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Realizing the promise of purpose by closing the “Purpose Gap”

Leaders can close the "Purpose Gap" by realizing the connection between a larger purpose and your daily activities, writes Larry Robertson.

5 min read


purpose gap

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Overwhelmingly, leaders see purpose as a powerful force. That’s not conjecture; research backs it up. Studies have shown that senior leaders who make purpose central to their strategies and operating decisions consistently see annual growth in double digits in their businesses, even when testing new ideas or markets. But there’s a catch. The same studies show that while senior leaders agree on purpose’s potential, more than half admit they don’t consciously link to purpose in their planning and execution. It’s a baffling paradox, so much so that an institute — the EY Beacon Institute (which has conducted a good deal of the research referred to above) — was founded to figure out why this incongruence exists. No doubt, every insight helps. But there’s a core truth that too many overlook: Purpose is potentially powerful, but not if you fail to close “the purpose gap.”

To understand the purpose gap, you must first understand that purpose has multiple parts. There’s the purpose we are most familiar with; call it aspirational purpose. This part of purpose is the big picture and spans an extended period (in truth, it spans the life of a company). Most days and for most people, aspirational purpose feels far away, is hard to grasp, even hard to define — in arguably important, just far away.

The other purpose is immediate. Call it executional purpose. It’s the purpose we find in our everyday lives — completing a project, launching a new product, hitting the numbers and performing our job. It’s less grand than the aspirational form, but it is far more natural, tangible and familiar. 

Rarely do we draw the distinction. Even less rare is connecting the two forms of purpose. The bottom line is that if you can’t directly connect the purpose of what you do every day to the larger purpose you strive to reach over time, you lack continuity of purpose — which is just a fancy way to say you lack purpose. You’re neither here nor there. You’re just biding time in a muddy middle, in what’s more accurately called the purpose gap. 

It sounds complicated. Yet, doing three simple things can help you bridge that gap and raise your odds of tapping the lauded power and promise of purpose.

1. Ask who knows our purpose

A funny thing happens in companies, even after some establish a purpose: No one asks who knows what it is. No one asks what it means, even among those who think they know. When you ask, as I often do in advising companies, you discover that the meaning of purpose spans a range. The further you get from the C-Suite, the wider the range of interpretations and the more they differ, even subtly, from what the senior leader likes to think the purpose is. Asking everyone in the organization and doing so often and in context is one of the most straightforward and most potent checks you can do to see if you are aiming for the same thing. Too much difference dulls focus and clarity and lessens performance. It’s hard to do anything well or confidently when that happens. Start asking about purpose and what it means in the real world of your organization day-to-day.

2. Flip the metrics

Asking who knows the purpose mainly aims at the aspirational end of things. At the executional end are metrics. Good organizations have them and use those measures to check in on progress, not guess at it. Great organizations go further. They periodically take their metrics and turn them upside down and inside out. They do so to confirm they’re measuring the right things in the right ways towards the right goals — indeed, towards purpose. 

Metrics are a tool. Metrics assist. But unchecked, metrics become the goal, usurping the strategy and purpose they seek to support. Regularly, kick the tires, check the link to purpose and be willing to change what doesn’t get you there.

3. Diversify the view

Diversity matters no more than how different people in an organization view the purpose, the place and the work that keeps both alive. In no small way, diversity derives from diversity of background. If you’re not hiring to gain the advantage that kind of diversity brings, you’re already behind. But diversity also comes from where someone stands in an organization, what the view and the work look like from there and how it all speaks to them. Failing to acknowledge that and more, failing to proactively seek out those diverse views to — among other things, weigh what purpose looks like in real-time — is among the surest ways to widen the purpose gap. It’s also the fastest way to fail to reach that aspirational purpose (not to mention what it does to make day-to-day purpose lifeless). 

Despite the unwarranted fears many senior leaders harbor, asking how people see and experience the organizational purpose doesn’t equal chaos. On the contrary, it mitigates it while stoking creativity, adaptability and resilience.

If you want to realize the promise of purpose, begin by seeing there’s more than one kind. See the gap between that; there is no doubt there. Then, try these three straightforward things. You’ll be surprised how quickly purpose becomes real. 


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