Bring Purpose to Life: Activation is the Third Step

Photo by Avery Morrow on Unsplash

How do organizations bring purpose to life—ingraining purpose with the power to transform? Our approach to developing an authentic purpose and helping organizations live it integrates internal and external inputs from multiple perspectives with four steps—discover, articulate, activate, and embed—that build upon and reinforce one another. But the first two steps have to be followed by Activation in order to bring Purpose to life in an organization.


Once purpose is articulated, it’s time to roll it out in the Activation phase: to enlist leaders at all levels to take symbolic actions that demonstrate it and to embody it in their words and deeds. Activating purpose requires employee-facing as well as customer-facing initiatives. The most effective initiatives link emotional triggers (how the organization makes customers or employees feel) with experiences. Leaders need to become personally invested in the organization’s purpose, offering support for and ideas on disseminating it throughout the enterprise. Walking the talk is crucial: if the company’s purpose calls for collaboration, leaders should demonstrate it by, for example, openly sharing information across businesses or encouraging their reports to shadow a cross-functional colleague for the day. Leaders need to be willing to correct those exhibiting behavior that conflicts with or undermines purpose.

The building materials company began activating its purpose by sharing its film with its top 200 leaders. To rally leaders located outside of headquarters, the company organized a purpose “road show” to screen the film at four locations; all levels of leadership across the country were invited. For the headquarters screening, the company rented a theater and sent out invitations with tickets, treating the event like a movie premiere—right down to the green (not red) carpet, to match the company’s color. Employees who appeared in the film got star treatment. As a symbolic gesture, executives gave employees “optimism building blocks” with the inscription, “What did you build with optimism today?” (a reference to a line from the company’s purpose statement, which reads, “Optimism is the strongest building material on Earth”). From there, the company went on to create online leadership toolkits, teaching films, and other materials critical to turning articulation into action.

Many social mission organizations (SMOs) are seasoned at activating purpose. They don’t have at their disposal all of the “hard” levers that for-profit organizations have, such as financial incentives and other performance management tools. So to drive performance, SMOs must rely on a deep sense of purpose—often centered on meeting a profound societal need. In that way, they are able to promote transformational change. Their leaders become adept at tying change to purpose and building narratives that harness the ethos of the organization to engage employees’ passions. They draw on personal experiences and anecdotes to convey “this is why we do what we do” and to inspire their people. (See “Learning About Transformation from Social Mission Organizations,” BCG article, April 2017.)

Find out more about our process by reading our white paper: Purpose with the Power to Transform.

Photo by Avery Morrow on Unsplash

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