“How to move from talking purpose to walking it?
Be visible. Be open to feedback, and be accessible.”
The time when purpose was largely something for the marketing brochure has long past. Society, regulators, shareholders, employees and customers place increasing pressure on organisations not just to have a purpose, but prove they live it. So how do you embed this? And how do you lead a purposeful organisation?
To understand this better, I sat down with my own mentor, Helen Pitcher OBE, to gain her insights at our most recent Rungway event. Purpose plays a key role in Helen’s career, from being President of Kids Out, a board member of United Biscuits and C&C Group, and the chair of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. So I asked Helen to share her vast experience as a chairman and advisor across a number of leading organisations, and to discuss the role of purpose and passion in today’s companies.
Leadership and scrutiny: A new purpose landscape?
Organisations face “hyper-scrutiny” from activists, employees and social media looking at every choice and every word spoken for perceived misalignment with purpose and values.
Helen sees this trend as a permanent shift: society now is much more aware of the harm we can do to the environment and the dangers of poor governance. Core purpose is no longer just shareholder value - the new norm is wanting a purpose which says we are here to do good and change the way people live their lives.
And what about those CEOs and organisations who have been caught out?
Reputations are lost when leaders aren’t mindful of everything they say and how they say it. Good leaders, on the other hand, mean what they say about purpose, even in the face of activist pressure on short-term performance.
Who owns purpose?
While purpose should be owned by the board, it needs to be believed at every level of the organisation. Feedback is key here, as boards and management teams can’t be everywhere at once. And with devolved organisations and more remote working very likely with worldwide attempts to contain the coronavirus for example, you need to be doing even more to get realistic and honest feedback.
What should we look out for?
Honest feedback can highlight misalignment between culture and purpose. If your culture doesn’t match your stated purpose, and you’re not doing what you say you’ll do, credibility will be lost, and cynicism will grow.
Watch out for regular “values refresh” exercises and management teams who don't have the platforms to really understand where disaffection lies in real time.
How do you lead a purposeful culture?
While it’s easy to talk the talk, it’s much harder to really listen and act. Leaders need to get out and about, be visible, and be even more accessible. As an example, make sure you’re checking in to understand the difference between what you’ve said in an announcement and what your employees have heard.
Our employees want us to care, they want us to be committed, and they want us to communicate with them. Trusted leaders understand that they have to listen in order to communicate.
But, as Helen warned us, the passionate CEO is not enough. There are only so many people you can speak to in an organisation, particularly as a busy CEO, so you need more people out there who are consistently sharing the message, listening and truly walking the talk.