‘Purpose is an ever-evolving process that touches everyone’, HPC’s John Hill explores the meaning of purpose, and how having purpose challenges and empowers people and teams within organisations.



In our work with leaders, organisations and teams, generally speaking, we are not long into the conversation or the work before the theme of purpose raises its head. If it is a coaching engagement with a team or an individual, we aim to discover and unlock the purpose of the coaching so that we have an agreed outcome to strive towards. If it’s a programme of leadership development, it helps to focus the work if we know what outcome the work is there to serve.


This is the ‘Why’, that Simon Sinek alludes to in his theory of the Golden Circle’, that sets organisations apart from those who know just what they do and how they do it. It presents a challenge and a calling to every decision, every strategy, every behaviour and every practice within the organisation and impels the organisation and its people to reflect on and question their rationale for each strategy and initiative.


It is important to point out here that there are almost always, multiple purposes at work within organisations and teams. For some it is the performance of their department against an agreed KPI, for others it is may be preparing for a major political shift, and for others it may be that there are compelling purposes both inside and outside the organisation. In a recent piece of work we did with a senior leadership team, it was a case of helping them find resonance between two strongly compelling and equally valid purposes – that of providing exceptional charitable services to their clients and that of  helping the organisation to meet commercial goals, both of which, at times, in terms of values, seemed at odds with each other.


It is helpful for leaders and people in organisations to think of their purpose as a living, breathing, evolving thing which is always present and which constantly has to be responded to and interacted with. Katzenbach and Smith, in their seminal book ‘The Wisdom of Teams’, posit that ‘better teams often treat purpose like an offspring in constant need of their care and attention.


This makes perfect sense in a world, to quote Thomas Freidman, that is ‘changing at warp speed and directly or indirectly touching a lot more people on the planet at once”. Our purposes will have to evolve to meet the demands and needs of that world. These are demands, needs and desires that are becoming different and distinct from those of ten, twenty, thirty or forty years ago. For example, we find that millennials and Gen Z’ers are looking for different things out of life and work than their predecessors. Tellingly, a recent survey by Deloitte revealed that 63% of millennial workers believed that improving lives was more important than generating profit – a quantum shift indeed.


It is no longer enough to encapsulate a purpose in a well worded catch phrase, frame it and mount in on the wall behind reception – it may be out of date before the paint has had time to fade around it. Instead, purpose needs to be made real. There is a danger of empty rhetoric and lofty principles that bear no relationship to the culture and everyday experience of those who live in the organisation. There is also a risk that, in framing purpose as a fixed idea, a constitutional principle, it loses relevance to the dynamics of a rapidly changing global environment.


One very helpful model which I have used both with leaders and teams to help them consider their purpose, is that of the Purpose Diamond, devised by Ed Rowland of The Whole Partnership. In it he considers the ‘founding purpose’, which first brought the team or the organisation into being. A founding purpose of the organisation that may have been legitimate at the outset might not be appropriate now. Then there is what he calls the ‘espoused purpose’ – what everyone says the purpose is, or what they are supposed to say the purpose is. This can become merely a mantra and bear no real relationship to the ‘at work’ purpose – what the team or the organisation are really focused on in this present moment. Then there is the true purpose, towards which the focus of the team and the leadership have to consistently direct their attention. “Why are we really here? To do what? And in service of whom?’ That answer should both resonate with those in the team and organisation and those who are the beneficiaries of its activities.


We might have heard the oft quoted mantra that 65% of the jobs our kids will be doing are not even in existence today! Whether or not this is true, and it may not be, one thing we can be sure of is that the world of 10 years’ time, will be significantly different and affected by trends that we may not even be aware of today. Taking into account the environmental challenges facing our planet, the social upheavals we are living through and the technological innovations being ushered in by the 4th Industrial Revolution, the central purposes of our lives, teams and organisations will not serve us well if they remain like proverbial insects trapped in ideological amber.


As leaders in organisations and for those of us who work with leaders and organisations, the question is, how do we create and craft working environments where, in the words of Barry Oshry, ‘the system is responsible for its own fate. This is a huge step away from (leaders) being responsible for the system’s fate”. Or to quote Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School, ‘What does our world need right now that we, as a team or an organisation can uniquely step up to?” The aforementioned Edward Rowland addresses this when he addresses the issue of authenticity. He observes that, in order to be real, purpose needs to be inherent rather than constructed and needs to be discovered rather than invented through ideas and words. It can be discovered both within us, between us, in our connections and relationships and around us in the world we inhabit.


In our work with leaders and teams as facilitators, we will often bring an empty chair into the room and ask those present to imagine it occupied by one of their key stakeholders or even to sit in it and speak from the perspective of one their key stakeholders (even more effective!). it could be a customer, a board member, someone who reports to them, an investor, or even perhaps a grandchild. It is important to hear loud and clear what that stakeholder asking us to step up, to engage with, to be courageous about, both today and in the future? That is one way in which to connect with our purpose.


So, it’s not just the question of why we are doing what we are doing, but why are we doing it now and what is it serving? The challenge remains to keep our purpose alive, evolving, responsive and always meaningful. It Is not a one-off exercise, but a constantly evolving process that engages and touches not only everyone in the organisation but also those who are affected by the organisation.


John Hill is a Facilitator and Executive Coach at HPC.

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