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How does Purpose show up in your organisation?

Kate Barker and Carlinde Kallianiotis

At Ginger, we believe that if leaders speak up in an authentic way, we can create more purposeful leadership and inspire human brilliance. We also believe that it takes courage to do this and we need to be bolder and braver in how we use our voices to create positive change. That’s why we decided to launch a series of leadership conversations, to share views and ideas with senior leaders across different industries around some important leadership topics .

Our most recent leadership conversation explored the connection between individual (what we call ‘big P’) Purpose and Corporate Purpose within organisations. This topic was inspired by some recent high-profile media stories about commercial organisations prioritising profits over Purpose. In the UK, Southern Water was fined a record £90m after discharging raw sewage into the ocean in order to avoid paying for infrastructure upgrades. And global pharmaceutical company GSK were recently accused of holding back the development of a life-saving tuberculosis vaccine to prioritise a shingles vaccine that would become their ’crown jewel’ in the US market.

First of all, we wanted to hear from our participants about how Purpose showed up in their organisations.

What is the role of Purpose in your organisation? How does it show up?

At a US law firm, Purpose emerges through the work the team decides to take on as well as their pro bono activity. It’s clear they want to help people who have been disadvantaged by the law and this Purpose informs all their decision-making.

At a global technology provider, there’s a historical sense of pride about the values upon which the organisation was founded and a sense of Purpose around developing superior products that serve their customers and the wider society. They are working on embedding that into how they develop their leaders.

At a professional services company, Purpose is linked to action on the ground in communities – for example, volunteering in schools that aren’t doing well and teaching interview and CV skills, which links up to the organisation’s school leaver and apprenticeship programmes.

Stating a Corporate Purpose looks good and feels good but it needs to mean something to all employees. However, more organisations are realising the importance of Purpose because the lack of it is impacting their growth and leads to purely transactional relationships with clients.

Key takeaways:

  • Purpose only becomes meaningful when it comes to life through the work an organisation does and how they make decisions. 
  • Purpose needs to be embedded into leadership development and linked to organisational values.
  • Organisations need to have a sense of Purpose and a clearly defined culture before they get to the business metrics – without this, the organisation will only exist for commercial gain.
  • Purpose enables us to aim first and then act.
  • Purpose unlocks meaningful long-term relationships.

How can we strike a balance between driving business growth and staying true to our stated Purpose? Where might tensions arise?

Tensions arise if organisations broadcast and amplify their Purpose but then make business decisions that aren’t aligned with it, which can be more problematic than not having a stated Purpose in the first place. Organisations need to be Purposeful without being so idealistic that they become divorced from reality – commercial sustainability matters. As leaders we need to navigate both, which sometimes means allowing ourselves to be realistic about our stated Purpose.

It’s also about empowering individuals to focus on and shape their own contributions to the organisation’s Purpose, especially if the latter is relatively broad. But it’s also the responsibility of leaders to make sense of how Purpose connects to people’s everyday work so that, no matter what the role, individual contributions can feed into the organisation’s bigger Purpose. 

In turn, this needs to be supported by leadership behaviours and action. Trust can easily be broken if people don’t feel that Purpose is being reflected in their leaders’ behaviours. Organisations need to do a better job of connecting the dots, fostering trust and encouraging people to stop and think about Purpose rather than giving in to busyness or holding on to the status quo.

It’s also challenging when Corporate Purpose, as defined by an executive team, isn’t genuine and only serves the bottom line. There needs to be something deeper for people to connect with beyond making a profit. Purpose has to be more than beautifully formulated words on paper – and those words need to be honoured.

So what happens to Purpose when the numbers are under pressure and targets aren’t being met? What comes up time and time again is the short-term versus long-term view. Because the results aren’t immediately obvious, long-term decisions aren’t always popular, so they require bold thinking that challenges the status quo. It can be scary to be on the board of a company when you’re riding out challenging times but that’s when you have to hold fast to the long-term view and understand that it’s going to hurt in the short term.

Key takeaways:

  • If the Corporate Purpose is broad, individuals need to find out how to connect and contribute to it.
  • Leaders have a responsibility to make the connection between Corporate Purpose and everyday tasks.
  • Leaders need to behave in alignment with Purpose, otherwise trust is broken.
  • Leaders need to hold fast to the long-term view, even when business conditions are challenging.

What are our responsibilities as senior leaders to ensure organisations live up to their stated Purpose, or when decisions go against Purpose?

The board or senior leaders of an organisation are responsible for using Purpose as their defining principle when they’re making decisions, whether those are about investments, profit or people. The biggest challenge comes when you have a board or an executive team with different levels of buy-in to the importance of Corporate Purpose. 

So what can we do when we see decisions being made that go against the stated Purpose? It falls to other leaders in the organisation to dare to speak up and call it out. In order to do this, we need psychological safety and to say it in a way that will be accepted. It has to be well timed and delivered, as people may not want to hear it, but we need to stand up and interrupt what’s happening. It’s not about telling people what all the problems are but interrupting with the energy of the possibility of the future and what becomes attainable if we commit to staying true to our stated Purpose.

Leaders also need to start recruiting people based not only on skills but also on Purpose. Is an individual a good match, especially at a senior level? One or two leaders that aren’t in alignment with Corporate Purpose can create enough of a fracture in the system to allow seepage. Everyone needs to find space in their teams to ask questions about what’s important to them, what drives and motivates them. In this way we can all inspire change one person at a time and drive ahead with Purpose.

Key takeaways:

  • Everyone in the organisation needs to be aligned with the overall Corporate Purpose, especially those at the executive level.
  • If an organisation is veering away from its Purpose, leaders need to interrupt what’s happening with the energy of the possibility of the future.
  • Leaders should hire people based on Purpose, not just skills. 

There are still many challenges to address, not least when it comes to the tension between Purpose and commercial sustainability. Ultimately, we as leaders need to take responsibility for acting in a way that reflects our organisation’s stated Purpose, while daring to call out decisions that aren’t congruent with that Purpose. But the good news is that more and more organisations are realising that having a clearly defined Corporate Purpose is linked to meaningful client relationships and business growth, as well as the promise of what’s possible if they take the long-term view. 

Kate Barker and Carlinde Kallianiotis

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