Navigating to Success: You don’t need a road map, just a moral compass
If you’ve been around the Purpose community for more than a few minutes, then you know about the Why-What-How paradigm. Popularised by Simon Sinek in a best-selling book I haven’t read (Start With Why), the theory goes something like this: every business on earth can tell you how they do what they do. Most (but not all) of them can tell you what they do too. But almost none can tell you why.
It’s a beautifully neat construct, relatable and convertible into whichever type of colour-coded diagram you best understand. And I’m not even being sarcastic here; it’s a whole lot more digestible than the Seven Seals or whatever they’re called.
And then there’s the world, the one in which people start up new organisations every day with ideas as diverse as “I have a thing about toilet paper” or “I just don’t want to work with dickheads anymore”.
And then there’s the world, the one in which people start up new organisations every day with ideas as diverse as “I have a thing about toilet paper” or “I just don’t want to work with dickheads anymore”. There are two gritty realities here: one is the infinite variety of human motivations and circumstances. The other is that not everyone wants to be a start-up social entrepreneur. Is there really a universal principle which everyone can apply to their career decision points, and which accommodates the inherent fogginess which such decision making always entails?
How would I know, I haven’t even read the book. But I have started a business, on purpose and for purpose, and it still exists nine years later. One of the billion things I’ve learned along the way is a bit about how that theoretical commitment to Why can be translated into the language of real life.
Our experience (me and my fellow founders of Marque) goes something like this: our starting point was, as it is for many people who find their way into the Purpose community, everything we didn’t like about our former life.
Our experience (me and my fellow founders of Marque) goes something like this: our starting point was, as it is for many people who find their way into the Purpose community, everything we didn’t like about our former life. We were lawyers in a traditional large corporate law firm. It wasn’t horrible, although we weren’t happy there; the essential problem was that it had no Why. I was in charge of the business for a few years, and I couldn’t have told you why the business existed – what purpose it was serving in the world. All I could really put my finger on was the employment it provided to a bunch of lawyers and administrators, which is a social good but pretty abstract when we had no binding force and no reason to go on other than to achieve the next month’s budget.
Where this led us, when we’d decided to leave, was to an extremely simple and completely personal understanding of our purpose: after a lot of reflection, we realised that we wanted two things. We wanted to continue being lawyers, because we love being lawyers, and we wanted to be happy. We just wanted both to happen at the same time.
From there, it was a shortish trip to the next realisation: we couldn’t see a prospect of being lawyers and happy in the existing paradigm of legal practice. That left one choice: to change the paradigm. Marque’s purpose was born out of this realisation. We created it to provide the vehicle for our own happiness.
Marque’s purpose was born out of this realisation. We created it to provide the vehicle for our own happiness.
Every time I’ve been asked over the past nine years to write a bio for me or Marque, I start with something like “Marque was established in 2008 with the singular ambition of completely changing the way law is practised.” Originally, I thought it was just a bit of quirky hyperbole.
We did, in truth, make massive changes to legal practice in the sense that we consciously reinvented every aspect of the business when we started our new firm; Marque is fundamentally different in numerous ways to conventional law firms. And its tag line, “Law, done differently”, has always been literally true.
Our driver for all of these changes was our purpose: we were creating a recipe for happiness in the law. We didn’t have a strong view on whether anyone else would care, and we didn’t care about that. However, a lot of people cared a lot, as it turned out.
The main consequence of this is that our purpose, as we articulate it, has gone through a couple of evolutions over time. As our business has matured; as we’ve learned more and more about what makes us happy; as we’ve gained in confidence and the firm’s profile has grown, so our ambition has scaled up too.
The first shift for us was to realise that our purpose transcended our personal interests. Creating a bubble of contentment in an otherwise desolate sea is only so satisfying (also, that metaphor would have drowned us eventually). We did want to change the way law is practised, not just for ourselves.
The second evolution was to a higher understanding of our purpose as lawyers and the meaning we derive from the pursuit. Now, we understand that we want to re-establish the proper place of law and lawyers in society, as a force for social good. It’s a ridiculous ambition, which is why we like it so much.
Metaphorically, I think of our purpose’s evolution as the expansion of the canvas on which we’ve chosen to paint.
When we started Marque, we kind of knew what we’d be doing and we had a pretty good idea of how. The detail of that, and how we’d be received by the world, were unknown to us until we got there. As it continues to unfold before us, we still spend much of our time not knowing exactly what we’re doing but enjoying the process of finding out.
What’s been present since the start, and has never diminished, is our purpose. It’s grown and matured, but the line of sight back to the start remains clear.
That’s the lesson, in my mind: you don’t have to know what you’re doing; you just need to know why.