Vision. Focus. Mission. Drive.
All words we often use to describe the qualities we associate with high performing companies or the people who lead them.
But if I had to pick the one quality that propels an organisation into genuinely high performance, it would be purpose. It encapsulates all the above terms and taps into a deeper motivation to “do the right thing”, whatever that might be.
But what is an organisation’s purpose? Recent conversations and news items – such as the statement by asset manager BlackRock’s Larry Fink that they would only invest in companies that contribute to society and deliver financial performance or risk losing their support, suggests that there is an awareness amongst the most numerically-obsessed that performance means much more than profit, ROCE, or other financial measures.
But it’s not easy.
Bar Italia in London’s Soho is more associated – in my mind at least – with the kind of louche nightlife portrayed in Pulp’s eponymous song – “…I’m fading fast/And it’s nearly dawn…” – than inspiring conversations about purpose, but I recently found myself having such a conversation at the more civilised hour of 11am with Gemma Cropper, MD of social impact consultancy Skating Panda.
I’ve observed and worked with organisations that have a clear purpose and those that have lost it somewhere along the way. In talking to Gemma, it was clear that social purpose is increasingly an area that organisations are interested in as they seek to improve the engagement of both their customers and employees. Often it can be driven by customers: for example, clothing manufacturer Nike had to completely change their supply chain after accusations of sweatshop conditions in some of their suppliers.
Employees will often drive the change and are after something more than a bit of “corporate social responsibility” which, however valid, can look like window dressing for an otherwise unattractive brand.
And with the developments in AI and robotics becoming a threat to jobs in all organisations in the coming years, employees will want to see a clear sense of social purpose in all major change programmes.
It can take years to bed an organisation’s purpose in – those looking for a quick fix will be likely to be disappointed – and if the CEO is only focused on the share price, the chances of success are minimal.
It’s a point echoed by organisational change consultant Belden Menkus in a recent paper where he points out the danger, when trying to re-discover an organisational purpose to differentiate itself from competitors, of it being reduced to a strapline or a shallow communications exercise.
In these cases, a wider social purpose can seem tacked on to an organisation or, even worse, a compliance box to be ticked.
Don’t confuse focus with purpose
What can organisations do to create or recreate a meaning that’s wider than a healthy balance sheet?
The first step is to make sure you’re not confusing purpose with focus. Having a focus on efficiency, sales growth, time-to-market or any other key performance indicator is essential in any high-performing company. Whatever is important to your performance needs to be a focus area for some or all of the people, some or all of the time.
But it’s not the same as purpose. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and makes you feel good about what you did at the end of the day. And although you may feel awesome about a day in which you shaved 3% off production costs or landed a million-pound sales deal, a life in which that’s all you can see may end up being less rich than it could be.
Often an organisation’s social purpose is a direct consequence of its operating model. As a pioneer of low-cost flights, SouthWest Airlines enabled people to connect more easily across a wide geography – the social benefit is easy to see as well as being attractive for customers.
So, an organisation’s purpose primarily needs to grow from an understanding of the outcomes it creates for its customers. And this involves thinking outside the immediate products and services it offers.
I’m privileged to work with a local music education charity – more on that another time – that offers great music lessons in the locality. In that regard, it’s no different from other purveyors of music education but what sets it apart is its purpose to offer a high-quality, rounded and multi-faceted music education to children and young people who otherwise would not have that opportunity. That purpose has propelled it from tiny beginnings to exciting developments that will increase its reach and impact.
The challenge for the charity will be to keep that constancy of purpose as it grows in the coming years.
Although there is the strong possibility that you may discover that your organisation does exist solely to make a shed-load of money for its directors and shareholders you shouldn’t – as Belden Menkus points out – wait for a directive from above. Start in your team to find out what it is that people feel passionate about in relation to the outcomes of the work you do.
And when you’ve found it, tell others. They might just share the same passion.