What Most Corporate Purpose Statements Get WrongJan 18, 2023
By Nathan Havey
Hypothetically, having a corporate purpose beyond profit is supposed to help a company do well by doing good. The “doing well" part comes from greater engagement from employees and other stakeholders who are happy to give their discretionary effort to support the “doing good” part. However, this only works if employees and other stakeholders are actually inspired by the purpose. This is the crucial piece that most corporate purpose statements get wrong.
Corporate Word Salad
Have a quick glance through this list of corporate purpose statements from the Fortune 500. Then ask yourself not whether they inspire you, but how much they inspire you. Do they feel like corporate word salad (i.e., “A passion for customers… a passion for Yes!”)? If they purport to “make a difference” and build a “better world,” do you have any idea how (i.e., “built to deliver a better world”)? Does it feel like it’s just a rosy spin on business as usual (i.e., “to be the world’s most trusted energy partner”)?
A great corporate purpose statement is a commitment to solve a worthy problem. It’s specific (giving underserved children the skills and support they need to be successful). While it may not find a place in the purpose statement itself, the purpose also needs to have a time-bound goal. In other words, a great corporate purpose statement states what the problem is that a company is trying to solve — and by when.
An Ambitious Goal
Naturally, many worthy problems are too complex for easy deadlines, but companies can still commit to ambitious milestones on 5- to 10-year time horizons that often give a huge boost to the inspiration and excitement a purpose statement creates. Can you imagine United Airlines solving climate change in the long term by solving the problem of sustainable jet fuel and committing to power its fleet exclusively with such fuels by 2030? What about Wal-mart taking on poverty in the U.S. by committing to help 100 percent of its current workforce achieve financial security by 2028? Would you fly United? Would you shop at Wal-Mart? If they asked you to come and help them do it, might you even want to work there?
If your answer is yes, then those worthy problems inspire you. If not, then you likely care more about other worthy problems. And that’s great! A corporate purpose is supposed to inspire its stakeholders to give their discretionary effort to help advance the purpose. When a purpose tells us what problem a company is trying to solve, and gives us an ambitious, time-bound goal, it will attract people who will gladly give everything they’ve got to make it happen. A company like that will do real good, and it will also do really well.