Knowing what your company believes and why it exists is critical to the success and sustainability of your business.

Simon Sinek’s infamous Ted Talk “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”, inspired millions of us to think more deeply about our company’s purpose. At WAY we take this a little further. We not only encourage companies to know their company purpose, we use it to inspire them to develop a servant leadership mindset, find opportunities to create shared value and build trust through their customer experiences. We’ve led numerous workshops with our clients to bring all of these together. We’ve had a lot of success with this but there have been some challenges too. Challenges are inevitable with these kinds of emotionally charged endeavours. We took particular notice of the difficulty in articulating a company’s purpose that really feels right.  And by right I mean authentic, observable and measurable.

I recently discovered a video by Roy H Williams who shares his perspective on where we all went wrong. In a nutshell Williams points out that we all have become too narrowly focused on the “why” in Sinek’s purpose model. If you listen to what Sinek continues to say, “what you do simply proves what you believe.” Williams suggests this is what needs our attention. He is advocating that we need to articulate what we believe rather than our purpose. He uses powerful examples to demonstrate that belief statements must be observable and measurable and they are not fluffy shareholder speak. He goes so far as to advocate that companies drop their “about us” page and replace them with a “we believe” page.

I am grateful for Williams’ observations and I think he nailed the problem. I have a slightly different perspective on how to address it. First, let’s clarify why articulating our purpose is so challenging; typically we are trying to come up with something that sounds unique, succinct and memorable. We are too focused on the words. This is where we go wrong. Even though we first guide our clients through the exercise of exploring the customer experiences that they are most proud of in order to prepare them to craft their “why” statement, as soon as we shift that discussion into a articulating their purpose everyone inevitably shifts back into a marketing mindset. The critical step we’ve been missing is to transform those experiences they are most proud of into very succinct statements about what it is they believe in, what it is they are a stand for, and what their cause is. We need to add this step and we need to do this using the natural language that we all think and speak. Only then are we prepared to devise an authentic, observable and measurable “why” statement. In other words our “why” statement is a consequence of our “we believe” statements. So while I agree with Williams’ observations, I still believe that it’s of great value to have both “we believe” statements and a “why” statement that are all true, observable and measurable.

All that said, you must keep in mind that your employees and customers do not judge you by the words you use to describe your beliefs, they are judging you by your behaviour. This is precisely why your words need to be observable and measurable. You can still make them aspirational but you need to own any gap between what you are doing today versus what you are working towards.

Another critical activity that Williams emphasizes is to have your team recite your company’s belief statements every day, like a pledge of allegiance. I could not agree more. As human beings we are compelled to act out what we believe to be true. It’s been my experience that most leaders underestimate the power of rituals and affirmations. Rituals are profoundly efficient in shaping culture. For example consider how football players huddle before they go onto the field at the beginning of a big game. They typically include a prayer or words of encouragement from their captain or coach. They use the time to affirm their beliefs, aspirations and goals.Rituals are transformative because they help us cope constructively with the dynamics that occur within us and our teams. They focus us to act out what we believe to be true.