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  • David S Cohen

Purpose: the Trendy Term for Values and Vision

What is Old is New Again!

In a recent Harvard Business Review article “Lessons from companies that put purpose ahead of short term profits" (HBR.org 2016/06) author Andrew White explains how three organizations; CVS, Unilever and MARS have done courageous things because they are acting on their purpose.

I suggest the first example, CVS, has more to do with their values, while the second example is part of a strategic plan shift at Unilever and the third example, MARS, captures their vision. In other words, 'purpose' is nothing new: it's the trendy term to replace values and vision.

Look at Starbuck's decision to give same sex couples benefits. Howard Schultz told off an investor who tried to argue that the company’s support for gay marriage is bad for business. Schultz told him that if he thinks he can get a better investment somewhere else, take his money and go there. That was because Schultz and Starbucks have a value of dignity/respect. Tim Cooke did the same thing at an Apple investor meeting in response to the criticism of an anti-environmentalist.

To this veteran of HR and organizational culture, purpose, and its equally trendy cousin 'passion', seem like yet another change in terminology for what already have been in effect for years. The problem - and the reason for a fresh take on an old concept - is that most companies have been preaching their overt values while actually operating under a set of covert values. Rebranding those values by discovering the organization's purpose and passion gives leaders a chance to reflect on what they really believe and surface those covert values. When actual company values and what the people of a company care about are aligned, decision making is clearer, employees are engaged, strategy makes more sense and great things can happen.

​Purpose Like Values/Vision Has Many Sides

One cannot pass judgement on the correctness of a purpose or a company’s values. While CVS, Unilever, Starbucks and MARS have done what is good in their eyes so have companies like Chick-fil-A. The late S. Truett Cathy said his Chick-fil-A stores closed Sunday as a testimony to his Christian faith. His personal values, as is the case with most company founders, permeated the purpose of his company. As a result, those values became the foundation for the company and years later Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told the Baptist Press that his company is ˜guilty as charged” in support of what he called the biblical definition of the family. A call for the boycott of the fast food chain followed. Chick-fil-A likely knew the potential consequences of their decision, but the consequences of living their values and staying true to it’s purpose was more important.

Manny people might “side” with either Starbucks or Chick-fil-A and that comes down to their personal values. However, the rightness of an organization’s decisions comes down to the values of those who make the decisions internally regardless of the impact externally. Therefore, despite the opposition from various public groups, both Starbucks and Chick-fil-A were correct for choosing what come down to opposite positions from one another. Put in context of purpose and passion; doing what is correct does not mean everyone will see the decision as good.

So let us not think that purpose is about always doing the right thing in everyone else’s eyes.

It takes courage

Companies that have the courage to live their values, especially in difficult times or the face of opposition, have, for decades, made decisions that are aligned with what the leaders think is ‘doing the right thing’ and the employees feel positive about forgoing short term financial gains for a long-term purpose and success.

When I think of leaders who've acted with purpose and done the right thing, from their perspective, one of the examples that comes to mind is Branch Rickey, an innovative baseball executive, who, in 1945, did what he thought was the right thing and signed Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. That year Robinson began his professional career in Montreal with the Royals and was immediately one of the best players in professional baseball.

Not all of the Dodger players agreed with Rickey’s action to which he told them to leave if they didn’t like it.

Purpose is nothing new. You have purpose when you live your life in alignment with your values and towards something that is meaningful for you to fulfill. Values lived at all times combined with a vision that excites you equals a meaningful purpose.

This is one reason why I find the list of ‘best companies’ so disconcerting. Companies are only the ‘best company’ because employees align with the values. Not because it is universally a good place to work. What is a good place to work for one person might not be a good place to work for another if the values (purpose) are not in sync? Would a person who passionately agreed with Chick-fil-A’s decision likely fit in an organization that makes the opposite decision? This is the reason that fit is so important to both employees and organizations.

Purpose to act according to your values does not mean that everyone will see the act as ‘good’. All it means is you are being true to your own values.


David is a globally recognized thought leader in the areas of talent management and corporate culture. David has been working with companies to articulate their authentic behaviours over 25 years. He has worked with organizations on five continents. To read more on the importance of leadership acting with purpose (making the values real) and the impact of business success please read David's book on purpose, culture and leadership: Inside the Box: Leading With Corporate Values to Drive Sustained Business Success" His first book focused on the writing of behavioural competencies and their application to structured behavioural interviewing: The Talent Edge: A Behavioral Approach to Hiring, Developing, and Keeping Top Performers

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