who you are and what the organization represents.

As a final piece of advice,  John warns organizations and individuals about getting lost in the weeds trying to find the “perfect purpose. Just find something that feels meaningful.  If you lose the passion, then maybe it wasn’t the right one. Just go find something else.”

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