Setting your north star purpose

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Keith Yamashita started it – companies and brands finding their northern star. At least, that’s where we first heard it. The term isn’t astronomical, it’s aspirational. Your north star purpose is an ideal of your company or brand that burns bright in front of you and your staff, that leads you on, that fires you up and that you never let out of your sight …

In this article:

Why north star purpose works
North of where they are
Three steps to changing purpose
Purpose should be purposeful
The different ways purpose is applied
Identifying the right north for your purpose
How to find your north star purpose

It’s the brand and the culture you dream of being. It’s what your people long to be part of. And it’s who your customers always hoped you would be and that your competitors can’t be.

At Audacity, we talk about north star thinking like this: we define ambition or purpose as the greatest change you as a business or brand want to see in the world.

But we also place it in a context that ensures it is informed by other agendas. Your north star purpose, in our view, is tempered by your vision, which we define as the greatest change you want to see within your own company. And sometimes by mission, which is what your people come to work to achieve every day.

We also link north star purpose to a vital decision-making tool we developed called the benchmark question. Without a purpose, you risk drifting.

Why north star purpose works

So many people can see that north star in some form. When we ask people in workshops about the company or the brand culture they dream of working for, they can tell us, sometimes in amazing detail, what it looks like, how it feels to be part of that , what it’s renowned for.

At times, it seems like they can almost reach out and touch it. What they often can’t see or touch is how they leave where they are and get to where they would most like to be.

If you’re looking to strengthen or change your strategic direction, framing what you are doing around a north star objective, and having these conversations around what is possible, can be extremely powerful. We call this building your Principled Culture.

North of where they are

It’s natural for people to look for tangible ways to improve things. Listen very carefully to what you are being told. Many of the ideas will be insightful and important. They can often represent powerful improvement opportunities: fast and effective quick wins that will help shift the momentum.

But, at the same time, be careful how you treat this information. Chances are what you are hearing is, at some level, a variation on today. Taken literally, it’s probably an improvement on the reality people are part of – rather than an indication of where you truly need to be heading in order to be world-changing.

To disrupt your existing model and recalibrate your competitiveness, you need to step-change how people feel about you, how they connect with you, how they understand where the future could be.

Three steps to changing purpose

You want your people to make an emotional shift in direction: to commit to feeling a different way about the company and to approaching their work with a different mindset.

The first step is to give people permission to dream. People will tell you what needs to change if you let them: but first decision-makers need to foster an environment where those conversations and challenges feel welcome.

Then, instead of asking “what do you think this company should be like?”, we ask “what would you like to feel that you don’t feel now?”. There are a number of ways to discover this. For example, you can use the Emotional Culture Deck to identify the emotional shifts needed in your culture.

The answers help build an emotional gap analysis of the company you are versus the company your clients and your staff would like you to be. Once you know that, you’re ready to develop a strategy for the emotional connections the brand and the culture must look to generate from the inside-out.

The third step is to set a north star purpose that recalibrates who in the world you think you are and what you think you’re here for. We do this in a range of ways, but usually through workshops or strategic sessions informed by interviews with people throughout the organisation.

Purpose should be purposeful

So, a purpose is powerful and potentially very good for your culture. But do you really need one? And are there options? Does purpose have to be all-in?

For a time there, purpose was every marketer’s golden word. It felt like there was  purpose in everything and everywhere you looked.

Inevitably, there was a backlash. Fund manager Terry Smith famously took aim at Unilever, saying that the organisation’s focus on sustainability and brand purpose had jeopardised performance. He singled out Hellemann’s mayonnaise as an example, stating that the purpose of the brand extended to creating better salads and sandwiches.

A middle ground formed. Mark Ritson, in an article titled Good purpose Bad purpose, makes the point that purpose itself is neither good nor bad. It is a strategic choice, not a dogmatic must-have, he argues, and execution is everything. Many get it wrong, because they put pursuit of purpose ahead of everything else, and fall flat on their face.

“Review your market.
Review your category and the role your brand plays within it.
And review your competitors, and the room that purpose would allow for distinctiveness and differentiation against them.
And then make the decision.”

In other words, treat purpose as a strategic opportunity and evaluate the need for it on that basis.

“Some brands in a multi-brand group should be purpose-driven and some, by definition of market, heritage, category and competition, should not.” If purpose is not applied this way, and is instead treated as a must-have, then the very point of having one – as a focus for strategic differentiation – devolves to just being the latest marketing panacea.

The different ways purpose is applied

Is that what is happening?

In an eloquent article in HBR, Ranjay Gulati reviews his in-depth research on how mission-driven organisations—both old and young, and spanning a variety of industries and geographies—succeed. His research advocates for using purpose as a north star to clarify priorities and inspire action in situations where trade-offs must be made. It also requires leaders to lean into such deliberations in consultation with stakeholders.

He breaks the application of purpose down into four groups:

  1. Deep purpose organisations are those that are deeply committed to pursuing purpose through dips and rises in commercial and social outcomes.
  2. Organisations with convenient purpose talk about purpose but act on it only in superficial ways.
  3. Some treat purpose as a peripheral issue: taking part in corporate social responsibility efforts, but keeping them separate from their core business.
  4. Finally, there are those who take a balanced view, looking for a win-win for both profit and purpose.

The secret to making purpose work well if you want to be a deep purpose organisation, Gulati suggests, is:

  • Have a north star purpose, and state it clearly
  • Resist the urge to dodge tough decisions that your true north purpose may generate and instead live with the discomfort, ambiguity, and contradiction to make effective trade-offs
  • Look beyond short-term win-wins to accept good-enough-for-now solutions that will lead to broader long-term benefits.
  • Communicate your decisions clearly and effectively to stakeholders.

Identifying the right north for your purpose

Taken together, all these ideas point to an inherent trick-of-the-light in finding your north star purpose. There are two potential north stars. They look the same. They broadly head in the same direction. But they will take you to different places.

If your purpose aims true north, it is the yardstick for everything you do. You literally take your direction from it. Sticking with a true north star purpose includes tackling the trade-offs needed to get there and to change the world. It requires you to

We think true north lies at the end of this question: What changes will we look to contribute to in the world as proof that we are on-purpose?

If your purpose looks magnetic north, it sets a direction that your people and investors feel comfortable having but one that is much less demanding. You use purpose as an intention rather than a commitment. It does not drive your strategy.

We think magnetic north lies at the end of this question: How will we need to feel and work as a company, and how will our customers need to feel about us, in order for our investors to be making the money they deserve?

Both work to achieve change – but at different levels of intensity. The role of your cultural strategy is to help your company or brand find its best north in the light of all the factors that Ritson sets out. And then to take you there.

How to find your north star purpose

Identifying your true north purpose is pivotal to forming a Principled Culture. Alongside your vision, role in market and values, your purpose drives your culture’s shared belief system.

Our Culture-fy strategic session will work for people leaders and decision makers looking at making galvanising changes within the culture to enable the wider brand to thrive.

If you just want to focus on something specific, like articulating your purpose, we can do this as a Consulting assignment.

Photo by Monty Allen on Unsplash

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