What Is Your North Star?
Issue 71: Sept 1, 2022
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. For some, that spot symbolized stability, order, and transcendental celestial power. The motionless stability of the north celestial pole is also expressed in the names and myths attached to the star now seen closest to the sky’s pole. 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, you can’t afford to tap dance around your 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. Those who decide to follow the wind eventually find themselves in hot water justifying past words and actions and confusing others with contradictions and lack of consistency. 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.
We have often written about the importance of consistency and context, dedication to purpose, staying the course, even if the course comes with bumps and unexpected consequences. An organization’s North Star benefits stakeholders by declaring what it stands for, how it operates and who it really is. As many seek to define a brand, improve brand awareness, or increase a brand’s popularity, they should consider the importance of purpose, maintaining consistency of purpose and commitment to what they believe in. A brand is so much more than logos, colors and fonts.
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, states WestMonroe.
Here’s a simple exercise to get you started, by way of Jeff Loehr:
- When we are sitting here X# years from now, what would you have liked to create?
- What should your organization look like in X# years?
- What should you have achieved?
- If someone writes an article about your organization in X# years, what should it say?
- What’s a 5-star review? What is a 10-star review?
And then add to those questions, drill down with these criteria:
- You personally identify with the vision. Ask this of all your leaders and your workforce.
- The future is clear (words, metaphors, analogies, and/or pictures).
- You feel encouraged, even excited.
- It is clear how you make a difference for your stakeholders and how your North Star resonates with them.
- It is a stretch from where you are today.
- The journey is worthwhile even with potential challenges.
- It is intellectually and emotionally energizing.
A North Star Culture
“A North Star strategy requires an understanding of workforce challenges and expectations in order to engage and inspire the frontline employee,” according to WestMonroe. “If you cannot express to the people you hire what it is you and they are working toward, then they may do lots of earnest work, but it will never amount to anything more than the sum of their work,” adds Jeff Loehr.
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 for great purpose because they encourage their workforce to work today to achieve the vision for tomorrow, and years to come. Any organization undergoing transformation needs to articulate a North Star to guide change. 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.
And then there is the issue of defining your North Star for your customers. According to Indeed, “If your organization has clear promises for customers, a North Star strategy may reveal how effectively you adhere to those promises.” WestMonroe, adds, “Each brand promise (e.g., “to become easy to do business with”) is associated with a set of guiding principles to help steer the organization in the direction of the North Star. These guiding principles define specific behaviors and actions measured in every transaction to ensure the desired customer experience: personalized, seamless, proactive, transparent, compassionate, and consistent.”
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.
Doctors Without Borders
A North Star Leader
It’s slightly easier to identify iconic North Star leaders:
Martin Luther King
But not all North Star leaders have to be martyrs. Radical thinking can yield radical results, think: Steve Jobs. 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. According to Radhika Dutt, a North Star leader:
- “Articulates the problem that the company is looking to solve. “Why” is the most important part of the vision. “Be able to succinctly describe the problem to solve. When a vision articulates the problem clearly, it’s easier for the team to intuitively understand the problem and gives everyone a clear purpose in solving it.”
- Presents a visualizable end state. “The vision isn’t about actions, but rather desired outcome. When it’s a tangible, visualizable end state instead of something abstract, people can internalize it and make it their own North Star.”
- Galvanizes both internal stakeholders and external customers.The vision is going to be a principled guide for sales and marketing teams and will form the foundation of external messaging. It’s important that your vision resonates with your customers since you want them alongside you on the journey.
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, according to Indeed.
According to Forbes writer Andrew Miller, “It is important to keep in mind that the North Star metric is not an end solution in and of itself. A key metric gives focus on your growth efforts and can serve as a seed to grow a company ecosystem that gives you deep insight into your customer’s behavior and creates levers to drive future growth. It leads to understanding your customers and unifying your team on how to better bring value.
He adds, “The North Star metric is a tool that focuses on results. The value that the product creates for your customers drives their engagement and ultimately creates value and strategic direction for your organization. This direction and the metric that defines it should serve as the epitome of your company objective and should promote the focus of all your team.”
Such a metric drives productivity and strengthens growth. An ideal metric will be the core of your strategic growth tactics. “The metric should hold inherent value and be able to tell you how to optimize your products and services and create more value for your customers,” adds Miller. “It should clearly point your organization in the right direction for long-term healthy growth, be able to bring the entire organization to focus on this direction, and make sense for all teams,” Miller concludes.
Mark Simbourg states “A North Star metric is the one measurement that’s most predictive of a 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.” In order to determine the single most important metric for your growth model, “You should look at how your products and services deliver value to your customers. User engagement and activity level are key analytics.”
Here are a few tips for determining a North Star metric, according to Simbourg:
- Ask “What is essential to the business functioning?”
- Ask “What KPIs and metrics measure the top few, key factors?”
- Ask “What metric encapsulates all of the above?”
- Build a metric hierarchy with the North Star metric on top of the pyramid.
Simbourg adds that having a North Star metric has three key benefits:
- “Alignment. Although different teams will have their own sub-goals and -metrics to focus on, having a North Star metric means the whole organization will be aligned around the same goal and will be able to map their team’s goal to the North Star metric.
- A North Star metric, since it measures organization progress, can give everyone in your organization a bird’s eye view of how the organization is doing overall. This, in turn, can assuage employees who may be worried about the organization’s future and thereby improve employee retention and reduce turnover.
- Customer Focus. Since your North Star Metric is the number that best reflects the value your organization brings to its customers, it helps you stay focused on improving the customer experience in all ways, which has its own obvious benefits as far as bottom-line revenue and retention.”
He adds, “Fostering organization-wide alignment, transparency, and a focus on the customer, your North Star is really the fuel to your growth engine.
Again, we ask: 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.
Want to learn more about how to find your North Star? Dive into our past newsletters on Shared Purpose, Market Orientation and Future of the Workforce. Or secure a copy of our book, The Truth about Transformation, for a comprehensive thought-provoking playbook on changing and transforming your organization for today and for tomorrow.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.