What's Your Team's WHY?

"The secret of success is constancy to purpose." - Benjamin Disraeli


Before going into consulting, I worked at Hewlett-Packard and in those days, HP invested heavily in professional development.  I was the trainer for a 2-day course called POM – the "Process of Management", a course based on behaviors practiced by HP's most successful managers. One of those practices was establishing a shared team Purpose, its reason for being. That involved answering the basic question: "What do we provide, and to whom?", and distilling it down into 15 words or less. The new managers learned that while the team's goals and plans would shift over time, the purpose should stay consistent, since it provides such valuable grounding and consistency.

Here are examples of Purpose statements from companies you may recognize:

  • Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete
  • Google: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
  • REI: We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of adventure and stewardship

Fast forward to 2002, when HP acquired Compaq. My HP buddies and I were shocked – we learned about it by reading the San Jose Mercury news, because of legal protocol. It was a strange and awkward combination of cultures. On the one hand, we had HP'ers, the polite, earnest, rule-abiding and consensus-oriented "boy scouts". (My Compaq colleagues once referred to me as a "female Mr. Rogers". Good thing I like him...but I will admit it stung.) On the other hand were the Compaq "cowboys", who were brash, made decisions quickly, took risks and shot from the hip.

As part of the acquisition, departments and functions were restructured and people moved into different teams. People were both excited and scared. One of my tasks as an internal Organization Development consultant was to support the newly formed teams. I started noticing a pattern: the teams that performed the best were those that talked early on about their Purpose. They were highly energetic, enthusiastic and productive. 

It was also very clear which teams struggled. I supported a team that had gone through 3 managers in 9 months. Morale was very low, and many team members had health problems. They said they felt like they lived in the land of forgotten toys.  I felt very sad for them. The key problem was that they had not established a Purpose (and were leaderless), and they felt useless. They were like a ship bobbing aimlessly in the ocean, no wind in its sails, its crew members dying of thirst.

So why is a shared team Purpose so important?

  • It gives teams a North Star, something they can “tack to” (like people sailing a ship) as customer needs change and the market evolves
  • It helps them make decisions and plans. A shared Purpose helps a team know what goals and activities to say “yes” to – and, more importantly, what to say “no” to
  • It helps them feel inspired and connected to one another because they feel they are part of something meaningful and larger than themselves
  • It helps them move in the same direction, be more effective and efficient, and more productive

A well-defined and powerful Purpose has a large impact on people outside the organization as well. It becomes part of the organization's brand - it summarizes how they identify themselves and what they value, and this helps attract customers and employees who resonate with those values.  As Simon Sinek says, "People don’t buy what we do, they buy WHY we do it."

So, how clear are you on your team’s “Why”?  I encourage you to engage your team members in that conversation. By increasing your team's alignment, energy and momentum, it will take you far - sometimes to places you haven't even dreamed of. 

Monique Breault