Mission Control: Putting Our Purpose Above Our Goals

Talent Management

April 29, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

At the surface level, “purpose” and “goal” seem to be very similar. In fact, my thesaurus tells me they’re synonyms. It might appear that we can use them interchangeably. But in parsing the definitions of these words, we discover they’re as different as night and day.

Goals are the specific objectives we strive to achieve, usually within well-defined parameters of space, time and resources. On the other hand, purpose is abstract. It’s the “why” behind any thought or deed. Purpose is not about achieving an objective – it is more of a way of life. Purpose is enduring, whereas goals can be created, adjusted and discarded as needed.

Going beyond mere semantics, you can see the variation between purpose and goals in what you do at work. Goals can be the targets you set regarding the recruitment, retention, development and progression of your organization’s workforce.

In contrast, purpose should be what the goals serve. You establish those targets to achieve a greater overarching aim, one that benefits the business and its shareholders.

For instance, you wouldn’t bring in 1,000 employees just for the purpose of making your workforce larger, would you? Of course not. (At least I hope not.)

On the other hand, you might set a goal of bringing in these employees to prepare your organization to support its purpose and to ensure the success of an exciting new growth opportunity.

We often get lost and confuse our goals with our purpose, both with our companies and our families. I will never forget teaching a leadership development session in a Fortune 500 company that not only involved executives – it involved the spouses or partners of the executives. As part of the session, executives received feedback from their partners.

Many executives learned that their partners felt ignored or put in “second place” compared with work. When the executives were asked, “Why are you working so hard?” they invariably said, “Because I want my family to have a great life.” Their partners almost always replied, “We have more money than we will ever spend. We would just like to see you more!”

Many executives had clearly let their goal (make a lot of money) become more important than their purpose (create a great life for themselves and their families).

I bring this up because the distinction between a goal and a purpose sometimes can be lost on talent management professionals – we can get so absorbed in our own limited objectives, thinking that these are our raison d’etre.

A good friend of mine left consulting to become the executive vice president of HR for a huge corporation. He reviewed a study of the company’s employee benefits and found some benefits were costing the company millions of dollars and delivering very little that the employees actually valued.

When he suggested cutting the benefits to save the company money, he was told he was “confused” by his HR staff members. They noted that cutting these benefits would mean a smaller budget for the HR department and less power for them. They had become so interested in “building their empires,” they had forgotten about making a return on investment for their stockholders.

The idea that the purpose of the organization should come before the goals of any one part of the business seems to be simple enough. Yet why do many of the leaders in talent management (and to be fair, in other areas of business, as well) so often fail to get it?

The answer is rather simple: When a goal is designated, it tends to become a fixation for highly motivated people. Add to that the pressures that come with tight deadlines, struggles for finite resources and organizational turf battles, and it’s not hard to see how our own goals can absorb any of us.

The solution to this problem is equally simple, although it isn’t necessarily easy. It requires honest, perhaps even painful, introspection and reflection. Conduct a thorough analysis of your goals. Ask yourself, “What goals are consuming my time and energy?” and “What goals are consuming the company’s resources?” Rank your goals in terms of cost. Then look at the true purpose of your organization. Rank your goals in terms of “contribution to the purpose.”

If we are honest in our assessments, most of us will find some clear discrepancies between “cost of goal achievement” and “contribution to our purpose.”

When this happens, we can step back, take a breath and realign our goals, successfully completing our “to do” list with our purpose – successfully doing what really matters.