Straightforward to articulate, positive change can be challenging for companies to implement in meaningful ways. Sarah Rozenthuler and Edward Rowland outline innovative ways to get it right

Purpose-driven business is high on the agenda. Increasing numbers of CEOs across the globe are committing to delivering a positive impact on individuals, society and the environment beyond making a profit. In a rapidly shifting marketplace coalescing around a powerful purpose helps an organisation to adapt, innovate and transform.

A growing business case for purpose – researched by EY, Deloitte, Harvard and Saïd Oxford Business Schools – shows that purpose-led organisations have greater competitive advantage, customer loyalty, employee engagement and agility to innovate than those that seek profitability alone.

However, as the dialogue about purpose continues to expand, there is increasing recognition that while purpose is currently underleveraged, it is not a branding exercise. Just as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can become a cover story, with the ensuing accusations of “green wash”, some highlight the risk of “purpose wash.” The resulting cynicism could undermine the whole movement.

How can an organisation become more purpose-led without this endeavour manifesting as just another piece of corporate jargon or PR enterprise? Fortunately, there are ways for organisations to move forwards so that this re-orientation creates competitive edge as well as contributing to a fundamental shift in the place of business in society.

Bringing purpose to life

For an organisation or team to live out its purpose, a well-articulated, compelling mission statement is a powerful starting point, but insufficient on its own to spark transformative change. What else is needed? Recent research points to the following three enablers.

Credit: bbernard

Firstly, purpose has to be authentic and lived in order to create shared value for an organisation, society or the environment. Articulating purpose is not about senior leaders crafting a mission statement behind closed doors – a fundamentally different approach is needed. Purpose must be at the heart of everything that a team or organisation does, not just placed on the office wall or as a screensaver. The stated purpose needs to be the real purpose, not an espoused counterfeit.

Secondly, people throughout the organisation, as well as at senior levels, need to be meaningfully, and emotionally, engaged. It is not enough for leaders to lean into purpose with mere ideas; it needs to be felt and revealed. For purpose to be woven throughout an organisation’s culture, it must be expressed as a living reality in day-to-day activities – in interactions with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. This will only happen if people’s whole selves are engaged, not just their heads.

Finally, purpose needs to be looked at from new and different angles. Whether we are looking at the “why” of a team or an organisation, both are embedded in a larger ecosystem. A government department, private company or third sector organisation exists for external stakeholders, whether customers, clients, service users, patients, students or voters. A team’s purpose does not exist in isolation – it needs to align with the purpose of the organisation. To crystallise a purpose that has a wow for employees, as well as external beneficiaries, it’s important to take into account this larger, “whole system” context.

Articulating a compelling purpose for a team or organisation calls for a deeper quality of dialogue than often occurs in organisations. It 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 team or even the whole organisation.

For team members to be meaningfully engaged with purpose, it helps to create a “container” for a different kind of conversation. Container comes from the Latin con, meaning “with”, and tener, meaning “to hold”. The essence of a container is, therefore, the sense of being held. Our attention is held, our energies are engaged and our minds are open.

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. The field starts to hum with authenticity, awareness and acceptance. It is 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.

Credit: Maglara


Recasting the role of the leader

To be an effective propagator of purpose, it is essential that a leader shifts their mental model from “I’m the boss” to a more expansive stance. Attuning to a compelling mutual purpose is not an individual activity – it is a co-creative exercise where a collective comes together to discover what is pulling them forward.

Re-imagining the role of the leader is at the heart of purposeful business. Harvard Business School leadership scholar Linda Hill, with her co-authors of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (2014) carried out extensive research to discover what makes organisations such as Pixar, Google and eBay highly innovative and hugely successful.

Leaders of innovation do not act as heroes, experts or visionaries as this approach would be flawed from the start. If a team or organisation is to create something truly original - whether a film, new product or service – a leader can’t know in advance what the creative path forward will be. A purpose-led leader is, in the words of Linda Hill, more “social architect” than a commander-in-chief. They combine individual “slices of genius” into a single work of collective genius by unleashing and harnessing people’s creativity to produce a coherent and shared sense of purpose.

A whole system approach

Given the multiple benefits that purpose has been shown to generate, which CEO wouldn’t want better customer acquisition, brand loyalty and market share? Which Director General wouldn’t want their organisation to punch above their weight? Which Permanent Secretary wouldn’t want a more productive, innovative and engaged workforce? The promised land of purpose can, however, feel out of reach, if not overwhelming, when a leader is faced with the day-to-day running of an effective organisation or profitable business.

As the conversation about purpose goes viral, 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 a meaningful dialogue about how stakeholders and the wider ecosystem can be served, helps to ignite collective enthusiasm for purpose to become the lifeblood and pulse of an organisation.

Co-directors of The Whole Partnership, Sarah Rozenthuler and Edward Rowland are pioneers in purpose-led leadership with a specialist expertise in working systemically. They co-authored the new e-book Leading Systemic Dialogue: Unlocking Collective Intelligence for Purpose-led Performance.