Five Tests for a Purpose Statement

October 1, 2023




In this 8020Info Water Cooler we look at clarity of organizational purpose, types of motivation, how to communicate bad news, power words for marketing success, characteristics of effective executives and the value of necessary endings. Enjoy!


1. Five Tests for a Purpose Statement

Organizations are increasingly required by their customers, employees, investors and broader audiences to articulate a clear statement of corporate purpose.

But a team at King’s College London has found leaders often struggle with purpose statements due to a lack of guidance on its focus, scope, and form of expression.

After a detailed analysis of 66 purpose statements from leading organizations, King’s professor Catherine Bailey, lecturer Catherine Tilley and Anna Lelia Sandoghdar, a PhD student, developed a four-part diagnostic framework for purpose statement content and one priority for wording:

  • Societal Benefit: There must be an explicit reference to the specific, pressing human, societal, or environmental problems the organization seeks to address.
  • Authentic Alignment: Employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders will be looking for clues that you actually mean what you say. The statement should therefore be grounded in what the organization does and how it operates, the researchers write in Harvard Business Review.
  • Believable Aims: Many of the statements studied were so grandiose that they would be impossible to live up to. “The best statements make it clear that the organization can realistically deploy their resources and measure their progress toward achieving their purpose.”
  • Who Will Benefit? Rather than stating a general and abstract purpose, you should indicate specifically which segments of society and the environment will benefit.
  • Short and Engaging: “The best purpose statements are engaging and inspiring, appealing to the heart as much as to the mind,” they note. If statements are too long, the impact can be lost.


2. An Overlooked Form of Motivation

We’re all familiar with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – the former coming from within, the latter from external factors.

Introjected motivation, while a less familiar term, involves a sense of pressure to perform to earn approval from significant individuals (such as managers or influential colleagues).

But according to consultant David Burkus,  a fourth form of motivation is the one that leaders most overlook and need to apply: identified motivation.

Individuals may recognize the necessity or importance of performing or completing a task, but they lack motivation to take action. Leaders need to connect the work of an individual or team to some purpose important enough to generate that feeling.

“It is a potent form of motivation that primes individuals for action. And is especially powerful in a work context because relying on others to become motivated is generally impractical in most situations,” he writes on his blog.

He outlines three ways to motivate people to take action on tasks acknowledged as being important:

  • Leverage Purpose: Ultimately, for identified motivation to work, people have to feel the tasks they’ve been assigned are important. So your role is to identify the bigger purpose behind the task or job. You must regularly remind the team how the work they do benefits others.
  • Connect to Values: Once purpose is established, emphasize the shared values that align with and undergird that purpose. “Those shared values can be a powerful way to leverage motivation when discussing seemingly unimportant tasks,” he advises.
  • Add Autonomy: For tasks that don’t have a specific set of instructions and are not intrinsically motivating, allow people to have a say in the way they achieve the task and make it more enjoyable. The effect on motivation can be powerful.


3. Communicate Bad News with 4Rs

Leaders need to know how to deliver bad news to employees and outside parties.

Darden School of Business Professor June West sums it up in the University of Virginia’s Ideas to Action newsletter:

“Whether an organization is responding to a complaint, communicating about a crisis situation, or notifying employees about a change in company policies or downsizing, its executives and managers must focus on three goals — convey the news, gain acceptance, and maintain goodwill.”

She shares a 4Rs formulation of corporate communications from consultant Tim Beecher:

  • Accept Responsibility.
  • Express Regret. “Regret means offering some empathetic response that you feel bad about what has happened, but it is not so much an apology. The lawyers are going to come in and say, ‘an apology is going to get us in legal trouble,’” Mr. Beecher says.
  • Restore what has been lost.
  • Commit to Reform whatever policy, practice or program led to the crisis.

Throughout the process, West says, communicators must attempt to craft a positive image for their organization and ensure the audience feels they have been taken seriously.


4. Two Words for Marketing Success

Copywriter Joanna Wiebe says there are two “money words” that you should keep front-of-mind when writing promotional material.

The first is you.

“In order to [be persuasive], you should make the consumer the grammatical subject of a sentence,” she writes in First Round Review.

The word “you” can be implicit, but must be the driving force, which is why “87% of clients succeed with [brand name]” is better than “[brand name] succeeds for 87% of clients”. Your audience should be the subject.

The second “money word” is get.

You want to highlight the pain the prospect is feeling but must also mention what they will gain from your product or service.


5. Zingers

  • Moving-Average Culture: Basecamp co-founder and CEO Jason Fried says company culture is a moving average of what you have been collectively doing over the past 50 days: “How do you treat people? Who have you hired (or fired) and why? What do you do when people are stressed out? How do you help people? How do you critique each other? How do you share? How do you help people who are stuck? Where’s the bar on quality? How do you support customers?” (Source:
  • Stop It: Tech executive Deb Liu says to be successful you need to pick at least one thing every quarter and stop doing it — automate, delegate, or eliminate it.  (Source: Substack).
  • Calendar Tips: To encourage efficiency, tech writer Ginny Mineo advises Gmail users to set a default duration on their calendars — say 30 minutes or even 15 minutes — for meetings they attend. Click the gear icon for settings and then the event settings option. And if you have meetings with people from other time zones, you can also go to settings to enable your world clock. (Source: HubSpot Blog).
  • Turnover Rate: Is your employee turnover rate too low? Recruiting specialist John Sullivan says you should divide your employees into two groups and assess the turnover rate for each: Keeper Employees and OK-to-Lose For the first group, you want an annual turnover rate of less than 10%; the second group can be very high. Then reassess and improve your recruiting to stop hiring poorer prospects. (Source:
  • Doing For or To Customers: In the life of every enterprise, entrepreneur Seth Godin notes, the moment arises when a choice has to be made: Are you here for your customers, to give them what they seek, or are you trying to do something to your customers, to squeeze out extra income? (Source: Seth’s Blog).


6. The List: What Makes an Executive Effective

Management researcher and best-selling author Jim Collins says on his web site he took 10 lessons away from reading Peter Drucker’s classic book, The Effective Executive.

  • First, manage thyself.
  • Do what you were made for – what you can do uncommonly well.
  • Work how you work best (and let others do the same).
  • Count your time and make it count.
  • Prepare better meetings.
  • Don’t make a hundred decisions when one will do (zoom out and solve for the underlying pattern in the chaos).
  • Find the one big distinctive impact you can make; orchestrate getting it done.
  • Stop what you would not start.
  • Run lean: “The fewer people, the smaller, the less activity inside,” writes Drucker, “the more nearly perfect is the organization.”
  • Be useful. Make your life matter.


7.  Around Our Water Cooler


Deal with Necessary Endings

This week we’ve been pondering a striking analogy — pruning a rosebush — that Dr. Henry Cloud presents in Necessary Endings, (subtitled The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward).

Periodic pruning is the method that leads to a healthy rosebush with vibrant, fully mature blooms.

This analogy may jar leaders who shy away from cancelling weak projects, ending failed relationships and abandoning strategies that aren’t working, even though they are dragging their organizations down.

As Cloud explains:

“Rosebushes and other plants produce more buds than the plant can sustain. The plant has enough life and resources to feed and nurture only so many buds to their full potential; it can’t bring all of them to full bloom.”

Using a systematic process of pruning, the gardener frees those needed resources so the plant can redirect them to the buds with the greatest potential to become mature roses. The gardener intentionally and purposefully cuts off branches and nips the buds. The targets fall into any of three categories:

  • Healthy buds or branches that are not the best ones (but compete for scarce resources).
  • Sick branches that are not going to get well (but waste resources).
  • Dead branches that are taking up space needed for the healthy ones to thrive.

The results from pruning a rosebush illustrate the value of initiating necessary endings and proactively correcting the bad and the broken in our organizations.


What We’re Reading:

  • Harvey’s Pick: Harvard Business School Professor says there are three types of mistakes: basic, complex, and intelligent failure. In Right Kind of Wrong she shows what to avoid and where you can profit from failure.
  • Rob’s Pick: In How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson expands on his PBS series about innovation over the centuries, sharing surprising stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes. One big idea we noted: “hummingbird effects” — where innovations in one field can have unexpected connections that end up triggering changes in fields that seem entirely unrelated.


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8.  Closing Thought

“You cannot define a person on just one thing. You can’t just forget all these wonderful and good things that a person has done because one thing didn’t come off the way you thought it should come off.”

Aretha Franklin