Creating the Reason for Being

Here are some ways that the leadership group can create a powerful and relevant Reason for Being (aka mission/vision statement).  Some of the following thinking and exercises were inspired by an article called “Building Your Company’s Vision,” by Collins and Porras, the authors of “Built to Last.”

When the senior leadership gets together to create the company’s mission/vision statement (from here on I’ll refer to it as the Reason for Being) ask them to consider the following and write their answers on paper, preferably flip chart paper with a sticky side that allows for easy posting:

1. What is the purpose of your organization? You want participants to ask themselves what is unique about the organization. What does the organization do that truly matters to customers, employees, and other stakeholders? How does the organization make “the difference?”

2. What would be lost if the organization ceased to exist? Here, you need to dig into the question: if our unique, special organization were not here, what would our customers, the community, and, for that matter, the world is losing? If the group needs a scenario, tell them that the company was bought and the new owner simply mothballed the business. All employees were given a severance. What has the world lost by this organization no longer existing?

3. Repeat this process five more times with slight variations: if the organization ceased to exist, what would be lost for employees, customers, vendors, society, and the world? This question gives participants insight on the impact their organization has on its customers, employees, and communities. Provocative answers rise to the surface. One of my plastics company clients got very excited by the notion that manufacturing could thrive in America. Another one of my staffing company clients got jazzed about ending homelessness and joblessness in America.

4. Ask the team to imagine having enough money to support their perfect lifestyle. What purpose would be so enlivening and fulfilling that employees would work for no money? What purpose would be so worthwhile that they would stay fully engaged and work tirelessly for the organization?

For some people, this question evokes only resignation. “Are you kidding?” they ask. I assure them I’m not. “On drugs?” they insist? Not that, either. Then they say there is no reason on earth beyond money that would keep them in this organization. If there are people like this in your process, I would strongly consider finding new players. When work is just a survival tactic, it limits one’s view of what is possible for the business.

Most people, however, give good thought to this question. It raises interesting issues and insights. One thing I consistently see is that the generation of late-20s to mid-30s has a deep interest making a real difference in the world and their communities. Use insights like this to your company’s benefit.

Ultimately, these questions offer participants different ways of pondering “purpose.” You can see the brains working at this time; sweat pours down their backs.

Once the questions are answered, post participants’ work on the walls. At this point, everyone reads what the others have written. Flit around the room and stop at each posting while the author presents his or her work. Everyone can ask questions and give feedback. At this point, themes should start emerging.

The last part of the exercise is to divide the total group in two. This will make it easier to organize and focus. Each group synthesizes the work and drafts a reason for being that would touch, move, and inspire them and other employees.

Now I get involved. (It’s a good thing I have something to do, given the bucks I am charging.) I work with the two groups’ versions of the reason for being and draw out the common threads. I listen for what binds the company together and gives it power and focus. After I whittle the two versions to the extent I can, I ask for a group of volunteers who will meet after the session to “wordsmith” (edit) the final version of the company’s reason for being. They select a leader and choose a date for a presentation of their work to the entire group for comments and feedback.

The point is not that the Reason for Being is crafted to everyone’s satisfaction. Rather, the Reason for Being must include all the relevant points so the group aligns behind it.

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