How to Lead On Purpose

Guest post from John Izzo Ph.D. and Jeff
Vanderwielen Ph.D

Why are some leaders effective at truly engaging with their
teams? And why do many, despite their best efforts, manage to motivate top
performers but can’t get the whole team rowing in the same direction? We found
that to create a common goal, it’s vital to ramp up your purpose as an
organization. Here, we will share from our forthcoming book
The Purpose Revolution: How Leaders Create Engagement and
Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good
 reasons why some leaders fail at purpose, and
offer proven practices to get your people connected and engaged for success.

Make Time for Purpose

leaders know that purpose should be a
large part of everything they plan, say and do as leaders
, but sadly, many
fail to actualize their purpose. A recent Ernst and Young/Harvard study shows
that most senior leaders and business owners see the value of being purpose
driven and most likely have a set of personal values leaning toward the
decent-human-being side of the equation. Yet in our experience, most
businesses, small and large, have leaders who are losing at purpose—or at the
very least are failing to achieve the high levels of engagement with their
staff that they intend to build.

experience over the past 25 years shows that most leaders spend an inordinate
amount of time focused on the numbers side and beating their competition, without
truly embracing the balancing force of purpose. It’s not that leaders don’t
care about their people, but they’re often too busy with noses to the
grindstone, working in the business
instead of on the business. But why
spend countless hours working, if you haven’t truly figured out why you’re doing it? Your employees are
asking themselves that same question every day.

Fake It

leaders have a hard time getting on board with purpose. They may not have had
training or mentoring on how to lead purpose, lack the necessary resources or
not have the right mind-set to activate purpose in themselves and others. Some
try to fake it until they make it because they aren’t sure how to define
authentic purpose. But no matter how hard you try, you can’t fake purpose. In
working and speaking with hundreds of company leaders, HR representatives, and
employees at all levels, we’ve found that for your company to be successful in
the long run, it needs to stand for something, and that something needs to be
authentic! Winning companies start with their true purpose, a higher reason for
being as the foundation of their organization. Why? Because you won’t know when
you’ve arrived if you don’t know your destination.

Take Dell
Technologies, as a great example of a company that hit pause and found its
purpose. Founded by Michael Dell in 1984, the company grew massively in its
first 20 years. When he left the company in 2004, however, it fell on hard
times. Fast-forward three years, and in 2007 Dell returned to refocus the
company on its core purpose, going so far as to take the company private in an
effort to make it the “largest start-up in history.” Since that time the
company’s performance has improved, with increased customer satisfaction and
its highest employee satisfaction scores ever. The company has continued to
grow because it got really clear on its purpose and knew as an organization
what it stood for.

is Not a Purpose

A company
focused on purpose can make money, but profit can’t be the primary focus.
Employees need to work for something greater, to feel like their job roles fill
a larger need in society. If your company is engaged in construction, your
worker’s real purpose is creating a safe home for people to live in, not
fastening pieces of wood together. And a happier, more engaged worker is better
for the bottom line. Research shows that companies which activate purpose are
even more profitable than those that don’t. So ask yourself if profit or
purpose is the main driver in your organization? 

need to know that most people who work for them probably don’t care how much
money the company makes, how fast it grows or its increase in sales. Instead,
employees care about being on a winning team, they want the company to make
enough money to keep jobs secure, and want opportunities to contribute to
making better products and services.

A strong
driver of employee engagement is feeling pride in a job well done, of producing
something that meets a real need. Employees also feel a deeper satisfaction
when their work contributes in some way to their personal values and goals, and
great leaders can help them achieve this.

is NOT About Marketing

reason leaders fail to engage their teams through purpose is because they treat
purpose as a marketing program, just any other plan to win talent and
customers. They ask, “Isn’t it OK to simply focus on the fact that employees
and customers want us to have purpose and therefore we ought to pursue it like
we would every other business strategy?” At face value this seems like a
reasonable question.

The fact
is that people see through the focus on purpose solely for the sake of
business, instead of a greater goal. We have worked with more than 500
companies around the world, and it is obvious to us that employees can detect
the difference between purpose that is genuine and purpose that is forced and
purely about looking good as a business. The same is true for individual
leaders. Our people can tell when we’re not into purpose and care mostly about
the numbers, even if we don’t intend to communicate that.

believe the Volkswagen emissions scandal came about because VW used purpose as
a marketing strategy, not a core belief. The decision to deceive regulators on
emissions from diesel cars was likely made because VW’s focus on clean vehicles
was a strategy that worked for promoting and selling their vehicles as “clean
alternatives.” If they actually had a purpose-focused desire to reduce air
pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, they would have fixed the technology
instead of lying about it!

If you
want to truly activate purpose, it’s best for your marketing to amplify a purpose that already exists
rather than promote a different one as a strategy.

Practices to Activate Purpose in Your Organization

  1. Shift the dialogue
    from profit to purpose. Dedicate time in meetings for purpose, create
    purpose metrics or add purpose targets to scorecards.

  2. Emphasize a long-term view to keep your purpose
    present in major decisions.

  3. Align your brand’s core competencies with your social
    platform by making a clear, authentic purpose statement.

  4. Every leader and team member should own purpose,
    sustainability, and social responsibility not just the marketing team.

  5. Systematically take purpose “off the wall” and into
    the work – read the mission statement at meetings, tell purpose stories in
    onboarding, and vet every big decision with purpose in mind.

co-author of The Purpose Revolution and president of Izzo
Associates. He has spoken to over one million people and advised over 500
companies, including IBM, Qantas, the Mayo Clinic, Verizon, RBC, TELUS,
Walmart, DuPont, Humana, Microsoft, and IBM. He is the author or coauthor of
six books, including Awakening Corporate Soul.

 is co-author of The Purpose Revolution and vice president of
consulting at Izzo Associates and a former senior change consultant at
Ernst & Young with 20-plus years of experience helping organizations manage
large-scale change and articulate a compelling purpose – their core good – as
the organizing center for their vision, strategy, and culture.