Archive for the ‘purpose’ Category

The more I witness organisations that are struggling to succeed, or survive, or just to run harmoniously, the more I see an absence of purpose. Most of these organisations have a great vision, mission and strategic plan, but lack the spark to pull it all together.

In his book, Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies, Nikos Mourkogiannis records that “…purpose – not money, not status – is what people most want from work. Make no mistake: they want compensation; some want an ego- affirming title. Even more, though, they want their lives to mean something, they want their lives to have a reason”.

You can’t find much fault with that!

Purpose is not often discussed in the context of a business. The concept however is straightforward. Why does the organisation exist? What does the organisation do? “Purpose matters because it makes work meaningful and integrated into my life; it enables me to feel pride in what I do and liberates me to do it better” observes one of Mourkogiannis’s subjects (p.15).

And, purpose is not a new concept – it has long been recognised. For example, when Henry Ford was sued by his own shareholders in 1914 for breach of fiduciary responsibility, he argued from the witness stand that in effect businesses run solely for shareholder profit would ultimately make less money than businesses run for purpose. Ford was ahead of his time on both accounts!

Mourkogiannis makes the point that “where the company is driven by a purpose, the vision, mission and values flow naturally from that purpose. People don’t need to be “aligned” – they already have been attracted to the organisation, as employees or customers, by its purpose.”

Let’s explore these concepts further:

  • Stripped bare, vision is a statement about where you want to go as an organisation. It is a future state.
  • And your mission is the path that you take to get from where you are now to that future position enunciated in the vision.
  • A common element of many vision statements is to be number one at what you do.
  • And what you do should be your purpose. Purpose is what you do every day as part of the journey to achieve your vision.
  • Effective organisations are those that are fit for purpose at every point on that journey.
  • If you are not fit for purpose then your journey/mission can be very rocky.

What are some of the symptoms of organisational problems in terms of purpose? There are many but commonly they include morale problems (things are flat, there is a shortage of energy, people do not really believe what is been said and/or done); calls for a new strategy (often a call from a rediscovery of the foundations of the existing strategy); execution problems (the targets are okay but the actions taken are inappropriate) and concerns over reputation (actions debase core values).

There is little to be gained by simplistic approaches often used to address these (like restructuring, for example.) There is no point trying to align the people if you are trying to misalign them with their understanding of, or belief in purpose.

Purpose is like a moral compass, pointing you in the right direction. It gives the business a clear sense of its reason to exist. It can and should be the test applied to each and every action you plan to take – is the proposed action consistent with the purpose? Will it contribute to achievement of our vision? Does it reflect our values? If clearly defined a purpose will excite and engage all stakeholders, especially staff and customers. An understanding of purpose enables staff to make better, and more confident, decisions. They are aligned through self-motivation, rather than inducement.

“An understanding of purpose makes it easier to follow the ancient learning ritual – fail and try again, fail and try again, and ultimately succeed.” (Mourkogiannis, p13)

Purpose ultimately provides the focus needed to create a focus on what needs to be done today for you to be successful, because you must succeed at all steps along your journey, you must be fit for purpose no matter how far, or close, your vision.

So, why did I use “subservience” in my title? This is aimed at leaders in organisations and comes from the work of Justin Menkes (Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others, 2011). He talks about the very significant impact leaders can have if they are subservient to purpose – and the importance of this “in today’s world of distractions and continual melding of home and work life.” (p.99) Subservience in his terms is the deliberate choice to put the purpose first: to frame all relationships and actions and engagement in the context of purpose.

Drawing on the work of Mourkogiannis and Menkes, it is my belief that the best leaders “discover” the purpose of their organisations through discussion and observation. Yes they can shape it – but not in isolation of the people who make up the organisation, and key stakeholders on the outside. Leaders emerge because they make sense and are able to capture and articulate what an organisation, and its people, needs to do to live its purpose.

And a brief comment about “alignment”. In work, I like to find organisations with a purpose that aligns with mine – to make a difference by helping people and organisations become, and remain, fit for purpose.

If your own purpose aligns with an organisation, then join it or remain with it. If it doesn’t, then find somewhere else to work. That might sound harsh, but it is really about doing something on purpose.

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How do you grab the attention of your organisation and ensure that it does the right thing?

Many will say “by having a compelling vision”.  It would be nice to have such a simple exclamation.

Having a compelling vision alone is insufficient for achievement as a leader. It must be complemented by communication and relationship building skills. Peters and Waterman, in “In Search of Excellence” (1982), considered that the principal factor which seems to deliver organisational success is the manager’s ability to deal with people.

Dealing with people in organisations starts with establishing a shared understanding of purpose. CEOs cannot develop a compelling vision or a strategy on their own. Yes, they need to have an agenda, and be results oriented (results get attention), but these cannot be developed in isolation.  The reality is that the best CEOs are good at articulating the aspirations of their fellow organisational members. They are good at listening 
and observing their own people, and turning those aspirations
 into a compelling statement for the organisation. 
Simply put, the best leaders set the direction by energising the 
aspirations already in the organisation.

Articulating and communicating that vision turns it into a statement of shared purpose. The much sought after alignment of staff is more correctly described as a continuing process of orienting people towards the core objective, and to initiate actions that contribute to the achievement of purpose. And organisations become more effective as this shared understanding translates into another continuing process of always challenging what is being done – does it contribute to the purpose? Is it consistent with values? If so, is it the best way? What are the risks? Is the risk worth taking? And so on.
. Rather than being seen as the action of a charismatic or transformational leader, the purpose provides for a fundamental need in people. It is one in which they can find meaning and a sense of personal worth. It is a framework in which their contribution can be appreciated, and not just externally, but in greater levels of self-esteem and confidence. The effective managerial leader’s role then has been to capture and clarify the collective aspirations, to articulate these in a clear statement of purpose, and then to continually reiterate and reorient around that shared vision.

Two other factors are important, and can be deal breakers no matter how effective a leader has been in developing a sense of purpose. Those factors are trust and respect.

Trust is easy, and whilst it encompasses concepts such as integrity and fairness, in organisations it comes simply from making yourself and your position clear, and then honouring your commitments. That is, doing what you promise. This requires accountability and reliability, and implicitly requires you to think carefully about the commitments you are making, and recognising the impact that you are having on the organisation and its people. Max De Pree rightly talks of leadership as a serious meddling in the lives of others. Consider your commitments carefully, make them public and then honour them. Too often this becomes a stumbling block!

Respect, also, is easy. To gain the respect and confidence of staff, managerial leaders must be able to display competence in the work of the organisation, not just in “management expertise.” This is not an argument either for internal appointments, or for appointments of people who already understand your business. Many leaders entered jobs in which they have little content knowledge, and those who survive invariably go into a deep dive to understand the business and its nature. As they develop expertise, and display empathy with the joys and trials of the business, they win respect. Those who do not work to understand the business falter.

The essence of managerial leadership is to develop and demonstrate
the expertise and understanding that allows you to articulate a core purpose
 for the organisation. 
Translating that purpose into action is the essence of successful strategy
 and that requires you to be clear about your intentions. 
It is more than just “walk the talk” – it is about identifying the path 
everyone wants to walk, and then building that path as you go.

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