Monday, March 16, 2015

"Purpose" Never Retires

Purpose is true north that never varies.
A lot of companies give lip service to "purpose" nowadays. I get tired of attending conferences and reading articles where business "purpose" is equated to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, as if purpose is something a firms buys and plugs into a small corner of the organization with the goal of generating PR and purchasing goodwill.
USAA is widely recognized as a firm that leads with purpose, and it is a purpose that is earned primarily with sweat and focus, not just dollars and charitable donations. What "purpose" really means at USAA was demonstrated by a recent announcement from President Obama about the Veterans Administration. Joe Robles Jr., who just retired as CEO of USAA, was named the chair of a new committee to assist the struggling VA. The goal of this group is to provide short-term and long-range priorities to improve VA operations and services.
In the history of thankless tasks, this may rank near the top. At an age when most take on the challenge of improving their golf handicap, Robles is dedicating himself to improving one of the largest bureaucracies in the world.
In the 20 years Robles served as USAA's CFO and CEO, he personally demonstrated what purpose really is, never missing an opportunity to remind employees and leaders of the association's mission: To facilitate the financial security of those who serve their country and their families. He personally gave his time to organizations that helped active service members and veterans, and in his role as leader, he constantly demonstrated USAA's purpose by promoting measures of how the organization achieved its mission above and before measures of how the organization achieved financial success. As with many companies that lead with purpose, USAA has no difficulties achieving the latter because of its commitment to the former.
After serving his country for 28 years in the U.S. Army and then being employed at USAA another 21 years, you might think that Robles has done his duty assisting the military community. But just one month after retiring from USAA, he is again putting himself in a position to improve the lives of veterans and their families.
Of course, Robles is not the only leader to demonstrate that purpose never retires. Jimmy Carter remained active in international and domestic affairs long after he left office, traveling the world to conduct peace negotiations, observe elections, and advance disease prevention and eradication in developing nations. And former CEOs as diverse as Bill Gates and Herman Cain have used their fortunes and political clout to advance their causes and world views.
But so powerful is Joe Robles' purpose that three years after leaving the employ of USAA, I still am inspired by the strength of his purpose. He demonstrates that purpose is not a strategy or PR tactic; it doesn't come from focus groups and research; and it is not CSR. Robles' sense of purpose resonates so strongly because he demonstrates that purpose is something you are and do; something that drives you to continue when no one would blame you for stopping.
For Joe Robles, purpose never retires. Even after leaving USAA, his sense of purpose continues to serve as an example for USAA employees (both current and former) and for other corporate leaders.

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