Three steps to help make your business' purpose systemic

Purpose driven leadership
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Sarah Rozenthuler
Co-Director
Whole Partnership
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While ‘purpose’ – with its drive to generate a positive impact on the world - is a major trend in business right now, there is a growing tendency for many organisations to jump on the bandwagon as a branding exercise and a quick-fix-solution to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) obligations.  

Amid many accusations of ‘purpose-wash’, the challenge for aspiring purpose-led businesses is to evolve systems that support them to make a benevolent contribution to society while simultaneously creating a competitive edge.  

Purpose-led leadership is no simple fix. To successfully connect corporate success with social progress calls for a better understanding of the prospective challenges to purpose-driven business, so as to navigate the unchartered territory of our changing times.

The first study to provide real evidence on the value relevance of corporate purpose comes from NYU Stern School of Business, Columbia University and Harvard Business School. 

Entitled Corporate Purpose and Financial Performance, the study monitors the responses of around 500,000 employees from 429 companies in the US over six years, revealing that purpose alone was insufficient to drive higher financial performance, and that it was the perceptions of middle managers that drove the relationship between financial performance and purpose.

This finding is consistent with previous research showing that diffusing a strong sense of purpose has been least successful for levels below senior management – the very people pivotal to an organisation’s purpose becoming a meaningful driver of performance. The authors conclude that while purpose is often straightforward to articulate, it can be challenging to implement meaningfully.

Obstacles to purpose

The three core obstacles preventing organisations from becoming catalysts for positive change can be expressed as follows:

  1. Opening up systemic intelligence: purpose needs to light up the whole ecosystem, not just the founder or higher management
  2. Most leaders lack dialogic skill
  3. Leadership development needs to prepare leaders to be propagators of purpose

Here are some key pointers for navigating these obstacles:

1. Opening up systemic intelligence

To bring purpose to life in organisations, it’s essential to navigate the systemic context as part of the discovery process. Teams, departments and organisations do not exist independently – they occupy a niche in an ecosystem. When a community attunes to its purpose through a wide-angle lens of interdependency, it comes clearly and easily into focus.

To uncover purpose further, leadership teams often need to approach it from a different angle. Opening up systemic intelligence around purpose by including a multi-stakeholder perspective has continuously revealed to us that true purpose is magnetic. It attracts people, draws them together and keeps them engaged. Just as a magnet pulls a random spread of iron filings into a field in an orderly manner, a shared purpose creates a pattern of coherence in a collective. People are no longer facing different directions – their energies are all lined up.

When there’s an appreciation of all the systemic forces shaping a purpose, along with the creative engagement of many diverse voices, the organisation’s North Star is felt throughout the whole system to be ‘right’.

2. Engaging dialogue

A second obstacle to purpose-led leadership is the lack of skilful communication in most organisations.

Attaining a deeper quality of dialogue involves grappling with big questions such as: Why are we here? What are we to the outside world? What wants to flow through us? Creating the conditions where such questions can be explored is an art that leaders can develop. By engaging others in meaningful dialogue, the change process does not belong to any one individual but to everyone in the whole organisation.

Many meetings fall flat at the outset because people aren’t energised by the invitation to talk. Leaders typically pay little attention to creating an environment where a team can not only talk together but think together and come up with something new. Without attending to the more subtle aspects of conversations, a meeting can quickly be dismissed as yet another talking shop where views are exchanged but nothing really changes.

For team members to be meaningfully engaged with purpose, it helps to create a container for a different kind of conversation, where there’s a sense of feeling held, allowing energies to be engaged and minds to stay open.

This is a real departure from traditional scenarios where board members sit stiffly around a table as one or two team members dominate the conversation, or a deck of Powerpoint slides takes centre stage. Attuning to purpose will not happen unless unhelpful rules of engagement – people defending their positions from opposing trenches, macho posturing, puerile point-scoring – are interrupted and disrupted. Without a container, the conversation is unlikely to drop into a deeper space where authentic purpose can come into view.

A container is created when people begin to talk more openly and, more importantly, really listen to one another. As people voice their half-baked ideas and discover new meanings, their energies coalesce and gather together. It’s this transformative shift in the atmosphere that creates the openness where a flow of new ideas – and an authentic articulation of the purpose – can move through the room.

3. Reinventing leadership development

A third obstacle is the limited scope of most leadership development activities. Senior executives talking through complex case studies that engage their brains but not the whole office is too old-school and won’t demand attention.

True leadership development includes attending to our inner worlds; only by attuning to our interiority will our exteriority improve. If leaders aren’t able, for example, to regulate their anxiety about appearing unpopular, this will stop them having the difficult conversations they need to lean into. Our work has continually shown how the risks of staying silent outweigh those of speaking out.

Purpose-led leadership requires a different order of sensitivity and capacity. Learning for leaders must become much more experiential, experimental and emotionally engaging so it activates a broader intelligence set, including imagination and instinctive awareness. Leaders must be in touch with their whole selves and the whole system they’re part of to be true 21st century pioneers.

In closing

As the conversation about purpose proliferates, the potential benefits of purpose-led leadership become more possible to harvest by taking a whole self, whole system approach. Engaging not only the top team but the whole organisation in meaningful dialogue about how stakeholders and the wider ecosystem can be served, helps ignite collective enthusiasm for purpose to become the lifeblood and pulse of an organisation.

When leaders engage and enliven people, they inspire their most creative ideas and insights. When they involve their whole team and other stakeholders in articulating and living their organisation’s purpose, there’s a pulse in the room that’s never experienced by simply telling others what to do. When leaders draw on the collective intelligence of those around them and generate open dialogue they are the torch bearers for a sustainable future.

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