By: deborah connors

Fall 2018 Issue

"Research shows that corporate purpose statements often do more harm than good because they are political exercises rather than words that people passionately believe in,” said Dr. Robert Quinn when I interviewed him for “A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture.”

Finding purpose is not a one-shot thing. It is a continual conversation and an iterative process. Once found it can be highly engaging and motivating. It helps to streamline decision making (e.g. if faced with a new project, ask “Does this fit with our purpose? If not, why are we doing it?”).

Quinn stresses the need to allow purpose to emerge through asking powerful questions that bring out the passion that people have for their work. Anyone who has gone through the exercise of co-creating the purpose of their organization while discovering their own purpose, and seeing how one feeds into the other, will understand how this exercise makes you feel part of something bigger than yourself. This in turn leads people to contribute their best to the organization.

It is important to “discover” purpose, says Quinn. “It already exists, but no one can tell you what it is. You must go out and do the work that leads to the discovery of the process, and then establish relationships in which it is continually being discussed and tested, and that you’re learning and they’re learning in a co-creative process.”

To develop your organization's purpose statement, or determine if the one you have is real, he suggests asking these questions:

  • For what would we sacrifice?
  • If this is our purpose, then what things would we suffer inconvenience around because of it? (e.g. If the purpose of my healthcare institution is to heal people, then to achieve that purpose I will suffer the inconvenience of working nights.)
  • If this is our purpose, how will we relate to each other differently?
  • Do the people immediately below me share this purpose? 
  • If they share this purpose, what sacrifices are they willing to make? 

Roy Spence, author of It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business is Driven by Purpose, says that the visionary companies he has worked with have all had a core purpose that fuels everything they do. He defines purpose as “a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world.”

He suggests another series of questions to help discover purpose:

  • Why did you start doing the work you do in the first place?
  • Why did this company start doing what it does?
  • Why is that important to the people we serve?
  • What false starts have we had? 

Here is an excerpt from my book about my own experience in finding purpose when leading the Health Work & Wellness Conference:

“I found this ‘need to discover purpose’ to be very true when leading the conference. We were into our 5th year before we solidified our mission and vision, and it wasn’t until after our 10th year that our purpose statement emerged. It was a co-creative process in both cases. In the beginning, I had a vision for a national conference and gathered together the right team who could put on an outstanding first few events. Over time however, it was important for the entire team to create our mission, vision and purpose for the future so that it became the mission of the group and we were all striving for the same vision.” 

In off-site retreats, our discussion was very appreciative, asking generative questions such as:

  • What are we doing right?
  • What are we doing well?
  • What do we believe in?
  • We are we all about?
  • What do we strive to become?

“I remember one discussion we had in my dining room during a retreat. We had flipchart papers all over the walls and we had a few statements that stood out. We were closing in on one, but I was feeling like we weren’t there yet. Talking to no one in particular, I said, ‘That’s just not quite it, because what we’re really about is creating a better workplace.’ Our Marketing Director got excited and said, ‘That’s it! That’s our purpose! Creating a better workplace!’ 

It sounds so simple, and it really is, but it took time to emerge. This became the purpose of our organization going forward, eventually causing us to change the name of the conference from the Health Work & Wellness Conference to The Better Workplace Conference.”

Solidifying your purpose can lead to further discussions about what kind of culture is necessary to achieve the purpose and vision you have created – asking the question, “What do we want our culture to be?” and then “What are the practices we need to adopt to achieve that culture?”

Finding purpose is a practice that anyone can lead. Like so many of the practices that transform culture, it is simple, but can lead to big results.

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. A captivating speaker, storyteller, author, and workplace coach, Deborah researches breakthroughs in organizational health and culture around the globe. She has interviewed many of the leading thinkers, which forms the basis of her work and her new book “A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture.” 

Deborah is a prominent figure in the story of how Canadian workplaces have adopted practices to become better places to work, through her development of The Better Workplace Conference. This powerful initiative, which she successfully led for 17 years, created a whole generation of workplace health professionals and a huge community of practice. She has distilled the knowledge from in-depth interviews with ten featured influencers and combined it with her own leadership experience to bring you the best of what we know to date on shifting workplace culture, and how it benefits the organization and the individuals who work there. 

For more information about Deborah's work, visit: