How "practical purpose" could help save your business

Why purposeful leadership matters right now.

by Sarah Ellis
Last Updated: 21 Apr 2020
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Coronavirus

Every leader is looking at goals, targets and priorities set at the start of the year and realising they are either redundant or need to be significantly reset. Employees are asking themselves and their organisations: what now? As the unprecedented levels of change and ambiguity continue over the coming months, what is it that people need most from their leaders? There’s no silver bullet but one area that might be overlooked as an opportunity to keep people motivated and engaged is what we describe as “practical purpose”.

Understandably some leaders may be purpose weary. Purpose as greenwashing or meaningless statements on office walls (when we used to have offices) has, too often, been used as a quick-fix response to challenges with employee or stakeholder engagement.

However, purpose when it connects with people is an important source of meaning for employees. Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Report states that if an organisation can tap into the purpose and meaning for the workforce, it will act as a critical motivator and can help to sustain effort over time. Only last week, a survey of 17,000 workers by Slack found that the key difference between aligned and unaligned workers was their connection to an organisation’s strategic vision and purpose. At a time where employees will be overwhelmed with internal and external change, an organisation’s purpose could be one of the few constants to give individuals a sense of belonging, reassurance and meaning.

Purpose is a way of articulating why an organisation exists. As Simon Sinek says in his now famed TED talk, starting with “the why?” works because it talks to the limbic brain (the part of our brain that drives behaviour). Many organisations recognise this and do a good job of defining why they exist. What is often neglected is translating the big “why?” into something that is more specific for departments, teams and individuals. This idea of “practical purpose” can deliver value in three ways:

1. To help individuals connect the dots between their contribution and what the organisation is trying to achieve.

2. To support teams to develop a sense of empathy, trust and togetherness.

3. To feel part of “something bigger”. As academic researcher Angela Duckworth puts it: “At its core, purpose is the idea that what we do matters to people other than ourselves.”

Practical purpose – leadership actions

Involvement: No-one knows a job better than the person doing it. Involve individuals and teams in the process of figuring out their own “why?” and how this relates to what the organisation wants to achieve. There are three questions that are helpful for leaders to ask individuals and teams to reflect on:

1. Why do you get out of bed in the morning?

2. Why does your team exist?

3. How does your role connect to why you come to work and why your team exists?

The first question is designed to encourage individuals to share their personal motivations for coming to work every day. There is no “right” reason for coming to work and it’s important that everyone’s individual motivations are appreciated with no judgement. The second question asks people to think from a team perspective about the contribution they can make. And the third connects the first two questions together to help people work out their individual contribution.

Visibility: Once established, make the team purpose visible at every opportunity. This doesn’t just mean including a slide at the start of every presentation (though this is not necessarily a bad idea). Consider all the ways you can integrate a team’s purpose into your decision making. Are you prioritising based on your “why?”? Are you planning team development with your “why?” in mind? As a leader, your ambition is to make your “why?” part of “how we do things around here” rather than the latest leader fad that everyone tolerates and then forgets about.

Progress: Mapping progress versus your team’s purpose fuels momentum and acts as a useful reminder of how far you’ve come, particularly in the tough moments. And how leaders define progress is critical. Making mistakes and learning from them is progress. Persuading people to pause a project for the right reasons is a win. Encouraging teams to enjoy, learn from and take satisfaction from progress is more important than the “shiny object” of finishing something. This is particularly the case for progress versus a purpose where there is unlikely to be a clear “finish”. As one of my friends, a silversmith at Central St Martins, says: “The main bit is in doing it, so find joy in that. The work is never really finished anyway.”


Each week, Sarah Ellis, co-author of The Sunday Times best-selling book The Squiggly Career, discusses the pivotal role leaders play in developing people to perform at their best. 


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Image credit: Getty Images/COPYRIGHT, Jong-Won Heo

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