When Lisa Flanary, executive coach and strategic planning partner at CO2 Partners, began her work with a CO2 to client to redefine their mission, vision, and values, company leadership couldn’t locate any documentation about the company purpose. No one, from entry-level employees to company leaders, could recall the company’s guiding philosophy—a glaring example of the lack of purpose for the company’s work.
After several days into the search, the mystery was solved. Lightly etched into the glass doors of an executive conference room, the mission statement was virtually unnoticeable and inaccessible. Certainly a case of unintentional blindness. This occurs when one fails to notice a readily visible yet unexpected visual stimulus in one’s sight. Most employees don’t frequent that part of the building. If they did, they were probably more worried about who was behind that door than what was on it. The company’s mission, vision, and values were lost on employees and leadership alike.
Examples like this are surprisingly common. Organizations often invest precious time and resources crafting mission statements that never do more than act as décor for lobbies and conference rooms. This sometimes happens because the framework is too high-level and idealistic to inspire concrete action. But purpose statements often don’t stick because organizations do a poor job at communicating them.
Beyond words on walls, marketing materials, and internal communications, conveying a higher purpose requires a deep commitment to action from leaders.
“Mission, vision, and values must be communicated from the top, and leaders must lead from that platform,” explains Lisa. “If leadership isn’t consistent in modeling purpose, it will become invisible—just like the words on the conference room’s glass doors.”
Effectively communicating company purpose
The task of rallying employees behind a mission has emerged as one of the biggest challenges for modern leaders as more organizations embrace and understand the value of defining a purpose. To effectively build an emotional connection to their purpose, leaders must engage in consistent dialogue—reinforced by concrete action. While the best approach to start those conversations will vary from one organization to another, we’ve identified three actions that every communication strategy should include.
1. Weave company purpose into everyday experiences
Communicating purpose is not a once-and-done task. It requires time and patience to build a narrative and consistent effort to bring it alive. Leaders must be committed to evangelizing and modeling the purpose for the long term—not just during the initial stages of implementation. And they must be willing to get out from behind their desk and engage employees face-to-face.
Creating opportunities where you can bring your purpose into everyday interactions is crucial to keeping it top of mind. Small moments such as meetings, one-on-ones, and casual conversations will have much more weight in communicating and legitimizing your purpose than one-time events or tchotchkes emblazoned with feel-good quotes.
Creating these moments can be hard at first—especially in settings where lack of purpose has bred apathy or where there is intense pressure to deliver value. Here is where grit and consistency matter. “Not flip-flopping is important. You need to stick with it and give it a chance,” Flanary explains.
People won’t magically connect to your mission. You have to signal a break with old ways and convey your purpose in a way that creates emotional value. And you have to allow people enough time to assess whether it resonates with them and their day-to-day experience. The timeframe for action will depend on the strength and congruence of your message, efficacy of delivery, and openness of the people in your organization to embrace it.
2. Align reward systems with purpose
Your organization’s behaviors provide a better clue into what it truly values than any mission statement. For example, if a company lists honesty and customer satisfaction as core values but bases its annual bonuses for salespeople on the number of sales, rather than the quality of those sales, then it’s sending the wrong message. It’s telling people that numbers trump values.
Incentives—particularly intrinsic ones—are powerful supporting mechanisms for your purpose. They help crystallize it into actionable goals. More importantly, they communicate how you want people to act.
Consider awards. Aside from recognizing the recipient, they communicate to peers what purpose-aligned behavior looks like for your organization. It also elevates its value to the same level as other accomplishments, such as good performance, perfect attendance, or increased sales volumes.
Still, rewards alone are not enough to communicate that you’re serious about the purpose your organization serves. Successfully incentivizing mission-aligned behavior must go hand-in-hand with systems that empower people to act out your purpose. If you want people to provide excellent customer service, you have to give them the tools, training, and support to achieve that. Likewise, an organization seeking to become more innovative must allow the freedom and autonomy to experiment and collaborate. Ultimately, it’s not the values you preach but the behaviors your employees live into as a result of having an engaging company purpose.
3. Honor your company purpose internally and externally
An example that’s all too common: a company sets admirable sustainability goals but partners with businesses that don’t share those values. It sets back the organization’s ESG goals—practices like this send a message that profits and convenience are more important than sustainability.
“Anytime your organization is contracting with another one, you need to ask: How are they living up to our values?” Lisa says. “You must walk the walk when it comes to purpose and external partners, but also internally, in how you treat your customers.”
If values like respect or integrity are part of your mission, but you don’t treat your customers or business partners in a way that embodies that statement, you’ll render your company purpose meaningless. Workers will see the disconnect and grow cold and cynical towards your message.
A communication strategy to fit your organization
As more organizations embrace purpose, the task of rallying workforces behind a mission has emerged as one of the biggest challenges for modern leaders.
At CO2, we believe the best way to develop an effective strategy for communicating purpose in your organization is to take a holistic approach and ask the right questions. “You have to look at it as a system. You have to set your strategy: what you’ll say no to, what you’ll stop doing, and what you’ll invest in,” Lisa explains.
It’s important to remember that the work of communicating company purpose never stops—it simply evolves. Leaders must embrace the task of communicating purpose as a long-term journey. Staying ahead will involve continually adapting their approach and remaining steadfast in how they embody purpose in their lives.
Looking to inspire your workforce to reach new peaks? Contact CO2 Partners and ask how we can help you on your journey to build a purpose-driven organization.
Professor: What have you seen other organizations do successfully to weave purpose into the organizations everyday lived experience?
Innovator: What can we do to honor our purpose both internally and externally?
Director: What is the single greatest leveraging activity we can act on to connect our employees to the organizations purpose?
Jude: What have we tried that has either worked or not worked in connecting employees to our organizations purpose?