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Grow or Die #5: Grow with Purpose

At the heart of any decent company lies a fundamental question: Why do we exist? For a founder, this question isn’t just philosophical. Your answer forms the backbone of your company's purpose, passion, and/or just cause, what we at Ninety call your Compelling Why. As ambitious founders, we understand true growth goes beyond expansion. It's about creating a productive, humane, and resilient organization driven by a clear Vision.

Our ongoing Grow or Die series has explored the importance of building a strong foundation, creating the right structure, and mastering the art of letting go to achieve sustainable growth. Central to these elements is your Compelling Why, a guiding light that keeps your company on course and prevents stagnation.

In this blog, I'll provide some thoughts on how to think about your Compelling Why as well as why it's so crucial to your company’s success. If you don't have a Compelling Why yet, I'll also explore why you want to either find it quickly, consider selling your company (if that's an option), or identify a leader to replace you who can create a Compelling Why you both believe in.

Purpose: Why Your Why Matters

Growth is at the core of every good, let alone great, organization. In the early Stages of Development, your company trajectory is all about revenue, costs, product-market fit, and proving your economic/business model. Then, growth evolves into nailing down your brand and brand recognition. In the later Stages, you focus on deepening market penetration, followed by expansion and diversification. For many ambitious founders, sustainability and corporate responsibility become integral as well.

As your organization grows, your business needs more than an impressive bottom line. After all, your team members aren't sitting around every day wondering how to increase revenue by 10%. They're more likely thinking about their individual roles and how they're making a difference. That's because, deep down, most of us want to matter, and we want to work for a company that matters. We also want to do business with people we trust and work for a company we trust, and one of trust's core dimensions is connection fostered by a strong sense of shared purpose and values.

My experience suggests great companies are wrapped around a “Why” that is aligned with and gives meaning to the things that matter to an organization, such as its Core Values. Without a clear and Compelling Why, founders often struggle to create a strong culture, leading to misalignment, disengagement, and stagnation. There's no question the concept of having a Compelling Why resonates with people, but I'm still not certain most people fully appreciate why the Why matters so much.

Overcoming Entropy with Sustained Growth

A Compelling Why aligns and motivates your team and helps your organization overcome its natural tendency toward entropy. As companies grow and face new challenges, it's easy to lose focus. However, by consistently pursuing a Compelling Why, we can maintain the energy required to keep both the momentum and direction needed for growth.

For most leaders, revenue growth is their top priority. But while financial performance is crucial, we have to look beyond the bottom line because, as I often say, we don’t make money because we want to make money, we make money because people value what we do. The challenge with most financial performance goals, especially numerical targets like revenue or customer counts, is that they're soulless and often feel unrelated to the team's daily efforts. These objectives are set by leadership when, in reality, most of our team members aren't focused on our medium (1-year and 3-year) or longer-term goals. They're simply trying to make it day to day, week to week, or quarter to quarter. Without a clear link to the larger Vision, it’s easy for team members to lose sight of how their efforts contribute to the company’s long-term success.Maslows_Hierarchy

This is where a Compelling Why comes into play. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, once basic requirements like survival are met, individuals are driven by higher-order desires such as belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

Similarly, while companies need to secure their financial foundation, great companies are not just focused on providing exceptional value to their customers. They also have a Unique Value Proposition (UVP) that is completely in alignment with, and supportive of, their Compelling Why. Furthermore, these companies have a very well-defined culture, which has a clear set of Core Values (and the best of the best have Core Values that are congruent with their Compelling Why).

A Compelling Why provides direction and inspiration to ensure our teams stay focused on what matters most, keeping everyone aligned and motivated, even amidst the daily chaos of business. It also serves as a unifying force for our company’s "forever agreements" — the other big, unchanging ideas that are the soul of our company (Core Values, UVP, and Ideal Customer). 

Aligning Work with Purpose

Consistently honoring our Compelling Why can be challenging if it's not our top priority. By making it our "job one," we provide a sense of fulfillment and establish a valuable marker for why we matter and should continue to matter for ages and ages. That’s why it’s a "forever" part of our Focus Filters.

Our Compelling Why provides everyone in our company with this constant signal that informs our work and the work of our Ideal Team Members:

What percent of the time is our work aligned with our Compelling Why?

You should be proud if at least 90% of the time your work as well as the work of your fully onboarded team members is unquestionably aligned with your Compelling Why.

Why? Because a Compelling Why serves as both an energizer and a guide. The energy comes from knowing the work you are collectively doing matters. The guide ensures that decisions are consistent with your Why. Without the guiding force of a Compelling Why, organizations are more apt to find themselves prone to drifting aimlessly in a sea of competing demands and distractions. If you feel like things are messy and you're constantly fighting battles over direction, your people are likely feeling lost and looking for a signal.

If you don’t have a Compelling Why, I encourage you to take a look at that section of our Vision Builders Workbook and meet with your team to see if the time has come to embrace one.

If you do have a Why but it's not compelling and/or it feels like your company's activities are out of alignment, you’ll likely face one of three choices:

  1. Redefine and/or clarify your Why and see if you can find one that is genuinely compelling not just for you but your entire Senior Leadership Team. If it's not resonating for you, you can be sure it's not resonating with your team members.
  2. If it does resonate with you, whenever you see actions and/or decisions that conflict with it, ask your team members if they can see the conflict between the misaligned work and your Compelling Why. Discuss these inconsistencies and explore ways to better align their work with your Compelling Why.
  3. If you don't care about your Why, you should accept that it's likely your colleagues won’t either, and worse, it wouldn’t surprise me if they point to it as yet another example of how your company doesn’t walk the talk. If this is the case, be at peace with the fact that it will likely be harder and harder for you to attract and retain strong talent compared to those companies that have a well-developed Compelling Why that is embraced and protected by and throughout the entire company. As we like to say at Ninety (a paraphrase of the famous Doc Rivers quote):

Average leaders want to be left alone.
Good leaders want a coach.
Great Leaders want to know the truth.

Failing to pursue one of these three options will make it more and more likely that you won't enjoy running, building, and scaling your company. Remember, things either grow or die. When your days start lacking passion and direction, your business’s days are numbered.

The Paradox of Business Growth

When a company fails to pursue its full potential, it becomes vulnerable to the relentless forces of entropy that chip away at its foundation. Every company will face existential crises at some point. In the early Stages of building a business, it's almost impossible to avoid. At their core, these crises are prompted by questions of purpose and a lack of satisfying answers to what it all means. Perhaps years were spent chasing a Vision that turned out to be hollow, leaving you feeling unfulfilled and directionless. Achieving a long-sought goal only to be left feeling more void than ever is a stark reminder of the importance of having a genuine and meaningful Compelling Why.

If we start questioning our company's reason for existence, it's a sign we need to reassess what truly matters not just to our organization but to us as leaders. Building, running, and scaling a company is hard. It's especially hard if it doesn’t excite us, if it doesn’t give us joy, and if we aren’t passionate about the work we do and the reason we do it.

If you cannot fully embrace the importance of having a guiding purpose, it may be time to consider passing the leadership to someone else — someone who would love to take the field, is excited about being great at the game, and embraces the challenges of being center stage in the arena.

And that all leads to the paradox of business growth:

The less we question our company's reason for being, the more profoundly

it fulfills its purpose.

Your Journey to a Compelling Why

Building a company is hard. Most people think it would be great to be a leader, but when they reflect on the responsibilities and challenges, they realize it's not what they truly want. At the end of the day, they don't care to be in the spotlight, facing constant scrutiny and criticism from all angles.

What many don’t realize is that all the unsolicited feedback crashing down on us as leaders gives us a gift. It gives us signals to investigate what's not working, helps us clear the clutter that entropy dumps upon us, allows us to correct course when necessary, and helps us refine or better explain why our work matters. It also lets us know when some teammates are slacking off or standing on the sidelines.

When our Compelling Why is clear and the work being done serves it, we no longer have to question how we allocate our scarcest resource: our time.

Once we have a genuinely Compelling Why, we have one of the essential ingredients required if we want to build a company that we’ll love forever, even in the face of challenges and setbacks. A Compelling Why is foundational for building a focused, aligned, and thriving organization. Embrace it, nurture it, and let it guide you and your colleagues on your collective journey to turning your Vision into reality.

Are you ready to take the next step in your company-building journey? Subscribe to my Founder's Framework newsletter to join the conversation.