Four steps to take on your purpose journey

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Having purposeful work has always been important, but recent events have prompted both HR and employees to consider how this can be progressed. Bruce McCombie shares several learnings to help organisations take their next steps on their purpose journey.

Over the past few years, the concept of ‘purpose’ has moved from the margins to the mainstream of discussions about business and leadership.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have lifted the topic of purpose even further up the agenda – and as Personnel Today recognised in its report from the Festival of Work earlier this month, it will be increasingly crucial to attracting and retaining the right talent.

It’s a question which resonates strongly with the organisation I work for, Pilotlight, which since its inception two decades ago has pioneered a model of bringing together business, charity and social enterprise leaders to ignite lasting social change.

I hope our new report, Igniting People with Purpose, can help HR professionals and the organisations they serve to take the next steps on their purpose journey. Here are the key learnings I’ve taken from the HR and purpose experts who contributed to the report:

1. Simplicity is the essence of purpose

Your organisation was likely set up with a clear reason (or purpose) in mind. And whether that purpose remains, or has been replaced by something else, it should be something you can distil into a very simple statement. If it’s too long, pretentious, or far removed from what you do, it just won’t resonate with your colleagues or your leadership. And once you’ve defined it, that purpose needs to stay well clear of being an excuse for overprescribing or micro-managing – it should instead be a north star, a guiding principle.

2. Purpose drives people and HR needs to be at the purpose table

One of our contributors says that while they’ve worked with many talented marketing colleagues, a marketing team mustn’t be left alone to define and implement purpose across a company; because this creates the risk of it becoming a tagline, not actually embedded throughout your organisation. Similarly, if purpose is assigned solely to your CSR or corporate responsibility colleagues, the resulting articulation of purpose won’t be reflective of the operational realities of the company.

3. Bring the outside in (and vice versa)

Leaders used to be valued for their deep sector insight, and for putting in long hours in the office – the danger of thinking that you have to be at work to be productive is that those leaders are likely to struggle with our increasingly complex world. Leaders today need broader horizons and wider perspectives.

One contributor said that in his experience, standard leadership development programmes risk being tick-box exercises unlikely to provide that vital chance for leaders to get out of their comfort zone. HR professionals should seek these opportunities – both for leaders, and for themselves. We know from business leaders who participate in Pilotlight’s programmes that doing this for just a couple of hours a month is a great development experience, increasing both job satisfaction and personal wellbeing.

It should be something you can distil into a very simple statement. If it’s too long, pretentious, or far removed from what you do, it just won’t resonate with your colleagues or your leadership.”

4. Think about real people

In order to engage with purpose meaningfully, your leadership team needs to be encouraged to understand what another contributor calls “real people issues” – if you’re in life insurance, this could include rising male suicide rates. If you’re a budget retailer, it might mean the benefits system, and so on.

Another contributor decried the board of a credit company who described customers who moved accounts to a different provider as “rate tarts”, suggesting this indicated a leadership culture lacking perspective, and unlikely to engender a purposeful culture across the business. This point emphasises both the diversity imperative, and the need for more experiential learning for leaders to widen their perspectives.

Time for reflection

Another important learning is that questioning and reflectiveness are key to purposeful thinking. Our report ends with a list of eight questions which we hope provide creative inspiration for your own purpose journey. I hope you’ll consider them all, but thinking about my own leadership role, and building on the above points, here are the four that I find particularly provocative:

  • Do you have a succinct, clear and well understood purpose statement?
  • Do your staff feel a sense of ownership of your company’s purpose? If not, why not?
  • Can your board members talk as confidently about purpose as they would about core areas such as finance, performance or risk?
  • How often do your leaders spend time understanding the world outside the office?

I was also struck by a series of questions which one of our contributors recalls an HR leader posing to his peers: “Are we sending people home after work feeling energised? Do they feel appreciated? Are we consciously making work meaningful for others?”

Good luck with your purpose journey – the more it progresses, the more likely you are to answer ‘yes’ to all three questions.

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Bruce McCombie

About Bruce McCombie

Bruce McCombie is deputy chief executive of Pilotlight, an organisation that links business leaders with charitable organisations.
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