Why you need a Why? (And how it works for you)


Andy Williams

A father of two grown-up daughters, a cyclist, an activist and a serial volunteer, Andy is most intrigued by what makes you tick. He’s also co-MD of Cohesive.

Under 4 minutes to read

It’s pretty certain that what you do will not be unique. How you do what you do could give you some differentiation. But why you do what you do? No one else can tell that story. Read on to discover how purpose makes you that thing that massive marketing budgets just can’t buy.

We all need a way to stand out in a sea of same, right? To try and be that thing that massive marketing budgets just can’t buy? So here’s an insight:

"People of my generation want to work for companies that give us a sense of purpose and meaning. And we want to buy products that represent our values"

Shiza Shahid

For the record, Shiza is 28 years old. The name may ring bells but if not, here’s why her opinion is one that shouldn’t be ignored. She is a founder of Silicon Valley venture capital firm Now, which invests exclusively in start-ups that can harness activism, technology and the power of free market forces. She proved the potency of the blend when she founded The Malala Fund with the family of Malala Yousafzai. The fund brought entrepreneurial and capitalist principles to the cause of defending and transforming the educational prospects for young women, worldwide. Its impact, and the speed at which it scaled, has made the efforts of NGOs look pedestrian. The motor was the free market, and its power source was a purpose that embraced not just shareholders, but every stakeholder. Shiza believes she’s onto something: “We’re seeing a shift in capitalism.”

Why do you do the things you do?

Are we? That’s a big statement. Let’s take some small steps in that direction by examining the one word capable of driving this shift: purpose. Your business’ purpose isn’t framed by what you do. It isn’t to return value to shareholders either. That’s a consequence of purpose. Neither is it a target to hit, or a landfall on some distant shore. Those kinds of things are taken care of by your mission statements, business goals, and so on.

This kind of business purpose is couched in the context of why you do what you do. It talks to the difference your business wants to make in the world. It takes an outside-in approach, addressing the value  – and maybe the joy  – you hope to bring to everyone you serve. It’s a daily companion, a lodestone. It’s what you do when you’re no longer sure what to do.

"Your purpose isn't to return value to shareholders. That's a consequence of purpose"

Tesla says of its purpose ‘To create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles.’ I’m most taken by the second half of the sentence. The company is committing itself to propelling the global shift to electric cars – considered by many a planet-saving transformation – by doing whatever it takes. For ‘compelling’ substitute admired, invested in, surprising, talked about and trusted. In business terms, they’re doing amazing things, wouldn’t you say? Making a sharp contrast in vision and business trajectory from their competitors, one of which defines its purpose as: “To become the world’s most valued automotive company.”

Tech + entrepreneurship + purpose

So purpose really matters. According to Shiza –  and many other observers – it’s the thing that matters most to her generation. Shiza, in particular, is anything but naive. She was born and raised in Pakistan, earned a scholarship to Stanford, and worked at McKinsey. And throughout that time, she’s remained an activist. Volunteering in refugee camps and women’s prisons. Spiriting 27 girls out of the Taliban-held Swat Valley to Islamabad, which is where she first met a 12 year old Malala.

Maybe that style of activism isn’t your thing. And that’s fine, because your purpose can come in many shapes, hues and sizes. But if you take nothing else from Shiza’s story, it’s that a truly authentic and productive purpose is imaginative, expansive, ambitious.

"I realised my peers at Stanford were innovating for their own social circles. Food delivery services, dating apps, drones to deliver pizzas."

Whatever shape it takes, genuine purpose encompasses beliefs and values that are important to you, your stakeholders, and your hoped-for customers. It feels like a cause worth fighting for, something that’s outside of, and bigger, than you. Purpose is what turns smart business into a great ones.

Or look at this in another, entirely practical way. It’s pretty certain that what you do will not be unique. There’ll be a competitor, an entrenched alternative, an imitator, somewhere. How you do what you do could give you some differentiation. But why you do what you do? No one else can tell that story. It’s why you’ll come to matter hugely to the people that matter most to you. Matter on deep, emotional wavelengths that can withstand any level of crosstalk from the fakers and bullshitters of this world.

Let’s get practical: How do you harness your purpose.

Firstly, you need to know what it is. Maybe you already do. If you don’t, there’s a practical process you can work through. That dream that got you started will be a part of it. And the values that you come back to, time and again, when life gets tough – they’re in there too. Your customers are almost certainly telling you what it is although sometimes, because their words don’t chime with your ‘market proposition’ or ‘USP’, their words can be difficult to hear.

Try asking them without attendant expectations; don’t be too proud to learn something unexpected. We’ve a blog that outlines a successful process in a bit of detail.

"Customers new and old will either love it or hate it. Don't grieve for the last sort."

Secondly, make your purpose your story. Write it down in as few words as possible, to begin with. You’re not creating marketing copy just yet. No superlatives. No buzzwords or jargon. When you’re comfortable, use your purpose words as a barista would a fine espresso. You’re looking for an extension, an elevation, an elaboration, on the original essence. Start by recrafting your About Us in the order why → how → what. You’re on your way.

Thirdly, live it. Hire people who resonate with it. Customers new and old will either love it or hate it. Don’t grieve for the last sort.

So, make a start right now. Make a list of the values that you think are inherent in your business. In a second column, note who those values serve: employees, customers, investors, other shareholders, all stakeholders (maybe start with the families of your employees). In a third column, try and figure out the last time you recognised that value at work in your business. In reality, that means the last time it shaped a decision that you, or someone you know, took. Then repeat the exercise with your team. You’re looking for a good spread of values, representing all stakeholders, and evidence that you live by them. If you’ve achieved that, chances are you are very purpose driven. If you’re struggling with this, or uncomfortable with the outcome, then read ‘How do I find my why?‘ and this case study for more insights. Or email me at andyw@wearecohesive.com, and I’ll have a think about it for you!

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