Purpose-Guided Leadership

What Truly Makes a Difference?

“Knowing why you’re here, and who you want to be, isn’t a part-time job. The challenge is to live out what you stand for, intentionally, in every moment”. ~ Tony Schwartz, author

Purpose and values are more than touchy-feely concepts touted by motivational speakers. They have been identified as key drivers of high-performing organizations.

  • In Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras reveal that purpose- and values-driven organizations outperformed the general market and comparison companies by 15:1 and 6:1, respectively.
  • In Corporate Culture and Performance, Harvard professors John Kotter and James Heskett found that firms with shared-values-based cultures enjoyed 400% higher revenues, 700% greater job growth, 1,200% higher stock prices and significantly faster profit performance, as compared to companies in similar industries.
  • In Firms of Endearment, marketing professor Rajendra Sisodia and his coauthors explain how companies that put employees’ and customers’ needs ahead of shareholders’ desires outperform conventional competitors in stock-market performance by 8:1.

Leaders who are able to clearly articulated purpose and are motivated to make a difference can inspire people to overcome insurmountable odds”. writes Roy M. Spence Jr. in It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand for.

“Life is short, so live it out doing something that you care about,” he writes. “Try to make a difference the best way you can. There’s an enormous satisfaction in seeing the cultural transformation that happens when an organization is turned on to purpose.”

While a well-designed strategy and its effective implementation are required for business success, neither inspires followers to sustained engagement. Purpose speaks to people’s hearts and helps them contribute their best when the chips are down.

“Don’t ever take a job — join a crusade! Find a cause that you can believe in and give yourself to it completely”. ~ Colleen Barrett, president emerita of Southwest Airlines

In a company without purpose, people have only a vague idea of why they are do what do. There’s always activity and busyness, but it’s often frenetic, disorganized and focused solely on short-term goals or finances. There is often a lack of direction and commitment without purpose or ‘we are doing this for the sake of what?’ It’s up to leaders to find that spark that can light up the hearts and minds of employees at all levels.

Top executives erroneously look to the competition when making decisions, rather than making up their own minds about what really matters. Their lack of clarity leads to poor business decisions, failed product launches and disengaged employees.

“Across organizations, nearly every survey suggests that the vast majority of employees don’t feel fully engaged at work, valued for their contributions, or freed and trusted to do what they do best,” reports Tony Schwartz in a recent HBR.org blog post. “Instead, they feel weighed down by multiple demands and distractions, and they often don’t derive much meaning or satisfaction from their work. That’s a tragedy for millions of people and a huge lost opportunity for organizations.”

Absence of Full Engagement

Simply put, satisfied and engaged employees perform better. In a Towers Watson study of roughly 90,000 employees across 18 countries, companies with the most engaged employees reported a 19% increase in operating income and 28% growth in earnings per share. Companies whose employees had the lowest level of engagement had a 32% decline in operating income and an 11% drop in earnings.

People take pleasure in being engaged in meaningful work. Humans, by nature, are a passionate species, and most of us seek out inspiring experiences. Companies that recognize this and actively cultivate and communicate a worthwhile corporate purpose become employers of choice.

A major Gallup Organization research study identified 12 critical elements for creating highly engaged employees. About half deal with employees’ sense of belonging. One of the key criteria is captured in the following statement: “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.”

After basic needs are fulfilled, an employee searches for meaning in a job. People seek a higher purpose, something in which to believe, to contribute to the greater good. If, in your role as a leader, you aren’t articulating what you care about and how you plan to make a difference, then you probably aren’t inspiring full engagement.

Energy and Creative Flow

Having a purpose provides context for all of one’s efforts, and it’s a chief criterion for “flow” — the energy state that occurs when one’s mind, body and entire being are committed to the task at hand. Flow turns mundane work into completely absorbing experiences, allowing us to push the limits of skills and talents.

Flow and commitment also create healthier, happier employees, while driving innovative thinking. To tap into full engagement, leaders must clearly identify and articulate what truly matters to the company:

  • Why are we in business?
  • What difference do we want to make in the world?
  • What’s our most important purpose?

On some level, everyone wants to live a purposeful life, yet we are distracted by societal pressures to achieve wealth and status. There are indications, however, that this is changing. Just as GNP fails to reflect the well-being and satisfaction of a country’s citizens, a person’s net worth actually has little to do with personal fulfillment.

“It is difficult to impossible to truly inspire the creators of customer happiness — the employees — with the ethic of profit maximization…It is my experience that employees can get very excited and inspired by a business that has an important business purpose”. ~ John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market

Leadership starts on a personal level and permeates one’s function in a company, community and society. While countless books address the importance of finding personal purpose, how does it play out within an organizational context? How do you link your personal purpose and values to those of your company?

Determining a Business Purpose

As work evolves in the 21st century, separating our professional and personal lives proves to be an artificial divide. Your personal purpose influences your work purpose, and vice versa.

A company’s purpose starts with its leaders and their vision, then infiltrates through the organization and people. It shows up in products, services, and employee and customer experiences.

An inspirational purpose often lies buried within an organization. The following suggestions will help you identify and articulate key elements:

  1. Revisit your organization’s heritage (past history).
  2. Review successes. At what does the business excel?
  3. Start asking “why?”
  4. What won’t your organization do? Review false starts and failures.
  5. Interview employees.
  6. Interview top leaders.
  7. Interview high performers.
  8. Talk to customers.
  9. Follow your intuition and/or heart.

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your calling”. ~ Aristotle

A purpose is informed by the world’s needs. When you build an organization with a tangible purpose in mind — one that fills a real need in the marketplace — performance will follow.

Ask the following questions:

  • Why does your organization do what it does?
  • Why is this important to the people you serve?
  • Why does your organization’s existence matter?
  • What is its functional benefit to customers and constituents?
  • What is the emotional benefit to them?
  • What is the ultimate value to your customer?
  • What are you deeply passionate about?
  • At what can you excel?
  • What drives your economic engine?

“Mission statements used to have a purpose. The purpose was to force management to make hard decisions about what the company stood for. A hard decision means giving up one thing to get another”. ~ Seth Godin, marketing expert

When a mission statement is well written, it serves as a declaration of purpose. But corporate mission statements are often little more than a descriptive sentence about products, aspirations or desired public perceptions. They’re more powerful when they clearly and specifically articulate the difference your business strives to make in the world.

Leaders who want to succeed should straightforwardly communicate what they believe in and why they’re so passionate about their cause, according to business consultant Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Portfolio, 2010).

Most people know what they do and how they do it, Sinek says, but few communicate why they’re doing it.

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy into why you do it,” he emphasizes.

If you don’t know and cannot communicate why you take specific actions, how can you expect employees to become engaged, loyal followers who promote your mission?

“The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in”. ~ James Baldwin, author

What Truly Makes a Difference?

” persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose’. ~ Helen Keller

Great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Walt Disney always communicated their “why”– the reasons they acted, why they cared and their future hopes. Great business leaders follow suit:

  • Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, believed air travel should be fun and accessible to everyone.
  • Apple’s Steve Wozniak thought everyone should have a computer and, along with Steve Jobs, set out to challenge established corporations’ status quo.
  • Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton believed all people should have access to low-cost goods.
  • Starbucks’ Howard Schultz wanted to create social experiences in cafes resembling those in Italy.

Once company leaders have identified and clearly articulated what they stand for, it’s up to you to build a bridge between the business’ purpose and your own purpose and values:

  • In what way can you make a difference through company products and services?
  • How can you express what truly matters in the work you do?
  • In what ways can you make a difference in the world through the people you work for and with?

Making a Difference

When you share your greater cause and higher purpose, listeners filter the message and decide to trust you (or not). When listeners’ values and purpose resonate with your own, they are primed to become followers who will favorably perceive subsequent messages.

You cannot gain a foothold in someone’s brain by leading with what you want them to do. You must first communicate why it’s important.

Strive to be like the leaders who never lose sight of why they do what they do and why people should care. Only then will you inspire your people to attain sustainable success.

Leaders are the stewards of organizational energy. They recruit, direct, channel, renew, focus and invest energy from all the individual contributors in the service of the corporate mission. The energy of each individual contributor in the corporation must be actively recruited. This requires aligning individual and organizational purpose”. ~ Authors James Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement

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