What makes Wal-Mart different from their rivals?

How did Procter & Gamble conquer longtime rival Colgate?

How was Motorola able to move from a battery repair business into cellular phones?

Why didn’t Zenith become dominant in anything other than TVs?

How did Boeing become the world’s best commercial aircraft company?

These are the questions Jim Collins answered in his book, “Built to Last”. Collins looks in depth at landmark companies that stood the test of time and came out on top.  Collins and Porras looked at eighteen companies with an average age of 100 years. The goal was to see what made these companies truly exceptional and how they have surpassed their competitors from 1926 to today.

By looking at successful companies over several decades, Collins and Porras are able to go above and beyond management buzzwords and fads to discover timeless qualities and create a master blueprint for building organizations that will prosper long into the twenty-first century and beyond.

Products Don’t Prosper

“Concentrating on products—or services, if that’s what you sell—is a trap.” – Jim Collins.

What you do, make, or sell is completely irrelevant. Some products become obsolete almost as quickly as they’re created.

Zenith and Motorola are a great example of this. These two companies were both known for making TVs. Zenith stayed there; Motorola did not. Year after year, Motorola changed products and continued to make jump after jump to keep up with the market. The difference was Motorola defined its core purpose as “applying technology to the benefit of the public,” not “making television sets.” This allowed them to give up what it made and keep its core purpose.  Zenith, on the other hand, couldn’t because they were only focused on making TVs.

You must clearly define who you are as a company, and you focus not on what you do but on what you could do. Once you have a very clear picture of what you stand for and why you exist, you enhance your ability to adapt to change.

Define what you Stand For

“It’s more important than ever to define yourself in terms of what you stand for rather than what you make, because what you make is going to become outmoded faster than it has at any time in the past.” -Jim Collins

Here’s how Collins and Porras describe an organization’s core purpose:

[It’s] the organization’s fundamental reason for being. An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work—it taps their idealistic motivations—and gets at the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money.

A core purpose is bigger than any one person. It’s not defined by a charismatic leader, product, service, team, or technology. Don’t look for a cliché or a mission statement. It’s so much more than that. It’s about what you believe. And it should drive everything you do.

More than a Tagline

“Leaders die, products become obsolete, markets change, new technologies emerge, and management fads come and go, but core ideology in a great company endures as a source of guidance and inspiration.” -Jim Collins.

The whole point of your core purpose is to motivate and lead your people, not to drive sales. Your core purpose should be something meaningful that continuously anchors your employees. The core is the reason they come to work every day. People fundamentally want to know that what they are doing serves a greater purpose.

A true core purpose will endure throughout the lifetime of your company. It won’t have to sound impressive or be used as a tagline. In fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t even in your marketing messaging. It does, however, have to be extremely meaningful to your business.

Purpose Creates Engagement

A well-communicated core purpose results in a workforce that is more engaged. When your employees understand how their job contributes to the company’s reason for existing, it is a powerful emotional connection. A job is no longer just a job, it is a shared common purpose, which promotes engagement. In turn, engaged employees work with more passion and dedication. That passion creates a connection to your company which drives customer growth.

Companies with a highly engaged workforce improved operating income by 19.2% over a period of 12 months, whilst those companies with low engagement scores saw operating income decline by 32.7% over the same period. – 2010, Towers Watson Strategies for Growth Study.

In simple terms, it is more thrilling to share a common purpose than complete a job.

engaged employees

Identifying Your Core Purpose in 3 Steps: 

Defining your core purpose is all about clarity, genuineness, and alignment. Collins identifies five important characteristics of a company’s core purpose:

  • It’s inspiring to those inside the company.
  • It’s something that’s as valid 100 years from now as it is today.
  • It should help you think expansively about what you could do but aren’t doing.
  • It should help you decide what not to do.
  • It’s truly authentic to your company. If it’s not authentic, your company will struggle to stand for anything meaningful.

Bear in mind, your core purpose is not a strategy or a differentiator. In fact, multiple companies may have the same or a similar core purpose. That is OK as long as your core purpose fits the criteria. Not sure where to start? Here are 3 steps to help you determine your core purpose:

Step 1: What are you doing beyond just making money?

Ask yourself these few questions, consider doing some writing, journaling, or open up a Google Doc and start typing as you consider the following:

  • Why does our organization’s existence matter?
  • What is your most important reason for being here? Why?
  • What would be lost if this organization ceased to exist?
  • Why are we important to the people we serve?
  • Why would anyone dedicate their precious time, energy, and passion to our company?
core purpose

Step 2: What core values do you believe in now that you will STILL believe in 100 years from today? 

This is not about wordsmithing the perfection mission statement. This is about identifying your true, honest, core values. You cannot “set” organizational values, you can only discover them. Nor can you “install” new core values into people. Instead, the task is to attract and then retain the people who are already predisposed to sharing your core values. Let those who aren’t predisposed to sharing your core values go elsewhere.

Jim Collins said, “The founders of great, enduring organizations like Hewlett-Packard, 3M, and Johnson & Johnson often did not have a vision statement when they started out. They usually began with a set of strong personal core values and a relentless drive for progress.”

“3M, for instance, has always had a sense of its core values—sponsoring innovation, protecting the creative individual, solving problems in a way that makes people’s lives better. These defined the organization and gave it a soul.”

Core Values aren’t something you can jot down and then forget about. They are, in fact, everything. To identify core values, Collins suggests starting with the individual and proceed to the organization. Here’s a few poignant questions Collins gives to get you started on identifying your core values:

  • What core values do you bring to your work—values you hold to be so fundamental that you would hold them regardless of whether or not they are rewarded?
  • How would you describe to your loved ones the core values that you hope they stand for in their working lives?
  • If you awoke tomorrow morning with enough money to retire for the rest of your life, would you continue to hold on to these core values?
  • Can you envision these values being as valid 100 years from now as they are today?
  • Would you want the organization to continue to hold these values, even if at some point one or more of them became a competitive disadvantage?
  • If you were to start a new organization tomorrow in a different line of work, what core values would you build into the new organization regardless of its activities?

Step 3: What are your goals?

No, we aren’t asking for your projections, or your 5-year plan, think bigger. What are your huge and audacious aspirations for the future of your company? What is the BIG picture, the outlandish, perhaps even embarrassing vision for what could be possible?

When you have completed these three steps, you have created alignment within your company to preserve your core values, reinforce its purpose, and to stimulate continued progress towards big goals.


Once you have identified your core purpose, the hard part begins. This is where you must align your company, practices, innovations, marketing, sales, and teams to the company purpose. This is where the magic happens. Without it, you just have a visionary idea with nothing to back it up.

For example, one of the core values at 3M is sponsoring innovation. They put this into practice by allowing their scientists to spend 15 percent of their time working on whatever interests them. They also require each division to generate 30 percent of revenues from new products introduced in the past four years. They have an active internal venture capital fund to support promising new ventures and provides a dual career track to encourage innovators to remain innovators rather than become managers. They even give prestigious awards for innovations and entrepreneurial success. They don’t just have a mission statement; they practice the values they preach.

Move Forward with Purpose

Most companies never define what they stand for; some never even build an accurate picture of what they’re good at. What these companies are left with is being driven only by what people will pay for. This isn’t a sustainable business model. Instead, spend the time defining what you stand for.

The first step is to understand your true purpose, identify your core values, and pinpoint your big goals. Spend only a tiny percentage documenting that understanding, and the rest of the time building a company that aligns with your purpose.

In short, worry about what you do, not what you say.