What Is Your North Star?

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Do you know your organization’s North Star? Or maybe a better question is whether your organization even has a North Star. Not to get all astronomical on you, but Dr. E.C. Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and a world-renowned expert in ancient astronomy explains, “The north pole of the sky and whatever stars were close to that point told the ancients there was foundation and structure in their lives. It was an anchor that held the world in place, the stable, motionless hub of the night’s orderly parade of stars. Although we usually call it the North Star, it is also known as Polaris, Latin for “of the pole.”

A North Star Narrative

So, metaphorically, a North Star is what inspires and influences us. It’s not goals. It’s not a mission statement. It’s the fundamental ethos that your organization operates on. To be more precise, it is the reason you are in business. It is your shared purpose reflected and embraced by everyone in your organization. And your true sense of direction.

So, what happens when market conditions throw you a curve or your organization faces a disruption? Do you abandon your North Star? Do you bend its purpose to adapt to the current situation? Which begs the question: Is a North Star immutable? Or is it malleable? Purpose would seem to transcend any blip in market disruption or sea change. And in today’s customer-demand-driven, woke environment, no one can afford to tap dance around a true purpose, your North Star. If you do, you risk losing authenticity and credibility with your workforce, customers, and all your stakeholders.

If we pause for a moment without diving into divisive current events, we may find examples of how individuals are setting their North Stars, holding firm to their ethics, beliefs, and values, despite conditions in the current moment in time. Whether a leader in the public eye, or an everyday hero living next door hold firm to their North Star, we admire them for their commitment, dedication, and courage to stand firm against the pressure to cave to the public discourse and the way the wind is blowing. We may not always agree with those who take a stand, but we do respect them, and hold them as honorable, courageous, committed, and strong. They are often role models for others and us. Similarly, organizations that hold onto their North Star benefit societally and across their markets, admired by their stakeholders, including their workforce.

A North Star Culture

Defining your North Star, your shared purpose, is a long-term, stretch vision. It is always there, provides direction, inspires, is clear and visible, and may possibly be attained—with some difficulty—depending on your definition. It is independent of where you are today in your journey and represents the direction you are moving.

A North Star strategy requires an understanding of workforce challenges and expectations in order to engage and inspire the frontline employee. What complicates an organizational North Star is that it may not align with the personal North Stars of stakeholders. And that can get tricky when your workforce is at odds with your organizational shared purpose. That said, certainly no one wants a homogenized work culture; diversity of thought makes a healthy organization when supported by critical thinking. The key is to be consistent, coherent, and clear to the workforce, so that they understand the direction and the shared purpose and how they contribute.

Simply stated, without a North Star, no one in your organization knows where you are going; with a vision, everyone can take action that helps to move the vision forward and maintain it. In the spirit of collaboration and transparency, it is an interesting exercise to have your workforce help articulate your North Star. Elicit their input and enthusiasm, which will also enable a higher level of buy-in once you have arrived at your definition.

Another way to visualize the North Star is a strategy that great brands and organizations are built on with great purpose because they encourage their workforce to work today to achieve the vision for tomorrow, and years to come. So, creating a North Star is a statement about what your world will look like when you’ve arrived. And that may take some thought about what business you are actually in, not what it appears to be. From a philosophical perspective, the means justify the end. Follow your North Star, stay dedicated to the journey and don’t lose hope.

When you think of the brands and organizations you most admire, chances are they line up with your own North Star or if they don’t, you still respect them as honorable, authentic, and courageous. Consider a few brands that range from social justice and improving the human condition to making the world a better place technologically. In short, they are beyond reproach. In our divisive culture, it’s hard to find more than a handful, which is actually not a great statement about iconic brands.

  • Patagonia
  • Tesla
  • Doctors Without Borders
  • Apple

A North Star Leader

It’s slightly easier to identify iconic North Star leaders:

  • Martin Luther King
  • Gandhi
  • Mother Theresa
  • Nelson Mandela

But not all North Star leaders have to be martyrs. Radical thinking can yield radical results, think: Steve Jobs. Or even better, think Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia who is a billionaire following his North Star. As reported by The New York Times,” Rather than selling the company or taking it public, Mr. Chouinard, his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization. They were created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits — some $100 million a year — are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.” Business as normal is a notion of the past. Being a North Star organizational leader requires vision, curiosity, and tenacity balanced with flexibility and empathy.

Measuring Success

Having a North Star that isn’t actionable is the same as not having any North Star at all. Creating a North Star metric keeps you on course and measures your progress. The term the North Star metric was originated by Silicon Valley startups that were measuring long-term sustainable growth. The North Star strategy can help an organization focus on and adhere to a single key metric. By collecting focused data, decision-makers can better understand their customer base. Using a North Star strategy provides a clear point of reference for future product development by gathering data over time. A North Star metric can be the most predictive of an organization’s long-term success. To qualify as a North Star, a metric must do three things: lead to revenue, reflect customer value, and measure progress. If a metric hits those three points, and every department contributes to improving it, the organization will grow sustainably.

True North

Again, the question is: Does your organization have a North Star? Have you stayed consistent to your beliefs, your commitments and what/how you represent? Can you articulate your “why” to your stakeholders? Or are you blowing aimlessly in the wind? Take a look around you. Reflect on individuals and organizations you respect and admire. What do they share in common? You will most likely find that they engender courage, honor, and shared purpose – even if you don’t agree with them.

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