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How ‘Purpose’ Has Become Our Competitive Advantage (and How to Find Yours)

Chances are most businesses already have an intuitive sense of what drives them—beyond just dollars and cents. But moving from a “feeling” to a concrete purpose you can share is the tricky part.

Photo courtesy of Christina Wocintechchat via Unsplash

Picture this: a group of highly skilled people on the cutting edge of agricultural science locked in a room for a week straight. But they’re not working on some groundbreaking new discovery—they’re arguing over every single word in the company’s one-sentence mission statement.

That was my team about five years ago. We’d figured out how to replicate natural pheromones to keep pests away from crops, but we couldn’t agree on the right words to express why we do what we do. 

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For anyone who has ever taken part in one of these exercises, you know how challenging it can be. And it’s tempting to dismiss the result as corporate fluff—a mantra to be slapped on your website and quickly forgotten. But in my experience, identifying and verbalizing your purpose is anything but inconsequential, especially right now. 

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The Ascension of Purpose

Dig into the stats behind the Great Resignation wave and something profound emerges. Yes, employees are leaving for roles that offer more flexibility and better pay. But they’re also leaving in search of more meaningful experiences at work—indeed, about two-thirds of workers surveyed recently said they were reflecting on their life’s purpose.

Beneath the surface, this movement has been growing for years. Before a staggering 19 million U.S. workers quit their jobs, and before “pandemic” was a word we uttered daily, people were already feeling listless and detached from their roles. Fast forward to today, and the number of people feeling actively disengaged at work has grown to 74 percent. 

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Why? Three-quarters of Gen Z believe jobs should carry a greater meaning than just money, a greater percentage than any other generational cohort. Moreover, with COVID has come serious soul searching. Add to that the fact that climate change has gone from an abstract threat to the wolf at the door. 

In a world where the preciousness and fragility of life is plain to see, people want to find inspiration in their work, and that’s hardly surprising. For employers hoping to attract talent now and retain people for years to come, an articulate and compelling purpose has gone from a nice-to-have to a necessity. 

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Finding and Using Your Purpose in 2022

So how do you find a company’s purpose? Chances are most businesses already have an intuitive sense of what drives them—beyond just dollars and cents. We did. We knew we were combining science with a deep understanding of nature to help farmers do more with less. But moving from a “feeling” to a concrete purpose you can share is the tricky part. 

What helped me more than anything was a simple Japanese concept called ikigai. Picture a Venn diagram with four circles: what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and what you can be paid for. Where those four circles overlap is your “ikigai”—your reason for being. 

You need to satisfy all four criteria here to find a truly compelling purpose. It’s not enough to just make money…or simply do what you love…or even to impact the world. Real purpose integrates all of these elements. That helped us visualize and verbalize what we were about. Not just pheromones. Not just cutting-edge science. And not just happy customers. Our true purpose was unlocking the power of nature to feed a growing population and improve the quality of human life. 

That one line has been huge for us. It’s been a magnet for talent, a beacon for new customers, a filter for investors and, perhaps most important, a matrix for daily decision-making. When there’s a fork in the road, we measure both options against our purpose statement, and go whichever way fits better. 

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When we launched our first successful product, for example, we could have loaded up our sales budget to maximize profit. Instead, we reinvested in R&D to better understand what drives the resilience of trees and plants. The result? It took a few years, but the products we developed out of that decision bolstered our mission and business boomed. 

To be clear, “purpose” isn’t reserved for companies that are saving the world or have a sustainability mandate. It can be found everywhere, in efforts big or small to make lives better. Netflix, for instance, opens its mission statement with, “We want to entertain the world.” Working on a Nobel Prize-winning discovery would be great, too, but at the root, people want to know a company is aligned with their values and motivators before making a major life decision. 

From my experience, individuals driven by purpose don’t walk back on it. The primacy of purpose at work will dominate not just 2022 but in the years ahead too. Any company that hasn’t found its purpose would be wise to lock its executive team inside a room and hash it out until they’ve found something meaningful. It could be your ultimate competitive advantage.

Michael Gilbert is the founder and CEO of Semios, a global leader in precision agriculture and sustainable farming.

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