Lessons on Purpose From Patagonia

I love outdoor activities. Throughout the year I regularly canoe, mountain bike, and hike. In fact, I’m writing this a day after hiking up to a mountain peak. Connected to these activities is my fondness for quality outdoor clothing purchased from companies who are conscious of the environment.

Over the last few years, I have narrowed my focus to one company from which most of my outdoor clothing purchases are made: Patagonia. My fondness for Patagonia became cemented a few years ago after a visit to one of their retail stores. On a busy retail street where rent is extremely high, I walked into the store and wasn’t met with clothing or gear, but a story. Front and center was a literal storyboard of who Patagonia is and what they believe. Before shopping, I read through their story which included their purpose: We’re in business to save our home planet.”

As I shopped and moved on to the day’s other activities, I couldn’t shake the impact of this experience. I was struck by how rare it is for me to engage with a brand or organization and understand why they do what they do – let alone be inspired by it.

This is a great lesson about the importance of having an inspirational purpose and sharing it. This is not new news though. For over a decade now, Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” and his book, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, have been key resources for leaders who want to talk about their organization’s why.  Here’s a summary of his thinking on purpose:

Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do . . . By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? . . . And WHY should anyone care?[1]

Most readers will be familiar with Sinek’s call to start with why, but how well are you doing at actually turning it into action? Is your organization’s purpose inspirational and are you communicating it effectively?

In my view, Patagonia is a great example of an organization who has done this effectively. And one of the results is that they have a loyal customer – me – who raves about them (and I’m not the only one). They have a purpose I’m inspired by, believe in, and actually know about! It’s not hidden on some back page of their website or stuck behind a clothing rack on an engraved brass plate in their stores. It’s front and center, not just words on a page. When you read Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing, dig deeper into the company’s history and values, or listen to stories of others inspired by Patagonia, you can see that their purpose rings true – it’s not just marketing.

No one has ever been inspired by an organization’s purpose without a leader who is passionate about it.

In our own organization, we have worked hard to emulate what Patagonia has done. We believe that everyone should be able to like where they work. Said a different way, we are in the business of creating workplaces where people like to work. Everything we do – our resources, books, and training materials – is aimed at fulfilling this purpose.

We also work hard to intentionally and authentically communicate our purpose regularly. We share videos focused on our purpose, offer free resources related to it, and you will see it listed prominently on our website. We have even wrote a book called A Little Book About Workplace Culture where our purpose is featured prominently on the cover: “We believe that everyone should be able to like where they work.”

It’s important to note that purpose doesn’t just matter to clients – it also matters to staff. One reason for this is because a common purpose gives employees a reason to engage with their work, no matter what they are doing. Several years ago, I asked one of our very involved employees why she was so engaged. One of the things she said was, “Whether it’s entering data, packing a box, or creating an ad, I understand how my work fits into the purpose of our organization.” Her response has always served as a vivid reminder of how critical it is that I continue to connect the daily, sometimes mundane work that people do to the purpose of our organization.

I have become more mindful of opportunities to bridge connections between what we do day-to-day and how that impacts and fits with our purpose. We often begin meetings by referencing our purpose. We ask questions like, “How does this project impact our purpose?” In performance review meetings, we ask questions like, “How are you contributing to our organization’s purpose?” Purpose is not something that we only talk about once a year. Rather it is a beacon and pillar in our daily actions and decisions.

As leaders, we need to be passionate about our purpose and share our excitement everywhere we can – particularly when we have opportunities to do so in person. No one has ever been inspired by an organization’s purpose without a leader who is passionate about it. If we want employees to be excited about our purpose, it must begin with us. And when we do this well, we will inspire and energize people to work towards our shared purpose.

[1] Sinek, Simon. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (New York: Portfolio, 2009), 39.

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Randy Grieser, Author, Speaker

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