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Core Purpose Importance –Southwest Airlines Example

Posted by Douglas A Wick on Mon, Sep 17, 2012

A critical component of the One Page Strategic Plan is determining Your Core Purpose.  In Patrick Lencioni’s recent book The Advantage he pronounces clarity as being critical to business growth.   To achieve this he asks six questions about your company.    The first one, "Why do we exist?" is possibly the most challenging and difficult for a business to agree upon without a leadership team’s dedication, effort and the ability to resolve conflict.  And it simply won’t be achieved without the CEO making the commitment first.

"Without a compelling cause, our employees are just putting in time. Their minds might be engaged, but their hearts are not. Meaning precedes motivation."

- Lee J. Colan

“ needs a lifting purpose greater than the struggle for materialism.”

-      Herbert Hoover

The People Decision issue is no longer how much you pay, but how much meaning does your work have to your employees.  What do you stand for, and how do you measure up to other employers in the market who do similar work.  Southwest Airlines logo resized 600Does working for your company have more meaning than work for McDonalds?  The reason employees will flock to work for you is everything about why you exist and how you measure your reputation in the workforce.

Now for the insight I promised you on Southwest Airlines.  According to Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage:

The reason Southwest Airlines exists is democratize air travel in America.  Southwest believes that flying on airplanes shouldn’t be reserved for the wealthy and the people should be able to attend a family reunion, go on vacation, or do business with clients in another city without sacrificing financial security.

That’s why the airline was started.  Does it serve customers? Sure. Do they enjoy aviation? Yeah.  But those are not the fundamental reasons that Southwest is in business. Its leaders have a larger cause associated with that service, and that cause informs every decision they make.  For instance they are committed to low prices. To violate that commitment would be to violate their purposes because democratizing travel can’t happen if large numbers of customers are priced out of the market.

Core Purpose starts with the question: How do we contribute to a better world?  Once that question is answered the next question should be why.   And the next after that again Why? You continue to answer that question until you get and answer that is just somewhere short of how you make the world a better place.

The tricky part here is to understand there are a number of very different categories of purpose, any number of which could be valid. By identifying which category fits your organizations purpose you can focus your discussion of why your organization exists because it better clarifies who the organization ultimately serves.

“Why do we exist” categories include:

  •      Customers  Serve the needs of your customers or the primary constituents of the company.
  •      Industry  Being immersed in a single industry, everything surrounds company’s love for the industry and people they serve.
  •     Greater Cause  Not about what organization does, but something connected to it (Southwest Airlines)
  •     Community  Doing something that makes your local surrounding market better.
  •     Employees  It’s about serving the Employees, providing good jobs and full employment.
  •     Wealth  It’s about building wealth for the owners

Keep in mind the process of determining what an organization exists is often a messy one.  Perhaps that’s why so few companies fail to do it adequately.  It’s more of an art than a science.  It will require some time plus plenty of fluid unstructured discussion. That’s okay.  The goal is not to get an answer in the shortest amount of time necessary, but rather the true reason for the organization existence. 

One of the clients I’m fortunate to work with is a beer distributor in Cedar Rapids, Fleck Sales.  In the first Four Decisions workshop which we held over four days within a 30 day time frame, the work within their small leadership group produced a breakthrough in identifying their Core Purpose.  It’s become the rallying cry for their team, particularly their sales and merchandising team to help differentiate them form their competition.  It’s been a driving force for their continuing success in earning consecutive President’s Award for their industry. 

Trouble finding the right people who fit your culture starts here with a clear Core Purpose.  It’s furthered by having a well-defined and differentiated set of Core Values.   Companies that have good people know it requires effort to discover the best fit.  That begins before the first candidate is interviewed by having Clarity of Purpose and rigidity in Core Values. 

I’ve not written about Core Purpose much in the past however Patrick Lencioni’s the Advantage and my clients success has refocused me on the critical nature of this principal in your business.  Expect more in the future.

Next blog we’ll discover how a move Henry Ford made in 1914 shook the economic world and possibly forecasting the principal of Topgrading

Topics: Acute Myeloid Luekemia, People, One Page Strategic Plan, Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage, Southwest Airlines Core Purpose

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The Strategic Discipline Blog focuses on midsize business owners with a ravenous appetite to improve his or her leadership skills and business results.

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