Why Purpose Shouldn’t Sideline Strategy

Having led strategy execution (and later strategy development) my entire professional career, statements like this one from Michael Chavez of Duke Corporate Education give me pause.  Chavez told Alan Murray of Fortune “Strategy has been demoted. It has become like milk—it has a freshness designation, and it doesn’t come with an expiration date.”

I was initially concerned.  Our reaction to the hard work of developing and executing sound and detailed strategy is already resistant at best.  A prominent corporate educator sidelining the importance of strategy could be perceived as a welcomed free pass we need to let ourselves off the hook.

“Our strategy is clear and actionable already!”

In my HR and consulting roles, I’ve experienced first hand how often, as leaders, we believe the strategy is clear and actionable.  As we build the change leadership plans and identify the behavior changes necessary,  we find that “vague” or “murky” better describes our strategy in the eyes of employees.

Developing strategy is hard.  It forces us to make choices.  It forces us to commit to a set of actions.  And, most importantly, it requires that we say No to things.  Most of us don’t like saying No.  We don’t enjoy letting opportunities pass us by or prioritizing in ways that feel like we’re giving up future options.

Chavez goes on to say “As ambiguity and uncertainty go up, the only thing that stays constant is purpose and values. They provide stability. We need more of it.”  I wholeheartedly agree!  We do need more stability.  Gen Z especially is clamoring for more Purpose.

I am an advocate for a focus on Purpose.  In a recent consulting engagement, my clients were reimagining their business model.  They inventoried their organizational capabilities and began prioritizing the new capabilities they needed for the future.  During our working sessions, a few comments and questions about Purpose were raised by stakeholders.   I asked:  “Given your revised business strategy, does Purpose need to be built as a future capability?” 

The question was intended to create space for self assessment and spark new creative thoughts.  Creating a moment for reflection and supporting my client’s to decide what was right for them.  My role was to listen for the emotion and encourage them to delve deeper into the dialogue together.

Purpose and Strategy are vastly different and equally necessary.

Purpose serves as an aspirational and motivating beacon.  It helps all employees understand why the organization exists and its contribution to society.  While it’s true Purpose has more organizational endurance than Strategy, an organization’s Purpose has been known to evolve and adapt with new generations of leadership and social culture.

Strategy articulates our choices, our trade off decisions and our unique position in the market.    It differentiates us from competitors and signals to the world how we intend to achieve our Purpose.  In today’s fast moving world, choices, trade-off decisions and prioritization about where to spend our time and money happen at lightning speed.  Three to five year strategies are dinosaurs.  A few strategic objectives looking out 12-24 months and revisiting regularly for slight course corrections fits today’s VUCA world.

Thriving in today’s world requires constant iteration, revision and adaptation of our Strategy along with a meaningful and intentional focus on Purpose.

Paige Boyd is an executive coach and change expert in Nashville, TN.  She helps leaders and organizations who want to realize their full potential by breaking through barriers and overcoming challenges that are holding them back.  You can reach her here.