Lead a Movement, Not Just a Company

LinkedIn Article by Tim Williams 
March 19, 2015

Is your customer at the center of your business model? Most business leaders would argue that customer-centricity is the leading predictor of business success. But the most effective leaders know there's something even more important at the core of your company: your purpose.

Your company's purpose is its reason for being. It’s the “Why” in your business model. Don’t confuse purpose with the typical weak, soggy “mission statements” that hang unnoticed in the lobbies of countless companies across the globe. Most mission statements are a mélange of hyperbole that is neither unique nor motivating. As the late Stephen Covey once said, “A lot of companies have mission statements, but very few of them have a mission.”

Consider what your company's purpose would be if you were leading a movement rather than a business. Movements are about meaning, not commercialism. Movements are about making a difference in the world. They intrinsically motivate people to action. They are filled with a sense of purpose.

A strong purpose makes the firm feel as if it’s engaged in something that’s honorable, almost a crusade. This creates not just a company of workers, but a company of believers.


No doubt your firm has an economic purpose characterized by income and growth. But your economic purpose gets more attention than it needs or deserves, because it is only an end; it is not the means. The means to business success is a human purpose that transcends making money. As management genius Peter Drucker taught, profit is not the reason for a business to exist, but rather a test of its validity.

It’s no coincidence that the 50 fastest growing brands in America have one important thing in common: they have committed themselves to an ideal that transcends making money. According to studies by former P&G CMO Jim Stengel, there is a definite cause and effect relationship between strong ideals and strong financial performance.

Many business leaders reason that what’s needed to motivate people is the promise of financial success – a chance to earn more if they’ll work more. In the world of professional services -- the one I know best -- many firms embark on complicated bonus programs using formulas based on metrics like billable time and revenue targets.

It is, however a cold hard business reality that this carrot and stick approach really doesn’t work. It seems like it should work; after all, income, forecasts, and billable time are all topics that most managers dwell on when it comes to discussions of performance. But 21st-century knowledge workers have an entirely different set of motivations.

Drawing on four decades of research on human motivation, author and behaviorist Daniel Pink shows that in knowledge work, the secret to high performance and satisfaction is “the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.” In other words, the elements of true motivation are not raises, bonuses, and spiffs, but rather autonomy, mastery, and purpose.


Defining your firm's sense of purpose is a liberating activity. But it takes some dedication. It’s a process that requires the full attention and best intentions of your senior management team.

Explore the meaning behind your culture and purpose by inviting your most senior leaders and managers to answer these 12 questions:

  1. Why did you personally choose to go into this business in the first place?

  2. Beyond collecting a paycheck, what inspires or motivates you to come to work each day?

  3. As a firm, what are some of our bold, outlandish, or unreasonable expectations about this business?

  4. What breakthrough would we like to achieve or what complex problem would we like to solve?

  5. What would we like to create that never existed before?

  6. What would we want to achieve if we knew we could not fail?

  7. If we were leading a movement instead of running a business, what would it be about?

  8. If our people were volunteers instead of employees, what would they be volunteering for?

  9. Who or what does our firm glorify? What do we preach?

  10. What do we crusade against?

  11. Besides producing business results, what is the ultimate value our firm provides to its clients, the business community, or society as a whole?

  12. What kind of legacy do we want to leave behind?

People work best and hardest when they are challenged. The risk lies not in making their jobs too big, but too small. The people who are most enthusiastic and contribute the most to the firm are the ones who are given big goals and big jobs. Give your team something to reach for, something to aspire to, and you’ll light a fire that will burn in everybody.

Remember, the truly outstanding firms are not just trying to serve their clients, but in some small way change the world.