Recently I attended the GreenBiz Forum in Phoenix, Arizona where many business leaders gathered to discuss the state of sustainable business. While there were multiple high-level themes, one that seemed a bit of an outlier to me for a sustainability-focused conference was “Purpose”. The more I think about it however, the more I think it’s a critical element of a company’s survival or their ‘sustainability’ as a business.

If you ask your employees/co-workers what your company’s stated purpose is, will they answer, correctly? It would be great if 100% respond on point; it would signal close alignment internally for your products and programs.

Not sure how ‘purpose’ differs from ‘mission’? Simply stated, your purpose is why you exist. It’s the North Star that guides your company and drives your business. It used to be that mission statements and purpose statements were aligned. This has become less and less true as missions have become unwieldly statements of everything from what you do (presently) to who you do it for and how. The murkiness continues as brands are merged and acquired under growing corporate umbrellas. How a company fulfills their purpose may change over time but their reason for being should stay the same.

We can think of purpose as the guiding light, something more timeless; mission is more what happens if we fulfill our purpose and vision is what success looks like. Oh and “don’t let your purpose get too high up in the ether,” states Haley Rushing, co-founder of the Purpose Institute and author of It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why ever extraordinary brand is driven by purpose. “It must be grounded in the assets and work of your company.”

Take for instance a few American examples. Southwest Airlines is in the Freedom business. They are striving to democratize travel and want all people to have the “freedom to fly”. Disney is in the “happiness” business. How they deliver happiness has evolved over the years but this is their clear purpose.

It’s also interesting to note that your purpose must benefit either individuals, organizations or society. It’s very hard, if not impossible to serve more than one. According to Ms. Rushing, with purpose strongly in place alignment happens naturally, decision making is easier and performance soars.

At thinkstep we are very clear that our purpose is to help organizations succeed sustainably. What is your company’s purpose and do you think it will stand the test of time?