5th Dec 2010
Following on from the Leadership and Jazz piece, LIW's CEO Pia Lee explores the importance of purpose in business.
"Most people live lives of silent, screaming desperation, doing jobs they hate, to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like." This cheerful quote comes from Nigel Marsh's funny and moving talk on Work-Life Balance at TEDx in Sydney this year. However depressing it sounds, there is a ring of truth to it, isn't there? While the West's obsession with possession will have to be the subject of another article, it is clear that there's so much more that organisations can do to fulfil the working lives of their employees.
We devote the majority of our waking moments to work and yet we would all laugh if our loved ones chiselled 'Manager' on our tombstone as a fitting epitaph. Surely there is a moral obligation for leaders to provide jobs to people in which they flourish, rather than scream? It also seems logical that the organisations who do will be better at attracting and retaining talent and so have an edge on those that don't.
"We devote the majority of our waking moments to work and yet we would all laugh if our loved ones chiselled 'Manager' on our tombstone as a fitting epitaph."
The pessimistic theme of unfulfilling work was reinforced in a recent Schumpeter article in The Economist that considers the trend for companies to offer psychological wellness assessments in addition to the traditional physical check-ups. However, Schumpeter misses the biggest question of all: why do organisations feel in some way responsible for the mental imbalance of their employees? Lurking behind this movement is the unspoken belief that employers are in some way responsible for causing mental health issues among their employees. This is the corporate equivalent of choosing a high-fat diet but being diligent about taking aspirin to avoid heart-health problems. Employers need to be a whole lot more proactive and get to the root of the problem. But what is it?
A new book ‘Zilch’ by Nancy Lublin points to the answer. Lublin debunks the most prevalent myth in business today — that salary drives performance and productivity. She proposes that companies broaden their rewards and their understanding of compensation so that people become deeply motivated to excel. A key learning that Lublin brings from the not-for-profit sector is that these organisations have a clear purpose that is shared by its employees. Does this imply that purpose is the sole domain of organisations with an altruistic philosophy? Not so, as the seminal research conducted by Professors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in 'Good to Great' and 'Built to Last testifies. High performing organisations have a unique blend of core purpose and values as well as the 'and' factor of being able to endlessly adapt their strategy and direction to a changing landscape. This rich combination provides meaning for individuals beyond making money which in turn unlocks discretionary effort.
It's a courageous organisation that asks not just what are they trying to achieve but 'why'? It's also an evolved organisation that asks what its legacy will be. It's the forward thinking organisation that creates the right climate for a motivated employee who sees their career aligned to a purpose bigger than themselves. 'Screaming desperation' now gives way to 'roaring fulfilment'.
Don't fall into the trap of seeing this as a marketing opportunity – an organisation's purpose cannot be window-dressing. Whilst it is a powerful motivator it is also a perishable good and can very easily be destroyed by misaligned behaviour. Who would say that BP stands for Beyond Petroleum now? (This question posted on Twitter came up with 'Broken Pipe', 'Be Prepared' and even 'Bastards Playing', among others). On the other hand, organisations that keep their purpose close to hand, such as Johnson & Johnson (whose credo, written in 1943, embodies purpose as well as values) can weather storms by walking the talk. J&J is applying the credo in decision making around its current Tylenol recall woes and we just know that they will come out the other side with their reputation intact and their customers and employees engaged.
"It's a courageous organisation that asks not just what are they trying to achieve but 'why'? It's also an evolved organisation that asks what its legacy will be."
So what steps can a leader take to bring the power of purpose into their organisations. Having achieved this with many organisations it is, like most leadership tasks, simple but not easy. Getting the top team up to speed on this thinking is a good start – the publications referenced here will be a good start. There is a simple exercise that will get the creative juices flowing: divide your top team into two or three groups and tell them that the organisation is to be closed down. They have one minute to explain to the government why they should be allowed to stay in business. Capture the key ideas and craft a simple statement that embodies them. It should not be a goal as the purpose is never achieved: Disney's 'to make people happy' is an example of this. Now comes the not easy part – the leaders should use this in all their communications and decision making. Everything that is done and indeed, the leaders themselves, are there only to serve the purpose.
To close, consider this: purpose is growing, not diminishing in importance. Generation Y and their successors will not put up with a toxic workplace. They expect more. We, the greying victims of the 'screaming desperation' era, have raised them to do so. They want to work in organisations that have a clear sense of why they exist and will choose them because they are aligned with that purpose. It is in these conditions that people give not just the most, they also give their best. This is good not just for the employee but for the employer and the shareholder too. For leaders, this is the opportunity to leave a greater legacy and even to earn a more inspiring epitaph.