Words Carved in Granite
“We believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses, and patients; to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.”
Those words anchor the Credo written in 1943 by Robert Wood Johnson, a member of the founding family for Johnson & Johnson and one-time chairman. Carved into a granite wall at the company’s New Jersey headquarters, the Credo was part of the fabric of Johnson & Johnson, but by the mid-70s, when James Burke invited thirty-five of the company’s senior leaders to discuss the Credo, he was concerned the words had become hollow. As Daniel Coyle relates in his book, The Culture Code, lengthy and tense discussions about the Credo ultimately resulted in a recommitment to it, but on September 30, 1982, that commitment would be tested.
Do Words Carved in Granite Lead to Rock-Solid Actions?
On that day, James Burke received a phone call that six people were dead in Chicago because they had ingested Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide; panic ensued and continued to escalate as a seventh victim was identified. At Johnson & Johnson, a seven-person committee worked their way through a series of decisions, including whether they should recall other Tylenol products. Four days after the phone call, Burke and his team met with the FBI and FDA to discuss that question. While advised to limit the recall to Chicago since no poison had been located outside that area, the Johnson & Johnson team chose to recall every Tylenol product on the market—31 million pills at the cost of $100 million. When asked to explain the decision, Burke recited the Credo’s anchoring words.
An Organizational Compass
High-performing teams have an organizational compass. As Coyle states, “They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go.” For many organizations, those ideas can be found in their mission and vision statements. The mission often defines the where we are, while the vision often shares the where we want to go. At Ethos, for instance, we exist for the cause of leadership; that’s our where we are. Where we want to go is a world in which leaders are living and leading well, and organizations are fulfilling their mission. That’s our “High Purpose,” as Coyle would reference it, and it was Johnson & Johnson’s equivalent compass that made the decision to recall all products so easy, according to Burke.
From Words to Actions in Everyday Work
Thankfully, most of us will never face a crisis of the magnitude that Johnson & Johnson endured in 1982, so we likely will never be called upon to live into our High Purpose in a life-or-death situation. But High Purpose isn’t just about those moments; High Purpose is about every moment, every decision, every interaction. Consider these examples:
- A budget decision is a High Purpose moment. Each line item in a budget should honor where we are and help us get to where we want to go.
- A time expenditure is a High Purpose moment. Each minute we give to an activity (or ask others to give) should contribute to our mission and vision.
- A job interview is a High Purpose moment. Each hire we make should reinforce who we are and where we want to go.
- A feedback conversation is a High Purpose moment. Each dialogue should encourage our staff to stay on our chosen organizational path or re-direct them to that path if they’ve walked off course.
- A meeting is a High Purpose moment. Each agenda item and resulting action should be grounded in where we are and move us toward where we want to go.
Take a Moment to Reflect: Think about the moments you will have to reinforce your organization’s High Purpose over the next week. Now act!