Pitfalls to Avoid When Setting Your Business Purpose

The key task of a leader is to articulate purpose and ambition in a way that speaks effectively to others, building commitment, motivation and action. Every individual you lead needs to feel included and be crystal clear on their contribution to achieving the purpose and goals that have been set.

The purpose you choose must be big. Only something significant and worthy will ignite the commitment of others.

A lofty, stretching, ambitious purpose acts as a magnet, attracting talented people who strive to attain the purpose and goals. People with the best brains and abilities want to be part of big and meaningful endeavours. Imagine what it would be like to lead a team fuelled by an electrifying purpose with all members sharing common goals.

Every leader has the opportunity to set a purpose that stirs the spirit and transcends the mundane, but there are lots of reasons why this can be challenging to do in practice. There are five pitfalls to avoid when setting a purpose:

1. Lack of imagination

This is a failure to think big enough. Often, fear or being consumed by here-and-now pressures is at the root of this. Many leaders benefit from working with a coach or mentor to expand their vision. Spending more time reading and conversing with people you find inspirational is also a good remedy.

2. The current reality trap

This is aiming low in the guise of being realistic. It sounds plausible, but it is really just a manifestation of a lack of courage when the purpose is bound too closely to the comfort zone of current reality. A purpose that represents what is being done now plus a bit more will not fire the imagination of anyone.

The realistic purpose rarely inspires or endures because it is too limited and too close to the status quo. A meaningful purpose needs to be big and just a little scary to contemplate. If it is too prosaic and close to current reality, it will not unlock motivation, creativity and effort in its pursuit.

3. Conflicting or too many priorities and targets.

Defining one purpose and no more than three priorities at a time gives you the best chance of helping others connect and commit to their pursuit. Making sure your three priorities have a clear rationale and a logical alignment to the purpose is essential.

This is easier said than done, particularly in highly regulated sectors at the mercy of political tinkering, such as healthcare or education. Organisations in these sectors face a baffling array of conflicting priorities and targets. For example, NHS organisations in the UK are exhorted to reduce waiting lists, increase productivity, meet quality targets, speed up ambulance handovers, improve staffing ratios and staff retention, research new treatments, reduce patients’ length of stay, do more elective activity, discharge patients more quickly, stop spending on agency and temporary staffing, invest in digital technology, get upstream and prevent illness, work collaboratively with partners, address health inequalities and make significant savings – all at the same time. It is easy to lose focus when surrounded by so many frequently changing instructions.

It takes courage and a clear head to avoid passing on a muddle of conflicting priorities as though they make sense. Effective leaders rise above the fray and articulate a single unifying purpose and a logical number of priorities to preserve organisational clarity and effort.

4. Overwhelm

The flip side of setting a big, ambitious purpose is that it can be daunting, leaving people overwhelmed and feeling beaten before they start. An effective leader will keep the purpose in frame while taking care to set out the baby steps that can be taken to make progress towards achieving the purpose.

No ambitious purpose will ever be achieved overnight. It is important to set out what can be done today and then articulate how this contributes to the achievement of the purpose.

Taking a frequent look back to track and celebrate progress along the way will help to sustain motivation and effort. Great leaders can combat overwhelm by making the link between purpose, goals and individual contributions crystal clear. This process makes individuals feel included and part of a team that is aiming high and working hard in pursuit of milestones or goals along the way to achieving a big purpose.

5. Making it about you

A meaningful purpose appeals to others because it strikes an emotional chord and has relevance to them.

One surefire way to kill off other people’s motivation and enthusiasm is to articulate a purpose that is all about you, your status and your success. It is off-putting to be asked to work in pursuit of one individual’s personal gain.

A great leader will make sense of complexity to set a meaningful purpose. This often requires the ability to clarify and simplify without dumbing down, and it can take courage and determination to stick with what you know to be right.