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Bruce Sheppard delves into the challenges of establishing what your personal purpose is and the shared purpose of businesses or families

Bruce Sheppard delves into the challenges of establishing what your personal purpose is and the shared purpose of businesses or families

By Bruce Sheppard*

Do we believe that our life and our journey has meaning and is relevant and useful? Is this the purpose of existence?

The counter theory of course, is that life is pointless. We are born, we die and then there is nothing. Perhaps we are simply organisms, a viral infection on the planet we call Earth, and our only purpose is to breed and create more viruses.

If so, we are a biological specimen where each seeks the best mate to produce better offspring so the virus gets stronger – that is evolution and Darwinism.

Or, if we believe in an afterlife, wherever place this takes you, it is a legacy and or a memory or a story – then the journey itself takes some relevance.

Perhaps the point of life, is life itself. A very grand catch-22. 

Under this hypothesis, the point of each individual life is each person’s role in the greater human journey and what they create, progress or leave behind afterwards.

Maybe it’s both. Maybe they both end up in the same place anyway.

If we want to leave a legacy, why?

Often it’s to give your kids a better chance, (produce stronger offspring) or to leave the world a better place. The first is biological and easy to understand, the second is what makes humans aspirational and creative, more than any other species on planet earth. Probably biology as well.

Darwinism and survival of the fittest breeds’ competition

and competition is the path of aspiration.

If your family has got enough to ensure the offspring will remain strong and evolve, what then is the other legacy about?

Does caring about things beyond your immediate family and creating a respected relevance for your family help its survival? Well, yes.

Absent being assessed by others to be relevant to enough of humanity, your family line will suffer the fate of the Russian royalty, eventually.

So the purpose of purpose is to be relevant, leave a legacy, and to feel through the journey of your life that it had a point and that you are proud of it, and that others will see this, remember it and perhaps carry it on.

It’s pretty hard for that to occur if you don’t tell your story, however humble you may think it is (see psychologist Evana Lithgow’s first and second articles on the importance of sharing family stories).

Discovering personal purpose, and creating organisational or family purpose

An organisation can only create a purpose by compromising, trading and blending the purpose of all that are involved in an organisation. Pretty hard to do this unless you know your own purpose.

Discovering self.

Now don’t beat yourself up, if you can’t articulate what your purpose is, it doesn’t mean you haven’t got one. It just means you haven’t seen it yet.

However often do the young say ‘this is my purpose’ or ‘this is what is real and important’ and then change within a year or two? Don’t beat them up, it’s a part of experimenting and learning. Don’t expect purpose to become clear until there’s some experience and a journey to analyse… storytelling and analysis again!

As you start out you will make decisions based on opportunity and instinct. Some of the choices you make will leave you feeling dissatisfied, others, satisfied – and so the journey goes. Progressively you’ll find things that make you feel happy or contented, and in these post decision and outcome reviews, you will find a guide to your personal inner purpose. 

If this is involvement in work, investment or business (and if a purposeful business has defined what it is about and you plot their statements about shared purpose), and you correlate these with experiences you enjoyed, you will find the words to describe your personal purpose. Sadly most businesses don’t articulate their purpose, but you can usually spot it.

When analysing collective activity, don’t get confused between what they do, how they do it and why they do it.

Purpose is the answer to WHY, not what or how.

Once you have found your WHY it will be easy to

see the hidden purpose in others.

Collective purpose

Your purpose is personal to you, but in coming up with a shared purpose this involves a process of blending individual differences into a common thread that all can agree on.  

If you are now ready to think about your family’s purpose, it starts with you being very clear on your purpose. Then it involves a dialogue with each of your family members on their individual personal purpose. The problem as I said earlier, is the young don’t know what their purpose is, or if they think they do, they will change over time, but if you have instilled family values well, the core won’t change too much. 

Creating a shared purpose usually starts with a discussion on shared values, and culture. Usually easier in families than in business, but not always so depending on the nature of the family leadership from… you. 

If you have been a leader in business, you understand that it is your job to guide the creation of shared purpose in a business and then allow that to evolve and pivot as the participants change. Don’t beat yourself up on that either, change is the constant dynamic of businesses, it is how they survive.  

Culture and values

Back to the first article in this series (link here), attitudes, culture and values underpin all wealth and are a richness in themselves. Understanding the core values that drive your life will tell each individual in every organisation that which they can compromise and that which they can’t, in arriving at a shared set of values and a shared purpose. Locking in shared values is what ensures the purpose doesn’t deviate too much, as values don’t tend to change as much over time.

An example

My family is yet to find shared purpose, however our values are pretty well understood. It took me until I was around 50 years of age to articulate my purpose. So analysing post event my journey:

  • Started as an auditor in the biggest accounting firm in New Zealand. Thought I was really special as my parents gave me supreme self-confidence, was a rebel for the sake of it and would not tolerate any idiots I disagreed with. I was the world’s worst employee. Discovered I hated big business. It seemed disconnected, impersonal. With hindsight discovered that it was making a difference to people at a personal level that mattered to me.
  • Third job was in a mid-sized firm as a tax advisor. Highly successful firm, these guys made buckets of money, but fought like crazy and I observed a whole lot of behaviours I hated. Sweating the small things and an over emphasis on control. Did I really want to be a partner in this firm? (not that it was offered). If so, I had to admire, respect and trust the people I was going into business with. In short, who you choose to be with has an impact on who you are. I did not want to be like any of the partners in that firm, I did not want others to think I was like them. Lesson: associate with people you admire and trust, avoid the rest no matter how tempting the money. People matter.
  • Started Gilligan Sheppard. Its purpose has always been constant, if unarticulated but now it’s in writing, agreed by all and the organisational purpose is clear, “We enrich our lives through enriching yours“.
  • Formed the Shareholders Association, its purpose only emerged in its fourth or fifth year of storming and forming. Its purpose is “Enabling, protecting and rewarding ownership.”
  • Argus Fire, it protects life, property and the infrastructure of New Zealand.
  • LPF, a litigation funder, levels the playing field and provides access to justice and polices the perimeter of bad behaviour.
  • Winnow Software, it invests in people with an idea that we think we can help to deliver.
  • New Ground Capital, delivers societal and structural changes in housing and impact investment.
  • Connexionz, improves the quality, predictability and efficiency of public transport.

There are many others over the journey but the common denominator with all of these and all the others is;

Great people, deep connection, and selfless shared drive

My purpose is to enable, through effective partnering, good people to succeed by doing something that matters.

So your family’s journey to purpose includes these steps:

  1. Have you got a family or do you all hate each other? I ask this question because sometimes repairing fractures takes work.
  2. Have you discovered your purpose, if not, write down your journey think about each decision, think about how you behaved in crisis and opportunity it is these watershed events that define character and values, try to distil your guiding principles.
  3. If you think your purpose is worth sustaining write a book and tell your story. Without context and the lessons of your life others will have no map to follow.
  4. Work out if you have the resources to be purposeful. How much is needed to give every member of your family independence.
  5. If you are going to remain together as a family, what are the return aspirations, and how will you manage your pension funds so that you never run out of cash.
  6. Ask all family members what their values are, what they have enjoyed and not on their own journeys, try to distil what everyone is passionate about to get everyone to arrive at a common organisational purpose for your family.
  7. Once done, write it down, turn it into a Family Charter. This is a document that records your purpose, values, mission and perhaps also behavioural boundaries among other things. It also covers how the organisational structure is operated and governed and perhaps also defines distributions from the pot.
  8. Then the SIPO. This is about managing the pension fund. Understand what you will and won’t invest in. These assets need to be managed according to your values. This process turns into another core governance document, a Statement of Investment Performance Objectives, a SIPO.
  9. Final step is to create a business plan to deliver your purpose. Work out what the outputs look like and how to measure them. This stuff is important to govern the family unit once it starts to execute.

Don’t for a moment think you can do all this in a weekend. Don’t think you can do it without external help or facilitation – you are dealing with human beings who are diverse and complex.

Is it worth it? Yes. It will ensure the pre-eminence of your family and the deliverance of your purpose through time. This process is what distinguishes survivors from the extinct. Family Darwinism!

*Bruce Sheppard is founder and managing partner of accounting firm Gilligan Sheppard. He's also the former chairman of the New Zealand Shareholders' Association. This article first appeared here and is used with permission. recently published a series of articles by Bruce on wealth, they are here.

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More people should think about what they want out of life.

First ask yourself what is best in life.


Years ago I discover a quote from a US Navy Fighter Pilot by the name of Joe 'Hoser' Satrapa;
"The purpose of life is to matter,
to count,
to stand for something,
to have it make some difference that we lived at all."

My corollary is that we get to decide whether that difference is good or bad. We can choose to do bad things, treat people badly, behave badly - or not it is our choice, and our responsibility. No one else is to blame.

To put it another way - what do people say about you when you've left the room? You have absolute influence over it, but not one iota of control.


When you get to my stage and age of life (inside of the last 10%) and some time before that too, if you don’t know who, where and what you are, and accept it, then you are in bit of trouble I would say. It astounds and confounds me that a good number of seniors, still continue to rate themselves, their status if you like, by comparison to others. Pointless and fruitless but understandable & forgiveable in the younger years, but utterly senseless and worthless in the retiree zone.


Tks Murray. Googled the chap. Well worth it.


Bruce has obviously had an interesting and productive life. The NZSA which he founded is an excellent organisation, of which I have been a member for a good few years. However, some of his views on the family are little short of barking mad. A family charter? i think my lot would,politely, tell me where to stick it and rightly so.

He echoes Socrates 'the unexamined life is not worth living', an unapologetically elitist philosophy. At 74, i have no idea what my 'purpose' is and I am quite content with that. i have never had a 'grand plan' and unlike many, I freely acknowledge the role luck has played in my life. I have had a lot of good luck and that, with a fair amount of hard work and some good decisions, has given me a very comfortable retirement.
Death, when it comes, will see the end of me, though I will live on through my children and for a short while, in the memories of friends. My atoms will endure and perhaps, my poetry will be discovered posthumously, though i think it unlikely.


That is a good read, thanks. Please though allow one small edit. Substitute the word luck, with the word fortune.