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In all talent and leadership consulting, the first thing we ask for, to get the pulse of the client, is the Purpose Statement. In simple terms, the organisation’s stated reason for existence. Studies have established a positive relationship between clearly communicated purpose and operating performance, as well as forward-looking measures, such as stock returns and employee engagement. Beyond studies, our intention is to make sure that whatever we do with regard to talent, connects back to the larger, higher goal.

Logical as this may sound, and grand as the idea of Organisational Purpose may be, this journey is fraught with complications, and we often find it very hard to actually demonstrate how talent management initiatives lead back to the Purpose. Here are my ‘Big-Five’ on what typically goes wrong, and what organisations need to do to build true alignment between their Purpose and People.

  1. Resonance, or the lack of it: The Purpose Statement is often worded such that the average ‘person-on-the-floor’ simply cannot understand or remember it. Can you blame them if it reads along the lines of “we deliver greater long-term value to our customers, shareholders, employees and society… through trust”? Indulge me and answer – a) will a frontline person understand it easily, and b) even if they do, will they relate to it? It’s simple – in personal life, we seek relationships where we experience Resonance. The same is true of Organisational Purpose too. What brings me to work? What makes me belong? Illustrative examples of a powerful Purpose include Ikea, which simply says “Make everyday life better” or Facebook, to “Bring the world together” – statements that everyone, from the CEO to the frontline folks can all resonate with.
  1. Way of Life: The more companies put up words on boardroom posters and calendars, the less people tend to internalise it. It is not to say that it should not be done, but it is counter-productive without making it a way of life, and indeed, the culture, with on-the-ground stories, habits and rituals. Implicit in the act is a differentiation between what we project and what we really care for. A personal example is that I haven’t coloured my hair since the start of the lockdown, because it doesn’t impact my life, but I am still watching my carb intake, to not ruin the effects of my brief fling with Keto diet. The reason is human nature. What really matters to us, is gradually internalised. The same way, companies need to invest in living and breathing their purpose, all the time, through everyone, and every action.
  1. Alignment: We have a notion of Purpose being intangible and unmeasurable, which is not entirely misplaced. The ultimate goal of an organisation though, commercial or otherwise, is to achieve its commitments to its stakeholders – be it profits, social impact or any other. So if that can be measured, it must connect back and be aligned to the Purpose. The whole idea of Balanced Scorecards and other performance systems is exactly this – to connect larger goals to the last mile. Yet, somehow, the goals often end up being largely transactional metrics, and the Purpose, an amorphous thing that resides back of the mind for people, instead of front and centre, where it belongs.
  1. What’s-in-it-for me? While an over-arching Purpose is great, an organisation has a number of stakeholders, all trying to ask the ‘What’s-in-it-for-me’ question. Hence, what the purpose translates into for each, needs to be explicitly laid out. I would group them into four parts – Customer Purpose, People Purpose, Shareholders Purpose and Community Purpose. Only when this is done, does an employee connect with ‘what will happen for me if I am a part of this story’. To share an example, I buy medicines from a pharmacy chain, which is founded on being available 24X7 to customers. However, after late evening and until late morning, the numbers of the nearby store are often switched off. They have a simple enough Purpose, but clearly the people who really have to deliver it to the end customer, don’t know what’s in it for them.
  1. Behaviours: This is really the best for the last and the single biggest reason why Purpose statements often don’t go beyond boardroom walls. Most organisations have at least three of the following – Purpose, Vision and Mission, Core Values, Brand Principles, Competencies and others. A cursory study tells us that they often don’t present a consistent, unified story that tells every employee “this is how you should think, feel and act, for us to deliver our larger Purpose together”. Until organisations fix this, and create a common language of behaviours, the big thinking cannot translate into observable, measurable and coachable behaviours that all connect back to the Purpose.

In summary, if an organisation is truly in pursuit of living its Purpose, and wants to deliver it for the community that resides outside, with or through the one inside, it needs to make sure that these ‘Big-Five’ are addressed, and the Purpose is re-purposed from being on the boardroom wall to the beating hearts of the people who make it an organisation.