In 2019, I took a 9am flight from Atlanta to New York City. I was the first person to board that day. So as I death-gripped my phone to step over that little crack that leads to the runway, I caught a glimpse of the flight attendant. Head in her hand, like this, eyes closed. The moment she heard me, she looked up, she put a smile on her face and she said, “Good morning.”
“This is not your first flight of the day, is it?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “it had been a really early one.”
I made some silly sleep joke and she laughed, and I went to go sit in my seat. She couldn’t have been more than 25 years old.
During the flight, we exchanged pleasantries, and at one point she came to offer me a snack, and she asked me what I was going to New York to do. I said that I was going to deliver a speech and that honestly, I was cutting it kind of close.
“No time for lunch?” she asked.
“No time for lunch,” I said, and I took a bag of almonds and I tucked it into the pocket of my backpack.
After the flight landed, I was on my way out of the plane, and she stopped me for a moment, and she handed me a plastic bag. It was about this big and it was weirdly heavy.
She said, “I know you didn’t have a lot of time today, so I packed you this. Good luck.” That was nice.
So as I’m walking through LaGuardia with my bag and my bag, I peer inside and there are about 30 packets of almonds inside that bag. It was a bag of bags. And when I was in the taxi on the way to the speech, I found this little note tucked inside: “Ms. Grice, thank you for coming on and putting a smile on our faces with your sweet words. You have been so kind, and we are very lucky to have you as a loyal Delta customer. Thank you. I know you are gluten-free so here are some almonds for the road! Thank you for your kindness! It goes a long way! Sarah, Delta flight attendant.”
Now reading this, my heart gave a little jolt. My day job is to help companies excavate and execute their purpose. And this little note on this little napkin was purpose in action, specifically that airline’s purpose. And I know because I had helped to articulate it over 15 years before.
In 2003, purpose was just one element of a much larger strategic transformation that Delta Airlines undertook. It was a company still reeling from the aftereffects of 9/11 and one looking for a North Star to guide them through would eventually become Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But in 2019, for a flight attendant who was maybe in elementary school at the time that purpose was articulated, it was some almonds for a hungry customer.
It may be that Sarah never saw that purpose line we articulated, but no matter, she didn’t need to, because purpose was alive and well at Delta. It had become muscle memory. It had become cultural norm.
Now let me be clear in what I’m talking about here, I’m talking about embedding purpose. I’m not talking about your mission, which is what you do every day, or your vision, which is where you are headed. Both mission and vision are important corporate drivers, but they play a different role in purpose. And mission and vision will change with changes in leadership, corporate contacts, competitive landscape, merger and acquisition. They are important, but they are also temporal. In my experience, they often have a time horizon of, say, three to five years.
But purpose is your “why.” It is found at the intersection of who you are at your very best and the role in the world that you are meant to play. It comes from your ethos. It is married to your aspiration, and because it is ethotic, it is also timeless.
Now, there are plenty of data out there to say that well-embedded purpose across organizations brings immense value. Studies that will link well-embedded purpose to elevated total shareholder return over 10 years, increased employee engagement, retention, even higher levels of productivity. Because of all this data, it is rare in my work that a CEO will come to me and say, “Ashley, what is purpose” or “Why do I need to do it?” Instead, what they will ask is “When I have my purpose, how do I embed it across my organization so well that it brings the most value, that it becomes muscle memory?”
As I’ve been doing this work for almost 20 years at this point, I have a ready answer. First, I tell them it needs to be authentic. Purpose that is rooted in your ethos, distinctive to your brand, meaningful to all of your stakeholders and consistent with your values is authentic. Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, the CEO of Optus, a Sydney, Australia-based telecommunications company, can speak to her company’s purpose — powering optimism with options — with conviction, because it is authentic. Optus is, by its very nature, a challenger brand, and it is a brand synonymous with a brand platform of positivity since options breed action and optimism breeds hope. How they pull their internal relations together with their external reach-out to customers is very consistent and incredibly authentic.
Now on the other end of the authenticity scale, I once worked with a CEO who really wanted purpose to be about environmental sustainability. “That is great,” I said, “except for your company struggles to even recycle in your offices. I know, I’ve been there.” While they admire the aspiration, if we had come up with a purpose line that was solely about environmental sustainability, it would have been dead on arrival. Specifically with employees.
Secondly, I tell CEOs that they must be critical in excavating purpose from the inside out. Purpose is uncomfortable. It should be, because you are introducing a tension between idealism and realism: who you really want to be and who you are capable of being, today and in the future, based on competencies and ethos. And purpose can be particularly discomforting because even once you have it, it takes a while to implement it. In fact, you may set your purpose once and spend your entire career living up to it.
Now, purpose is particularly uncomfortable for companies who are on a forced evolution of change, companies in industries like oil and gas, for example, or for companies who maybe have bad behaviors they need to leave behind. Finally, I tell CEOs that purpose must apply to the whole of the organization. Purpose is not a CEO vanity project. Sure, it may help cement the legacy of the CEO who is in charge at the time it’s articulated, but it’s not about them, it’s not about him or her. It’s about the value the company brings. It is about the role in the world that it’s meant to play.
Now purpose at the C-suite level should be a unifying construct that brings together mission and vision and influences your strategic agenda. It should help CEOs think about how they redefine metrics for success, what types of topics they may want to speak with analysts about, or maybe most importantly, how the board ought to hold them accountable as managers.
Purpose at the middle-management level is about much needed clarity and authority. The middle-management layer of any organization is often the most difficult to motivate because they have so many different stakeholders to please. But by bringing clarity with purpose-driven expectations and guardrails, it allows middle managers to understand which battles to pick and that the micro decisions they make on a daily basis affect the company [as] a whole.
Finally, front-line employee purpose helps employees at that level ensure that they are seen. When purpose is excavated and executed top floor to shop floor, those on the shop floor understand that their work matters and how it adds up to the overall value for the company.
Well-embedded front-line purpose is the tenet behind that legendary story of John F. Kennedy and the NASA janitor back in 1962. You know, the one where JFK supposedly asked the janitor, “What do you do for NASA?” And the janitor said, “I’m putting a man on the moon.” In this story, the janitor understood that his role was to prepare the building for the engineers who were going to come in and crank on the math. But he also understood the importance of that role to the overall vision and objectives of NASA. That janitor understood his role in the universe, so to speak.
So many iconic business stories begin on the back of a cocktail napkin. But it wasn’t just this napkin or even the nuts that caused me pause that day. It was the sentiment behind it. It was the idea if you execute purpose across culture and strategy and brand consistently for years, it does become muscle memory. It becomes a cultural norm. And it is that norm that encourages an employee to make a gift, which becomes a story which then a very loyal customer tells to the world.
So since I am here, Sarah, thank you for your kind words that day, and for the almonds. You helped make it a great day because you were right, I was hungry.