Unlocking the ‘purpose’ of Purpose

The new normal

We’ve all read it a thousand times, that the new business reality involves an unprecedented pace of change. We know that digitisation has brought with it disruptive business models and shifting, unrelentingly high consumer expectations. We’re experiencing declining levels of trust in organisations and brands. Businesses are struggling to attract talent and customers from a younger demographic who are looking for meaning in their work and the brands that they buy from. How does an organisation, and its people, survive and thrive when this is the new normal?

Purpose is the ‘new genetic code’

There’s a growing consensus that purpose provides part of that answer. Or as the authors of the Harvard Business Review study The Business Case for Purpose put it:

Companies are searching for a new genetic code that will help them continuously evolve—to survive and to thrive… there is a new leading edge: those companies able to harness the power of purpose to drive performance and profitability enjoy a distinct competitive advantage. (HBR, 2015)

Or as Simon Sinek, in his famous TED talk, more simply puts it:

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.

For those organisations with a clear and embedded purpose, it:

… inspires innovation and positive change, provides employees with a sense of meaning and fulfillment, creates value for the customer, and makes a positive impact on the community. (HBR, 2015)

In the vacuum left by record levels of mistrust in governments across the world, we’re seeing the ‘rise of the social enterprise’ – organisations ‘whose mission combines revenue growth with the need to respect and support its environment and stakeholder network. This includes listening to, investing in, and actively managing the trends that are shaping today’s world’ (Deloitte, 2018).

The purposeful generations

There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that building a brand with purpose, that values ethics and social responsibility, is critical to attracting and retaining millennial talent. (See for example Delotte’s 2016 study.)

Purpose is key if you’re going to attract a millennial. They have to believe that this company cares about much more than making profits. Leena Nair, Strategic CHRO, Unilever, quoted in LinkedIn.

There’s not much research on Gen Zs yet, but the early signs are that this generation is even more purpose-driven than the one before. So much so that a study of Gen Z’s in Canada called them the ‘Change Generation’.

It’s clear that being a purpose-led organisation helps win the war on talent and attracts younger customers to your brand. But there’s also evidence to suggest that there are no significant differences in work-related attitudes between different generations – that in fact purpose drives us all, no matter what demographic we belong to.

Heard the one about the janitor telling JFK he was helping to put a man on the moon? Or maybe the one about the stone cutter helping Sir Christopher Wren to build St Pauls?

Purpose is, and has always been, critical to building a culture where everyone feels connected to a larger story, where everyone feels they’re working towards a higher aim.

According to Dan Pink (Drive, The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us) purpose is one of the three components of intrinsic human motivation, along with autonomy and mastery: critical in what he calls ‘Motivation 3.0’ (‘the upgrade that’s needed to meet the new realities of how we organise, think about, and do what we do’).

Purpose and cultural alignment

A clearly articulated and operationalised purpose enables faster decision making and cultural alignment. As one senior exec quoted in the HBR study said:

Organizations do better when everyone is rowing in the same direction… A well integrated, shared purpose casts that direction. Without the shared purpose, organizations tend to run in circles, never making forward progress but always rehashing the same discussions.

Does this sound familiar to you?

And might purpose be the key to a more productive organisation? Might it be used to create real autonomy for employees? (The third aspect of Dan Pink’s Motivation 3.0.) If a purpose is fully articulated and understood in terms of customer value and a decision making framework (to quote Denise Lee Yohn, author of Fusion, How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the Worlds Greatest Companies) it can be used to ‘lay down guard-rails that prescribe boundaries’ allowing employees to use their own discretion and skill in the way that they deliver on the purpose.

In fact, freedom within a framework is the prescription for greater creativity and innovation.

When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl. (TS Eliot)

An aligned culture leads to an aligned Customer Experience

A clearly articulated purpose that is explicitly linked to customers’ outcomes, means that employees are more aligned and empowered in terms of delivering value to customers ‘…because they understand and believe in the ultimate value your organisation wants to create for those customers.’ (Denise Lee Yohn)

Purpose and Professional Bodies

Professional Bodies often have a very strong, and long-established purpose. Ironically, it’s that sense of a deeply traditional purpose and set of values that can perhaps be recast to make them truly modern.

As Harry McAdoo, writing in Jericho Chambers’ Future of the Professions observes:

Professional bodies were originally established as radical solutions to a set of quite profound societal challenges. Yet over the years some of that radicalism has been lost. The question they need to ask themselves today: can they reinvent themselves for the 21st Century in terms that reconnect with that founding spirit? Harry McAdoo, Old Roots, New Professional Shoots

Or as former CIPD Director Sam Whittaker once put it, professional bodies need to be more like Marty McFly and go ‘Back to the Future’.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has its roots in the Workers Welfare Association, established in 1913 to improve the working conditions of female employees in the UK’s factories. This has evolved into our 21st century purpose of Championing Better Work and Working Lives. 

A powerful but often under-utilised tool

Championing Better Work and Working Lives – it’s an amazing why. But like many organisations, we could be putting it to work harder, to create a greater source of energy and meaning for the organisation – both for employees and for our members. We’ve not yet harnessed its full power to become a key driver of transformation, innovation, customer experience and growth.

HBR’s survey found that only a few companies had embedded their purpose to a point where they had reaped its full potential. Less than half of the executives surveyed said their company had actually articulated a strong sense of purpose and used it as a way to make decisions and strengthen motivation.

According to Denise Lee Yohn, the signs that your purpose isn’t working include a brand value that seems to be in decline and employee and customer surveys that show lots of room for improvement.

Does this sound familiar to you?

But in those organisations where purpose has been translated into a decision-making framework, where it has been operationalised and fully embedded into the culture, there is greater ability to deliver revenue growth and drive successful innovation and ongoing transformation.

Purpose driven firms have grown and transformed more vigorously than their peers… their customers are more loyal and their employees more engaged. (HBR, 2015)

The authors of the HBR report concluded that purpose is a powerful though under-utilized tool.

So how to fully utilize your purpose?

Your purpose should be the ‘red thread’ through everything you do as an organisation –your cultural DNA.

So how do you know if your purpose is fully utilised?

  • Leadership alignment – do all the leaders in the organisation (recognising that ‘leadership’ can exist in any role at any level) have a common understanding of the purpose?
  • Strategic alignment – is your purpose translated into a decision-making framework? Is impact against purpose a criterion for investment and prioritisation? Are there KPIs that tell you how well you’re delivering against your purpose?
  • Cultural alignment – is the purpose embedded in your employee experience? Is it clearly articulated and understood by all? Do colleagues understand how their role connects to and delivers on the purpose? Do your values help drive towards your purpose?
  • Brand alignment – is the purpose communicated fully to your customers, do they understand and buy into it? Are your brand and your purpose seamlessly aligned?
  • Customer alignment – Is the purpose embedded in your customer experience? Do you empower your customers to deliver on the purpose? Do you celebrate the stories of those that do?

The road ahead for Professional Bodies

Professional Bodies almost certainly all have a powerful originating social purpose that – if they’ve not already – they need to reconnect with and reinvigorate to be truly relevant in modern society and in modern members’ working lives.

And if your purpose is an ‘under-utilised tool’ focus efforts on breathing new life into it; put it front and centre of your organisational culture, strategy and customer experience, so it’s not an empty slogan, but it’s who you are and what you do.

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