Organisational purpose is important, but not if it is just a communications exercise.

Organisational purpose isn’t optional anymore. But too many organisations are treating this critical topic as just a communication exercise.  The real value comes from doing the work to put purpose at the heart of an organisation’s strategy.

In a recent FT article it was reported that Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, “has warned companies that they must contribute to society and deliver financial performance or risk losing … support.” It’s easy to be cynical about this, particularly given that BlackRock has previously been criticised for its lack of focus on corporate behaviour beyond financial performance. But, it’s one more sign that the old “maximise shareholder value” model is no longer sufficient.  And, it’s not just investors who are thinking about organisational purpose.  Customers, suppliers, and employees, when they have a choice, are increasingly choosing to buy from, sell to, and work for organisations whose purposes align with their own.

Identifying and articulating an organisation’s purpose can be hard – particularly if the organisation has a long history, is complex, has been focused very narrowly on financial performance for some time, or has a “me too” strategy that’s hardly distinguishable from its competitors.  In cases like these, the original rationale for the organisation, its fundamental purpose, may have become diluted, confused, commoditised, or even irrelevant.  Understandably, even for these organisations, top teams want to have something to say about their purpose; this can quickly become a communications exercise: a hunt for a strap line, an organisational story or narrative, that is inspirational enough, yet believable enough, to sound like a purpose. 

Our experience working with organisations and their top teams leads me to think that rediscovering or reinvigorating an organisation’s purpose happens in a different way.  Much of the value of having an organisational purpose comes from the discussions to identify, articulate, and interpret it; at least as much as from how it’s communicated.  This might seem like an odd thing to say: surely if the purpose isn’t communicated it doesn’t make any difference to what people think, feel, and do – so what’s the point?  But that depends a lot on how you think about “communication”.

When top teams work together to create a shared view of the situation their organisation faces, and then engage in choosing the sort of organisation they want to lead and the sort of people they want to be, they generally end up accomplishing three things. First, they reconnect with the organisation’s purpose – and with their own. Second, they rethink and rearticulate their strategy, in a way that puts purpose at its heart.  Third, they equip themselves, as a team and as individuals, to engage others – particularly their own direct reports – in similar conversations, in a way that brings the purpose alive, while translating it into the actions and behaviours that deliver the strategy.  Of course, this requires a lot of communication – but it happens in a different way and has different results, compared to a more typical corporate communications approach. 

One final thought on purpose.  Based on what I’ve said, you might be tempted to think “so, I just need to wait for my boss to come to me to discuss our purpose”.  Don’t wait. Even if the overall organisation’s purpose isn’t clear (yet), you can start right now by clarifying and articulating the purpose of your team – however big or small that team might be, even if it’s only you.  Isn’t that where leadership starts?

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