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Your Organization’s Purpose Must Evolve

Image credit: Alain Wong/Unsplash

This is the eighth in a series of articles examining how business leaders and companies can transform their corporate culture in order to succeed in the midst of the impending Purpose Revolution. Find links to the full series below.

Many people say that once a company or a person has a purpose, that purpose or “why” never changes. While it seems intuitively appealing, I’d like to suggest that if your organization’s purpose doesn’t evolve, you could be in deep trouble. In our new book, The Purpose Revolution: How Leaders Create Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good, we suggest that rethinking your purpose is critical.

One way to think about organizational purpose is in the intersection between our values and the world’s needs. Let’s take a high-profile example. Walmart became the largest company in the world in part because of its simple purpose “to save people money so they can live better.” It is a noble purpose that has served the company well over several decades.


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But the world has changed in those thirty years. Walmart customers aren’t just thinking about prices anymore; they are also thinking impact. While people still want low prices, they increasingly want to live a more sustainable lifestyle and to feel that the companies they support are adding value to society. When I spoke to Walmart leaders a few years ago, they told me they were obsessed with the idea of marketing to the “next-generation Walmart customer.” The idea was simple — as the Walmart customer changed, so would they have to evolve.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Walmart’s extensive efforts around environmental sustainability, including “greening” its supply chain. While low prices are still a core part of Walmart’s reason for being, achieving those low prices in a sustainable manner is a clear evolution of its purpose.

CVS: When your purpose becomes health

Another great example is CVS and its shift towards the purpose of “helping people on their path to better health.” The original name of the store stood for “Consumer Value Stores.” Like Walmart, the focus was on selling products at a value price to customers.

But several years ago, the company started shifting towards a broader purpose. It changed its name from CVS Caremark to CVS Health. Thinking of your company as a provider of health as opposed to a retailer selling products can shift entire paradigms. It is not that its former purpose wasn’t relevant — it was, but the new one aligns with the way the world has changed since the company was founded in 1964. In 2014, as an outgrowth of that shift of purpose, the company made a now-landmark decision to stop selling all tobacco products in its stores. Not only did that decision grow the loyalty of customers such as myself (yes, it did impact my choices) but it may even have led to a reduction in smoking in those states where they have a significant presence.

This shift not only garnered increased loyalty among customers, it also put its largest competitor, Walgreens, under a spotlight for not following suit.

Facebook’s purpose shift

While Facebook may be in the headlines at present for privacy breaches and the role fake news has played in recent world events, the company remains an incredibly relevant part of the lives of several billion global citizens. The company began with a simple purpose to “to make the world more open and connected.” Perhaps unlike any other single entity, the platform did indeed connect us across distance. We shared our photos and memories, we reconnected with old friends, and it spawned other platforms that connected us to one another. But the world has changed.

Amidst all the current headlines, few may remember that in June of 2017, Facebook changed its mission statement. That’s right, its mission, the core statement that is supposed to last the test of time; connecting the world was no longer the crying need.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg realized that the world needed a platform that could bring people together to solve the world’s challenges and that while social media has brought us together, it also had divided us. The company’s new mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” In other words, the purpose is no longer just to connect people, but to help build bridges between people.

It is still early stages for Facebook in embracing and embedding that new purpose, but I have little doubt that this shift will shape the future evolution of the company, much as Walmart’s shift to “green” is shaping its future (Walmart is now the largest seller of organic produce on the planet). Both represent a shift towards a purpose more aligned with the emerging purpose revolution.

Even nonprofits must evolve their purpose

Nonprofits are not exempt from the need to evolve their purpose. Most environmental NGOs emerged when few people in society saw the environment as a major concern and almost no companies had deliberate efforts to address sustainability. The NGOs focused on the purpose of convincing citizens that the environment needed to be protected and stopping the efforts of for-profit companies that seemed to be destroying the planet. This purpose made sense.

But the world has changed a great deal since many of these organizations were formed. A strong majority of global citizens now feel that protecting the environment is important, as many as 80 percent of consumers say they want to buy from companies that are sustainable, and almost every large company in the world is adopting goals to become more sustainable by reducing emissions and energy use. This does not say the battle is won, but many environmental NGOs are still focused mostly on convincing the unconvinced and fighting companies that are doing bad things.

While there is still a need for more convincing, many of the most successful NGOs are shifting their purpose towards helping support the efforts of companies that are moving toward sustainability, enabling consumers to act on their desire to buy good, and fueling technological innovation. It is not that the old purpose is not relevant, but it’s time to hone it and go further. Just like the core beliefs in low prices at Walmart and connecting people at Facebook are still relevant, the NGO purpose to convince the unconvinced and hold corporate feet to the fire still matters. But it is not enough, nor does it represent the edge of the world’s need.

So, while your values may remain constant, your purpose must evolve. If purpose is truly the intersection of your values with the world’s need, then the first step is to take a hard look at your current purpose and ask two questions:

  1. Is your purpose still relevant?
  2. Is your purpose still sufficient to the challenges of our time?

Creating Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good, the series:

  1. Purpose Differentiates in an Age of Disruption
  2. Winning Over the Purpose-Focused Employee
  3. Why Most Companies Are Failing at Purpose (And How You Can Succeed!)
  4. Employees Are Your Best Purpose Ambassadors
  5. How to Coach Employees on Purpose
  6. The Key to Authentic Engagement: Purpose Metrics That Matter
  7. What Matters Most to Millennials? Millennials Want to Matter

Dr John Izzo is the bestselling author of seven books including the international bestsellers Awakening Corporate Soul, Values Shift, The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, The Five Thieves of Happiness and Stepping Up.

John's passion in helping organizations… [Read more about Dr. John Izzo]


Jeff Vanderwielen is vice president of consulting at Izzo Associates and a former senior change consultant at Ernst & Young with 20-plus years of experience helping organizations manage large-scale change and articulate a compelling purpose — their core good — as the…
[Read more about Dr. Jeff Vanderwielen]


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