With the COVID 19 vaccine rollout providing hope and early promising results, it seems that we are closer to a return to a new normal than we have been for over a year. This positive outlook means that it is safer for both individuals and businesses alike to start seriously considering and planning for what comes next, what this time has meant for businesses, and what needs to change in order to suit new ways of living and working. One major topic that needs to be covered as part of the discussion is purpose.
This past year has brought out the human side of business. It has led many of us to revaluate what is truly important and presented many organisations with challenges to their purpose statements. But what does purpose truly mean for businesses, leaders, and their people in 2021 and the near future? How do you transfer it from words into a real actionable leadership strategy?
Fundamentally, many businesses exist to make a profit, but profit should not be confused with purpose. Purpose is the starting point that led to the founding of the business. Think of it as the the ‘Why’ at the centre of Simon Sinek’s ‘Golden Circle’ model. Purpose looks beyond profits to the long-term impacts you would like to have on your customers, staff, market, community and the environment.
‘Purpose’ and ‘values’ are often misunderstood, due to being used interchangeably or variably in different contexts. Your purpose is why you are in business, and your values are the guiding principles and standards for behaviour. Think of purpose as the big picture roadmap for the direction in which you would like the organisation to progress. Values are the compass for how to get there. In the Sinek model, values sit in the ‘How’ ring. How do you behave to ensure you are living out your organisation’s purpose? How does the organisation work towards this vision each day?
Purpose and vision exist on an individual level as well. Just as you have your reasons for pursuing a particular career path and have a set of moral principles that matter to you, so will the people you do business with. Millennials and Generation Z are more socially conscious than previous generations, and as they begin to make up larger portions of the workforce and consumer market, these young people want to buy from and work for companies whose purpose they resonate with and whose values they share.
Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the top of the triangle after all the basic and security needs are fulfilled, we start to look at topics such as belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation. Purpose provides unification, motivation, inspiration, and helps individuals tap into these higher level needs to get more out of their role.
Employees turn to purpose as a way of bringing meaning to their work and to understand the contribution they are making to the organisation and the world around them. Research has found that these employees who find meaning in their day-to-day work feel much more satisfied and engaged. Employees who feel connected to their organisation’s purpose have a deeper sense of belonging and are therefore more motivated in their roles and are easier to retain.
The intrinsic motivation which purpose can provide to staff has become incredibly valuable during the hardships of the past year. The changing business landscape has forced many businesses to rethink how they can incentivise their employees, especially in situations where financial rewards are not practical or possible. In some cases, the fulfilment of doing meaningful work and contributing to the bigger mission and vision may be enough to encourage staff to remain with the organisation.
For this to have any affect at all, businesses and their leaders need to ‘walk the talk.’ Your purpose is mere words on a page until there is action behind it. For example, a business can say that its purpose is to create a fairer world for all, but this means very little if its board comprises only one predominant demographic, and if its female staff are not paid the same as their male counterparts. Clearly, a lack of diversity at a senior level and unfair compensation practices are in direct conflict with the organisation’s mission of fairness.
This is a very serious and big picture example, but infractions against a company’s values and purpose can occur daily in smaller instances. Authenticity matters. If a leader is to serve as a champion for the organisation’s mission and purpose, they need to ensure that their words match their actions. If your company has outlined its values, you need to ensure that both you and your team are meeting those standards of behaviour. If you state that you value inclusion, you must ensure that you give every member of the team a voice. If you value respect, it’s important that you are respecting your team’s boundaries and opinions, and that they are showing the same respect to one another.
This sends a clear message to your team that the company is serious about what it stands for, and thereby helps to build their faith in the organisation. Staff will find it easier to buy into a purpose if they see it being lived out every day. Leading by example is critically important to build this type of trust and to reap the productivity, motivation, and retention benefits that ensue.
Putting this into practice post-COVID will be challenging for many leaders. Reinforcing purpose on an individual level and creating that sense of alignment and unity is more difficult whilst staff continue to work remotely.
While it is essential for staff to have a clear idea of where the organisation and its leadership stands in terms of values and purpose, it is equally important that each individual team member understands the role they play in that. This understanding of individual impact will help staff find their place within that bigger picture.
Operationally, this links back to the standards set by management. Leaders need to continue holding their team to those same behavioural principles even when outside of the office. Examples would include allowing everyone a chance to speak on video calls or monitoring team correspondence to ensure that teams maintain respectful for one another.
At Rialto, we work closely with teams to help staff gain an understanding of the impact they make on the organisation, and to understand where they can improve. Often, issues can be swiftly resolved through better communication from leadership. Managers need to have conversations with their staff about the purpose of the organisation, the contributions each team member makes towards furthering that purpose, and the values and standards of behaviour that every person in the organisation is held to.
One of the clearest indications of walking the talk is a company’s willingness to invest in its own people. Taking the time to ensure that everyone is aligned, on board, and motivated is the best way of ensuring that a company is living out its own purpose. Leaders should ensure that they are authentic in their words and actions and are leading by example. Hold staff to the right standards, but make sure they each understand what contributions they can be valued for, how to make those impacts, and how this all fits into the greater purpose of the organisation. That way, you build a team that truly believes in the work that they do, and who are willing to stand by the organisation, its customers, and its wider stakeholders.