I’ve spent a lot of time on the road this past year, working with clients at home and abroad, to achieve their goals, to change cultures, to drive performance. I’ve also attended a few excellent communications and employer brand conferences, hearing and sharing new ideas on how to build better business through communications and people. A recurring and insistent theme has been purpose: How to create a sense of purpose at work that will inspire, motivate and sustain the emotional engagement of employees.
We all know some people who were born with purpose, friends from way back when who always wanted to be doctors or vets or teachers or parents, and have made it. In my own family, I have a few who have insisted on climbing mountains, swimming rivers, running marathons. And they get up at the crack of dawn with an extraordinary appetite for what they do, and have boundless energy that is inspiring and sometimes infectious. And then there’s the rest of humanity, who have had to work harder and longer to find something that makes them feel happy or fulfilled or valuable.
And so it is with organisations and companies. Some that we can probably all cite are founded with an intrinsic purpose that they have had since their inception. Much of the public sector, in healthcare, education and social services, as well as charities and NGOs are founded on principles to serve society and improve people’s lives. Most notable in commerce is The Body Shop, founded in 1976 with the aim to prove that business could be a force for good. And this spirit continues, and is being echoed in challenger brand, Gandys, a fantastic new clothing collection for travellers (launched in 2012, by Rob and Paul Gandy) that supports the Orphans for Orphans foundation to help children that are affected by the 2004 Tsunami, where they too lost their parents.
In the corporate world, global giants, like Unilever and Procter & Gamble, were early to recognise their social responsibility and have led the corporate stampede to create purposeful organisations. They have managed to develop an authentic social purpose and environmental agenda, tied into reducing poverty, improving hygiene and education and protecting the planet, alongside their strategic growth, and have influenced government and regulators along the way. In the current generation, other new wealthy individuals, like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckenberg and Richard Branson are examples of entrepreneurs turned philanthropists, who have looked beyond their own personal comfort and now donate huge sums of money to achieve social good.
There are countless other companies, who have been set up with a bright idea to make something, to change something, to sell something, to entertain. Perhaps their sense of social purpose is unexplored or it comes at a later stage with maturity, or for market differentiation. But it needs to be real and authentic. In my view it is better to pursue a fundamental purpose of making money, and be honest about it, than to be insincere and cynical about having a social purpose.
An authentic statement of purpose creates emotional connections between brands and customers; between institutions and people; and it creates meaning for employees at work, beyond or indeed alongside their personal motivations.
A lot of studies suggest that Millennials are more motivated than previous generation to work for a company with a clear sense of purpose, but I am not so sure. I don’t think it’s just a generational issue. I would suggest that, in the current generation, the general public, all of us, are more questioning of institutional morality. And after a decade or so of devastation of institutional trust, whether in Government, business, banking, the Police or the media, a lot of organisations are being forced to reinvent themselves, revisiting their values and principles. A statement of purpose has been something to offer the next generation coming into the workplace, a statement of intent in many cases, almost leading a Renaissance of trust in UK PLC. Asserting a higher cause, however, isn’t enough. It has to be real and delivered and sustained, because we don’t want to be let down again.
The crunch, for me, however, is that organisational purpose alone does not create meaningful work and what is missing from many corporate statements of purpose is the perspective of the individual and how that fits into the typical corporate view. Purpose has become one of the pillars of an employee engagement strategy, but it is still viewed by many as a top-down concept that can be imposed on a group of people to fulfill organisational goals.
The motivation of individuals is an essential interwoven strand to achieving meaning at work. As individuals, we have a series of developing motivations, and all of these impact how we relate to our work. When I talk to my children, who are all in their twenties, becoming financially independent was a huge, initial drive to find a job, as was doing something they are good at and developing new skills. Everyone needs to make a living, but financial motivation, as we know, is just one aspect of our human psyche, and we are all different in what makes us tick.
Once found, a sense of purpose can often go unnoticed, unchanged for years, and then all of a sudden it is challenged and dynamic. Other people and events – like falling in love, moving countries, having a baby, losing a friend – can cause your sense of purpose to shift. I know from my own experience that what I wanted to achieve and why at 19, for example, was vastly different from when I was 39 or 49 or even now, even older.
My belief is that more time needs to be given to understanding who employees really are, what their personal motivations and commitments are, and to find the areas of common ground that will deliver them not only pride in their work but pride in themselves. Alignment with corporate goals is not enough. People have personal goals too.
The dual perspective of the corporate and the individual is core to my thinking about engagement with work. Organisations who truly understand the importance of both the corporate and the individual are few and far between, but they are the ones that outperform the market. In the PRIDE Model, Purpose is really just the beginning, but there are other factors too – Reputation, Integrity, Direction and Energy – all of which come together to build a culture and habit of performance.