For some people, each day is another opportunity to do what they were put on this Earth to do. For others it’s a drudge: an endless “to do” list; a repetition of yesterday; a lot of effort going nowhere or maybe just a daily drift wondering where the time’s gone. Has the meeting of performance targets become more important than the reason you joined the organisation in the first place? What’s true for you? What about the people you work with? Is everyone “busy” but missing the point of why they’re actually there? It’s easy to lose a sense of purpose – as individuals and as organisations. Let’s take a few minutes out and think about “purpose”.
What phrase sums up your organisation’s purpose? Does it inspire you to throw everything you’ve got into making it happen? Does it conjure up a vision of the future that’s better than now? Does it make your priorities for the day jump out as vital and irresistible?
Even today I get a buzz of excitement from Richard Branson’s question as a weary airline passenger “Why can’t flying be fun?” From that moment he had a new purpose and soon set up a company, Virgin Atlantic, the purpose of which was to “make flying fun” for passengers. It took him on some great adventures, changed the entire industry and created an organisational culture that put people first. I’d call that pretty cool.
Just this Spring, Craig and Snook1 reminded us that “being the steward of an organisation’s purpose” is the most important leadership role. A steward’s role is to leave the organisation in a better state than they found it. The secret to success in doing this is crystallising the purpose of the organisation into a single phase and using it as touchstone for decision-making. If you don’t, you’ll spend your day like so many ineffectual leaders focussing on management issues that eat up your time and energy. Yes, there might well be “reasons” for this but it also takes you back into the comfortable, familiar territory of solving operational problems – and what is more satisfying than solving someone else’s problems? Make you feel like a hero? You bet! The problem is, as a leader, that’s not your job! You have a special responsibility for communicating to every stakeholder (internal and external) why your organisation exists: to explain why it matters that we fulfil the purpose rather than tread water just “being busy”. A powerful way of solving internal problems is to align everyone’s efforts to the strategic purpose of the organisation and then show them why their contribution really matters. Clearly articulating this motivates and energises the positive action which gets results. Don’t under-estimate the need for employees to feel good about what they do. Real progress is high octane fuel for both employees and clients alike.
Way back in 1996, Collins and Porras2 identified purpose as fundamental to creating a vision. But, unlike a vision, purpose was something that needed to be discovered rather than dreamed up. Purpose, they argued, answers the question “Why does our organisation exist?” and asked “If we didn’t exist, what difference would it make?” These are good questions to ask of any well-established organisation. Together with the organisation’s core values these form its basic philosophy.
Ten years later Nikos Mourkogiannis3 expanded on this theme. He believes purpose is based on accepted moral ideas that prepare us for “doing what is right and what is worthwhile”. He sees purpose as “an overlap between competitiveness and morality [that] provides certainty and confidence”. Purpose has practical value in that it “relates people to plans and leaders to their colleagues”. Mourkogiannis goes on to argue that purpose inspires action and that you must “discover your purpose, choose your strategic position and align the two”. This integration of purpose and strategy is essential. It must be monitored continually and fine-tuned by the leader. This way there is no opportunity for a moral dilemma to develop between purpose and profit. As a result all of the people working for the organisation can bond into what Mourkogiannis calls “a community of purpose”. Who’s active in your community of purpose?
Mourkogiannis provides self-help lists and questions to discover your organisation’s purpose, develop a purpose-driven strategy, create a community of purpose and measure your categorisation between four philosophical approaches to purpose. I will challenge you with similar exercises in my forthcoming course The In-Demand Leader.
Purpose is equally important at the personal level. What is your purpose in life? That’s a big question! Perhaps more manageable is – what motivates you at work?
In Drive4, Daniel Pink’s book on motivation, purpose was cited as one of the three big motivators, especially for Generation Y. Pink’s research suggests that money doesn’t rate. Providing there’s enough to live on, there’s no lust for more at any price. The old cry is “people do it for the money!” Organisations act as though they do yet all the research, right back to Maslow and Herzberg, says this isn’t true – although all agree it’s a complex issue. According to Pink, the big three motivators are mastery, autonomy and purpose. In other words:
- becoming brilliant at what you do through achieving excellence, constantly improving your performance and developing your skills;
- being in charge of your own destiny by owning the decisions as to what you do, where, when and with whom you do it;
- doing something worthwhile and meaningful every working day.
Are you aware that it’s as difficult to get a job in a major charity or NGO as in a blue-chip company? Some of our best new graduates are fighting one another to get into these organisations precisely because they rate so high in the purpose stakes. Why?
As individuals, we all need to find purpose in life – we need to express what we stand for. Otherwise, what’s the point of living? It’s an existential question and one that many of us have difficulty answering. Of course, you could argue equally well that putting your mind to making loads of money also does good in the world – and it can, providing it’s done with integrity. That’s the key. Cool leaders attract enthusiasm and commitment from colleagues and clients alike because they have integrity. Indeed, integrity is the name of the game for cool leaders – they do what they say they will do – and make no mistake, they do it on purpose.
Just like your organisation’s purpose, your personal purpose needs to be discovered not invented. So, how do you do that? Personal development courses can help. In May of this year, in the Harvard Business Review, Craig & Snook wrote about their Purpose to Impact journey. They disclosed that of the thousands of managers starting their purpose-led leadership programmes, “fewer than 20% have a strong sense of their individual purpose. Even fewer can distil that into a concrete statement…hardly any of them can translate that into a clear plan”. It’s not something we pay much attention to but clearly we should if we are going to make a real difference in the world – and that is what most leaders tell me they want to do.
Craig and Snook state “your leadership purpose is who you are and what makes you distinctive… it’s who you can’t help being”. They propose a 7-stage plan to identify your purpose and bring it to life so that you can have a real impact. They kick off with some reflection – which strangely does not get listed as one of the steps – but then, the leadership world is only just beginning to value this vital activity through consciously practising “mindfulness”. Craig & Snook recommend a discussion between close friends or colleagues where you each share aspects of your life story by focussing on particular questions in order to identify what it is that “energises you and brings you joy”. Ralph Lewis’s article in this issue of the cool-leadership Newsletter explores this very theme and adds new questions to reflect on. Being in a group helps you to articulate what you may have never put into words before and the clarification demanded by others helps you to pin down the “real you” that otherwise can be so elusive.
Then you are ready to move on to the next step – crafting your personal statement of purpose. This is a single sentence – maybe only a phrase – the only criteria are that it must be written in your own words, capture your essence and call you to action, regardless of context. This will get you feeling strong, confident, bold and energised. This purpose of yours, however well hidden, has always been your passion – and nothing and no-one is going to stop you now! Subsequent steps translate your new-found purpose into practical action. From this point on, spend time every day communicating about purpose to keep the understanding alive in everyone’s mind and the spirit behind it, alive in their hearts – why we do what we do – why it matters so much – how it affects the lives of everyone we touch as an organisation and as an individual.
How do YOU measure up on all this? Have you discovered your personal purpose in life? It seems that most leaders haven’t. Are you even clear about your organisation’s purpose? How well are the two aligned? It’s worth giving these questions some thought.
Purpose is key to vision, strategy, motivation and individual fulfilment. Daniel Goleman5 now considers it part of emotional intelligence – but that’s for another time. The bottom line is – a clear sense of purpose is what gets you, and your employees, out of bed in the morning and makes the day compelling and energising. Commercial organisations do need to be profitable but Pink talks about “purpose maximisation” rather than “profit maximisation”; Mourkogiannis regards profitability as a means to success rather than an end in itself; and Craig & Snook’s participants report back that purpose is the key to accelerating growth, deepening impact and generating exceptional performance. Each of these generates profit in the private sector and makes for success in public and third sector organisations. There is a strong relationship between purpose and profit in commercial organisations. But purpose comes first. The same is true in your own life.
Cool leaders take time to discover why they are working and how this affects their leadership role in their organisation. When people discover their own and their organisation’s purpose, their work has meaning and intrinsic satisfaction. It feels effortless however stretched they are. Other people enjoy being around them – they feel energised, motivated and inspired. Finding purpose in yourself and instilling it in others is what being a cool leader is all about. We all spend about one-third of our lives in work-related activities. We need to know why our employer is in business and we need to believe that it is worthwhile. And we need to hear it from the leader. Like it or not, as a leader, you are connected to the soul of the organisation.
These days, Richard Branson is one of the richest men and coolest leaders in Britain. He’s had a string of successful companies and is currently taking bookings to fly people into space! Branson is an adventurous entrepreneur who recognises what he’s best at, does it and appoints people he trusts to take care of the rest. He is customer-centric, communicating directly with them on occasion, and has always recognised that the way to customer satisfaction is through the attitude, skills and commitment of his employees. His organisations have consistently been employee-centric although this has never involved paying them above average salaries or bonuses. It has involved a lot of communication and a real sense of belonging. You can tell when you have the purpose issue nailed by remembering that, one way or another, whether its Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Galactic, Branson always seems not only to be successful, but also to be having a lot of fun.
1Craig, N. & Snook, S. (May 2014) “From Pupose to Impact” Harvard Business Review, 92 (5), 104 – 111.
2Collins, J. & Porras, J. (Sept-Oct 1996) “Building Your Company’s Vision” Harvard Business Review, 74 (5), 65-77
3Mourkogiannis, N.(2006) Purpose, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
4Pink, D. (2011) Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Canongate, Edinburgh. To access the animated video go to: http://youtu.be/u6XAPnuFjJc.
5Goleman, D. (2013) What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters www.morethansound.net.
Dr Jacquie Drake is Founder of cool-leadership.com and Editor of the cool-leadership newsletter.