A Chat with Roy Spence, The Purpose Institute Co-Founder & CEO, on the Power of Purpose

November 28, 2018 / by Ed Stevens

What does it mean to have purpose? For one thing, it’s quite different from passion. Passion is about one’s personal interests, which can become one’s life work, but often manifests itself in hobbies. Purpose is about finding a cause bigger than the individual. It is the touchstone that reminds people why they do what they do and that what they do matters. At an organization, purpose is a lofty goal that typically takes a team to achieve. Roy Spence, one of the founders of Austin-based advertising giant GSD&M, defines purpose as losing yourself to something bigger.

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Spence knows a thing or two about purpose. He wrote a book on the subject, “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business Is Driven By Purpose”, is the co-founder of the Purpose Institute, and has helped guide juggernaut clients like Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart towards defining their purpose. It’s not what the company makes or how they make it. It answers the ever elusive, “why?”

“The highest performing organizations and most beloved brands of our time have a PURPOSE beyond making money.”

“When we first starting working with Southwest Airlines 35 years ago,” Spence recounts, “Only 15% of Americans had flown in an airplane before. We helped Southwest realize that their purpose was to democratize the skies. Their mission is about how to do that (keeping costs down to keep ticket prices down) and their vision — how you see the world once you’ve achieved that purpose — was a world where anyone could fly. But the purpose was to make flying attainable for everyone. Now, nearly 90% of Americans have flown, something we call the Southwest Effect.”

Another high-profile client of Spence’s was his home state. “Texas was a littering culture, and we needed to address is on a democratic level,” Spence explains, “We competed with other agencies that had put together such successful campaigns as the crying Indian and the Give a Hoot folks, but those ads were aimed at the folks who already didn’t litter, like Sierra Club members. We found a way in through Texas icons that appealed to a broader audience, like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Willie Nelson. With the slogan ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ there was a 76% litter reduction following our campaign.”

There are a few different ways to approach purpose and to make it a guidepost of your company and career:

As an Employer

Building a culture of purpose starts with your first hire. If you want passionate and engaged employees, their belief in your company’s purpose is paramount. “We measure people by their values,” Spence says. “If you agree with our values, then we’ve got alignment from the get-go on what we stand for.” And he fully admits that in his own line of work, he won’t take on clients who don’t prescribe to GSD&M’s core values. “It’s been our experience that if you have purpose, then profits follow,” says Spence. A refusal to compromise on those values didn’t impair GSD&M from becoming a financial success story as well.

As a Hire

When employees are committed to your company’s purpose, they will naturally look for ways to help fulfill that promise, in any way that they know how. “I would definitely encourage any young person starting out to inquire about the company’s purpose in their job interviews,” Spence says. “Ask the people interviewing you, and ask the HR people.” If you’re not getting the same answer from everyone from the top on down, then it’s not a strong enough part of the culture to truly be the company’s north star. One oft-cited example is when President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters and asked of a janitor, “What do you do here?” and the man answered, “I helped to put a man on the moon.” Every player has a part in a purpose-driven company.

As a Company Culture

Genentech, the biotechnology and pharma juggernaut, brings patients in to speak to help keep their company’s purpose top-of-mind for the 14,000 employees. Hearing from real people who are directly benefiting from the therapies and medicines developed by Genentech helps everyone from research techs to HR feel an emotional connection to the work that they do.

Another way to bake purpose-driven culture into your workplace is by fostering a goal-setting culture at work. Don’t limit it to work-related goals — encourage your employees to share their personal goals and bucket lists, and set up cheering sections for them when they take them on. For example, instead of cake in a conference room for someone’s birthday, throw them a surprise party the day before they head out to compete in their first triathlon.

As we wrap up our chat, Spence points to data from Gallup that states that the new generation in the workforce is more likely to value purpose over paycheck than previous generations. But we can all benefit from the advice of other successful, purpose-driven entrepreneurs and make adjustments towards a more meaningful approach to work.

Topics: Company Culture

Ed Stevens

Written by Ed Stevens

An experienced and serial entrepreneur, Ed Stevens is the Founder and CEO of Preciate.