Take three steps towards meaningful purpose

Written by
Steve Mostyn, associate fellow and Marc Ventresca, associate professor, Oxford Saïd Business School

29 May 2020

29 May 2020 • by Steve Mostyn, associate fellow and Marc Ventresca, associate professor, Oxford Saïd Business School

Practical interventions from the ground up can help organisations and teams to clarify, align and act on their purpose, write Saïd Business School's Steve Mostyn and Marc Ventresca.

Much organisational purpose seems to have been built around the assumption that it involves ‘top-down’, CEO-driven activities. We would like to challenge this notion, reframe the model and suggest some practical tools to engage stakeholders and employers into a real dialogue about what purpose means for your workforce.

Purpose statements are increasingly common. For example, BlackRock, one of the world’s biggest fund managers, now describes its purpose as being “to help more and more people experience financial wellbeing. In pursuit of our purpose, a focus on long-term sustainability is embedded across our business. BlackRock manages assets on behalf of diverse clients around the world.” 

The phrase ‘long-term sustainability’ has arguably been demonstrated by BlackRock’s decision to start to divest itself of fossil-fuel investments. In a recent note to employees and shareholders, chairman and CEO Larry Fink said BlackRock intended “to play an active role in solving the climate crisis”, articulating a focused directive to the whole organisation. 

Similarly, Unilever’s former CEO Paul Polman developed the statement: “Our purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. Why? The answer is simple. We believe we have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to be a force for good in the world.” 

Purpose drives performance

Why should organisations have a purpose beyond profit? Purpose drives superior performance. In the simplest terms, purpose is defined as ‘the reason somebody or something exists’. Having a strong sense of purpose has been shown to contribute to the wellbeing and happiness of individuals. 

Furthermore, research shows that those who align their personal purpose with that of their organisation are considerably more productive than those who experience the absence of, or disconnection from, purpose. 

Organisations with a clear and compelling purpose consistently outperform and outlast their competitors. Purpose serves to motivate individuals within organisations and provide them with an explicit direction. Unilever states that its “sustainable living brands” grew faster than all other brands in 2019, a clear illustration of purpose and profit aligning. 

How does purpose engage and instruct not only ‘us’, but also wider stakeholders, inspiring, reassuring and offering plausible guarantees? Purpose as a provocation is not only codifying what we do today, it also includes what we ought to, and must, do for tomorrow and, after that, reset the current unsustainable equilibrium of modern day global commerce. 

Colin Mayer CBE, professor of management studies at Saïd Business School, insightfully comments in his 2019 book Prosperity: “With the emergence of the mindful corporation, we could therefore be on the edge of the most remarkable prosperity and creativity in the history of the world. On the other hand, we could equally be at the mercy of corporations that are the seeds of our destruction through growing inequality, poverty and environmental degradation.” 

He later concludes that “the corporation today is inhumane. It is inhumane because we have taken humans and humanity out and have replaced them with anonymous markets and shareholders.” 

Rehumanising the workplace

It is this challenge that we want to address to leaders in business who wish to rehumanise the workplace by engaging all on the topic of purpose. A good example of deeper engagement is described well by Robert E Quinn in Creating a Purpose Driven Organization: “A higher purpose is not about economic exchanges. It reflects something more aspirational. It explains how the people involved with an organisation are making a difference, gives them a sense of meaning, and draws their support.”
Quinn quotes from DTE Energy’s former CEO Josue Robles who delved deeper with all levels of the organisation to conclude that “a leader’s most important job is to connect the people to their purpose”. DTE Energy developed purpose from the ground up, asking teams what it meant to them, and making videos of their responses.

Quinn notes that “the first group of professional employees to see the videos gave them a standing ovation. When union members viewed it, some were moved to tears. Never before had their work been framed as a meaningful contribution to the greater good.” 

Practical interventions

How about the how? Our extensive research has enabled us to develop interventions that help organisations and teams to clarify, align and act on their purpose. A straightforward way to start is through a three-step facilitated workshop to engage and create an energised feedback loop with your own teams and learn more about your peoples’ purposes. Part of this could be extended into an organisation-wide cascade initiative. 

Test your organisation’s espoused purpose, with no prompting or pre- reading. Ask the team to describe the essence of your purpose on sticky notes. This provides feedback on alignment of stated purpose and what teams really think.

Ask team members to outline their personal purpose. The late American academic Clayton Christensen said that “asking students to take time to figure out life purpose is the most important thing they will have discovered”. This is a simple written exercise, but allow 30 minutes. Share outcomes and reflect on how many of the individual purpose statements reflect the firm’s purpose. 

Ask each team member to rate how (on a scale of 0-100) their own purpose aligns with the firm’s. This step will reveal what the firm needs to do to create greater purpose.

For organisations that have moved past this stage, more advanced interventions help them to turn their purpose into strategy, and into operating principles, that leverage the energy and alignment that comes from shared understanding and meaning at all levels. 

For more information, contact Oxford University’s Saïd Business School team at changeboard@sbs.ox.ac.uk