Purpose, values and vision: your organizational foundation

Your purpose, values and vision have a big job. When they are performing well, they help you and your team knock it out of the park in all the ways that matter to your organization.

Part of their power comes from the way they work together as a system: values provide guidance, purpose adds emotional resonance and vision creates aspiration. Together, they make up what we call your organizational foundation.

With a clear, well-communicated and lived foundation, you can:

  • Define your strategy (the "how" or bringing your action plan to life)
  • Confidently set measurable objectives that help you get closer to making your vision a reality

The first step, though, is understanding how this foundation works. In this post, we’ll break down these elements to show you why each one is important and how they all work together as a powerful system for breakthrough performance.

Why these terms aren’t always easy to understand

Your purpose, values and vision have a lot of responsibility, but people aren’t always clear on what they are or how they function. There are a couple of reasons why there can be confusion around these terms:

  • There’s no universal definition. People tend to interpret and use the terms differently, both within an organization (especially if they’re not aligned) and across organizations.
  • Not every organization is at the same stage of their journey. In some organizations, purpose, values and vision are terms listed in a report or posted on a wall, but not lived throughout the organization. If that’s the case, employees may never have seen them in action, so they’re unclear what they truly mean or what their function is.
  • The purpose, values and vision themselves are unclear! Sometimes the language used in these statements doesn’t resonate with employees, or it doesn’t accurately describe where the organization is and what it wants to become.

Let’s break it down

Each element of your organizational foundation is distinct and essential to the whole. Let’s have a look at the differences and functions of purpose, values and vision:

A pyramid graphic representing the strategic plan is at the top and smaller than the foundation elements, the vision values and purpose, all coloured similarly to indicate the system/foundation

Purpose: Your reason for being as an organization

Along with values, purpose is the base of your foundation. It answers the fundamental question of “why” your organization exists.

Purpose aligns employees around their shared motivation to make change in the world through the work they do. It energizes existing employees and attracts new people to your organization who want to join in that ambition. The term “mission” can sometimes be used interchangeably with purpose.

The Dr. Peter Centre, a world-renowned HIV/AIDS healthcare facility, recognized the need to revisit their purpose when they noticed a lack of clarity and alignment around the why of the organization – from the board to its employees and to volunteers.

They redefined their purpose as: “We support those who need an accepting, joyful home, where they can connect to others, and tend to their body and spirit.” The statement gets to the heart of who they are as an organization, while inspiring a broader view of their potential.

Values: The rules you follow when no one is looking

The second element in your organizational foundation is your values, which consist of employee beliefs, behaviours and decisions. Values help us stay true to who we are as we fulfill our purpose and progress our vision. Values are forged by the challenges and privileges we have experienced. They lead to behaviours that impact organizational success.

Arc’teryx is an outdoor clothing and sports equipment company known for their intuitive design, performance and simplicity. They partnered with Habanero to rearticulate their purpose and values and bring them to life throughout the organization.

For many employees, connecting to their new values flicked a switch. They now understood that Arc’teryx fully trusts each employee to do right for the brand; it’s part of the company’s culture.

For example, one of their core values is “Live it.” To support this value, Arc’teryx creates opportunities for their employees to spend time with each other outside of work and use their products outdoors, in the spaces they were designed for.

Vision: The future you create by living your purpose and values every day

Described as a future state, vision represents your aspiration as an organization. It's the version of your purpose coming to life over time that you chose to create together. Vision guides strategy, directs action and shows up in the work employees do every day.

In partnership with Habanero, Herschel Supply Co. engaged in creative exercises to research and think deeply about the future of Herschel. The resulting vision statement, “The most trusted company for young creatives,” is actionable and anchors the company’s 10-year game plan. Since its implementation, objectives across each department ladder up to the vision to ensure everyone is focused on their shared goal.

Working on the whole

Once you see how purpose, values and vision work together, you can understand how difficult it is to revisit one part without examining the whole foundation.

They should be in sync, which means if one element changes, it impacts the others. If you feel like your purpose isn't getting you where you need to go, then take a look at your values to make sure they support the purpose you're creating.

Consider also how these ideas are developed. Uncovering your purpose and values is a process of discovery. We use an empathetic research process that involves talking to people throughout the organization to identify the themes and ideas that resonate most strongly. It is truly a bottom-up, co-creative process that ensures employees feel a sense of ownership in the outcome. Vision, on the other hand, is often informed by leadership and speaks to where they want to take the organization.

What a solid foundation can look like

When your purpose, values and vision are performing well together, they help you and your team knock it out of the park in all the ways that matter to your organization. Here’s what that can look like:

Clarity and alignment

When everyone's lined up around the same ideas, it reduces organizational friction. Internally, this looks like a coherence in the actions and decisions every employee makes – from the frontline to the boardroom.

When we work with organizations like Arc'teryx or Herschel to bring everyone into alignment around new purpose, values and vision, it helps everyone in every slice of the business know their job, the work that they need to do and how it connects to everybody else. People know where the organization is headed, what they're trying to achieve, how the things that they do in their role line up to that.


A solid foundation brings a sense of confidence to the organization and its employees. This can show up in employees’ day-to-day decisions, which together create stability and forward movement that can have a big impact on meeting outcomes. It also just feels good for employees when have a sense of certainty and support in what they’re doing.


At both the individual and organizational level, decision-making becomes easier. Your foundation serves as a trusted tool to help determine what to do or not do, or what priorities to put your time and effort towards.

People are no longer left floundering, wondering, “Is this the right direction for us to go?” Instead, it’s like everybody in the boat is rowing in the same direction.


When everyone is aligned around purpose, values and vision, there's a consistency of experience, both for employees and customers. This is a big win for organizations that care about the customer experience. For example, an organization’s purpose helps retail employees understand what kind of experience they want to create for their customers, while values guide how they show up when interacting with customers. This doesn’t mean values mandate employee behaviour. Instead, they serve as a framework that employees can lean on and interpret in the moment. It helps them show up in a way that’s representative of the organization and its purpose. The result is that every small interaction the customer has with your organization feels consistent with your brand, which builds trust and loyalty.

Living the foundation

Purpose, values and vision work best when they are understood and reinforced at all levels of the organization. Employees need to see them modelled authentically by leaders and hear about other people applying them, so that they have the confidence to do it too. That’s how it shapes your culture: You do it, you share it, and other people hear about it. They do it, they share it, and gradually it becomes the way that we do things.

Living your organizational purpose, values and vision is an ongoing process. It’s not something you do or say once and forget about. It needs to be woven into strategy, objectives, communications, behaviours and intent. And it may need to change as your organization grows and evolves.

At a certain point, you will need to take a deeper look at your foundation and make some new choices, especially if your organization, industry or even the world has changed. We'll explore when to revisit your purpose, values and vision in our next post.

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