Why identifying purpose is so crucial

A Non-executive’s perspective, by Neil Francis

I was recently asked to do a talk at an Association of MBA’s event about my latest book, ‘Positive Thinking – How to Create a World Full of Possibilities’. In one part of my talk I focused on Chapter two, ‘Discover Meaning’ and I was able to interact with my audience by asking them this question:

‘How many of you could explain, in a short sentence, what is currently the main purpose of your life?’

And this is how they replied:

Yes 32.26%                No 67.74%

I accept that this is not a scientific study, however, I think if you asked some of the entrepreneurs that you might be thinking of joining their companies as a non-executive director, you probably would get a similar answer. A third would know and two thirds would not.

Why do I feel it is very important for any entrepreneur to know what is the purpose of their life is right now?

Well, identifying ‘purpose’ provides you with a stable foundation and a sense of direction, both of which are integral to a positive outlook on life. If an entrepreneur struggles to define their purpose, then when things get tough (for example when cash flow is tight, when sales are slowing down, when a key member of the team leaves) they will not have that solid foundation that will allow them to be more resilient and bounce back from adversity. They will lose their sense of direction, meaning setting goals becomes more difficult. Therefore, it is crucial that any entrepreneur identifies their purpose, as it influences behaviour, shapes goals, offers a sense of direction and creates meaning. All of which are fundamental for any entrepreneur if they are going to be successful.

So, if you are thinking of joining the board as a NED then I would suggest that a good starting point to see if you could work well with the entrepreneur, is to ask if they could answer these four simple, but thought-provoking questions:

  1. What do you love? The answer to this is your passion.
  2. What are you good at? The answer to this is your mission.
  3. What can you be paid for? The answer to this is your profession.
  4. What does the world need? The answer to this is your talent.

If they can, then they have probably identified what their current purpose is. However, if they are still struggling, then ask them to imagine jumping into a time machine and arriving at the year when they are 75.

Then, they need to ask themselves the following five questions:

  1. How, and for what, do I want to be remembered?
  2. By whom do I want to be remembered?
  3. Which achievements and personal strengths do I want others to talk about?
  4. When I look back on the life I have lived, am I satisfied with it?
  5. Am I living the life today, which will mean that I achieve all this when I am 75.

The answer to these questions should help them to identify whether they are living according to their values, whether they are achieving their goals and whether their life is going in the direction they want it to. Importantly, if they answered ‘no’ to questions four and five, then ask them to think about the changes they need to make to ensure that they are heading in the right direction. Now, this is the crucial bit. Get them to write down their answers and look back with them in six months or a year to see if they are making progress towards achieving their goals, especially their business goals. This is crucial, if you feel they are drifting off track, then ask them to remember the 75-year-old version they want to be and have a discussion with them about how to get back on track.

Ultimately, if an entrepreneur can identify their current purpose then this will strengthen their resilience, perseverance and mindset to achieve their goals. As a Non-executive, if you know that your entrepreneur is armed with these skills, then when things get tough or difficult, you will have confidence that they will always continue working towards the board’s business goals.

Note to self: Maybe create a space in your busy day to do these exercises yourselves, to ensure that you join boards that share a similar purpose!

Neil Francis is the author of ‘Positive Thinking’, ‘The Entrepreneur’s Book’, and ‘Changing Course’. He is currently the Chairman of a digital agency, Director of an internet company, Director of a consultancy practice, a Trustee of a social enterprise and over the last 8 years he has been a Non-executive on the board of five digital companies.