Business leaders who embrace ‘purpose beyond profit’ can transform the fortunes of their organisations, but they can’t do it alone. A company’s purpose only truly comes to life if all employees are both inspired and equipped to put purpose into action.
This means that purposeful leaders need to have a firm grasp on how purpose flows and moves within an organisation: how it inspires and enrols people, how it must be mapped and translated across different parts of the business, how it encounters resistance and how it unlocks new approaches to problem-solving.
Above all, business leaders must understand that truly effective purpose serves as an invitation to co-create. What does this mean in practice? Here are five key steps to help you learn how to go with the flow:
#1 Understand the difference between a purpose statement and purpose-in-action
Purpose doesn’t truly come alive until it is mapped against the day-to-day operations and processes of the business. It will only start to gain traction when each employee, each team and each department understands what it means for them. The key question is always, “what will I do differently tomorrow?”
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By all means, print your purpose statement in bright bold letters over the door, but always recognise that your purpose must be translated into practical action at every workstation, every outlet and every customer service desk.
#2 Be humble: You can’t do it alone
It follows from this that you will need employee input to shape and refine your purpose.
This calls for humility. Wise leaders recognise that employees know lots of things about their business that they don’t. Be upfront about that! The practical knowledge of your employees is a tremendous resource for moving your purpose off the drawing board and towards becoming a living, breathing force.
I still have a vivid memory of attending the internal launch of a client’s purpose statement. The employees were tense and uncertain, braced for unwelcome change. The MD stood up on behalf of the leadership team and said two things: One, we have created a purpose that we believe will supercharge our business. Two, we don’t know how to make it work. We need your help.
The mood in the room completely shifted. Employees realised that the new purpose was not just another top-down restructuring or a new set of targets. It was an invitation to solve problems in a new way – an invitation for them to contribute creatively and shape the future of the business.
#3 Don’t disseminate – co-create
This is what we mean by “co-creation.” Employees co-create purpose by giving it a local interpretation. Engineers may approach and interpret purpose in a different way to marketers. Division leaders will bring purpose to life in a different way to customer service assistants.
The same is true of different personalities and competencies. On a personal level, some employees are driven by goals, growth and targets; some by blue-sky thinking; some by the communal buzz of close teamwork, others by the idea of building a better world or by simply taking satisfaction in a job well done. All should be able to find a way to “hook into” the company’s purpose.
The end result is that purpose gets translated into tangible action and problem-solving across every pillar of your business and in each corner of the organisation.
For this to work, however, employees have to be given the freedom to make the company purpose their own.
This means that it’s not helpful to think in terms of ‘disseminating’ or ‘rolling out’ purpose across an organisation, as though it were some kind of software update. Instead, purposeful leaders need to learn how to ‘let go’ at the right moments and give employees the space to interpret, translate and come up with surprising new ways of bringing purpose to life.
#4 Embrace resistance and love your sceptics
It’s natural to face some resistance on your purpose journey. This is especially true if your company has been prone to reorganisations or “flavour of the month” ideas in the past, and employees feel fatigued.
Of course, some of your employees will be sceptical. That’s a good thing: sceptics are an incredibly useful resource. It’s the sceptics who will point out the problems you didn’t see - or maybe were trying to avoid!
It’s a mistake to think of sceptics as bowling pins to be knocked over. Their objections are borne of practical knowledge. Listen to them.
#5 Understand that purpose has a life of its own
All of the above adds up to the insight that a truly audacious and embedded purpose will soon take on a life of its own. It will belong to everyone it touches, and will find new, co-created expressions as the company evolves and as the world evolves around it.
As a purposeful leader it is your job to act as the steward of your organisation’s purpose and ensure that every employee is engaged and empowered to put purpose into action. This is what will keep your purpose on track and deliver outstanding commercial success.