3 ways to start putting your “why” into practice.
By Zach Mercurio, Author of “The Invisible Leader,” Purpose & Meaningful Work Consultant
Over the past decade most business leaders have heard the incessant advice: “Find your why!”
And for good reason – research suggests purpose-led companies have more fulfilled employees, enroll more loyal stakeholders, and perform better than peers.
The combination of researched benefits and its feel-good nature makes purpose a popular priority for modern business leaders. Influencers and academics implore leaders to embark on journeys of personal and organizational purpose discovery. Bestselling books lay out sequential steps to finding purpose – and Amazon now lists over 70,000 on the topic.
One result of this mainstream business purpose movement has been a surge of well-intentioned company leaders espousing grand, human-centered purposes to empower employees, demonstrate societal value, and attract customers.
It seems clear that leaders now know discovering and stating a higher purpose is important.
But what leaders should do after purpose discovery is less clear.
Take last year’s PwC study of over 500 business leaders. Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed indicated that purpose was central to business success. Yet just 34% said they used purpose in everyday decision-making.
The study also found a disconnect between the purpose that leaders espoused and the everyday reality employees experienced. This gap highlights one of the drawbacks to the philosophical and inspiring nature of purpose – the preference for the conceptual to the detriment of the practical.
Purpose on its own doesn’t have benefits. The everyday practice of purpose does.
3 Ways to Start Putting Purpose into Practice
If you’re seeking to go beyond just “finding your why,” these three research-backed practices are critical first steps:
- Clarify and “test” your purpose with stakeholders. Last year, Harvard and New York University researchers George Serafeim and Claudine Gartenberg sought to find out if companies with a purpose beyond profit (a “higher purpose”) performed better.
To their surprise, the researchers found no significant link between a higher purpose and financial performance. However, as they dug deeper into over 450,000 employee responses, they spotted a key trend. When employees indicated the purpose was clear through shared language and expectations from the top, the firm did experience performance benefits.
The researchers called these companies “high purpose-clarity companies.”
To understand if there is a “deep sense” of clarity, it’s imperative to involve stakeholders in a collaborative purpose clarifying process.
Ask them questions like:
- From your perspective, is this why we exist?
- Are you emotionally committed to this purpose?
- Does it inspire you?
- What’s missing?
Meeting with key stakeholders, testing the purpose for clarity, and refining the purpose based off the data is a key practice to clarifying purpose.
This is a powerful exercise to repeat yearly in organizations.
- Design the expression of purpose. People are the medium of an organization’s purpose. Ensuring there are shared, clear expectations of what the expression of purpose looks like at each level of the organization is critical.
Everyone in the organization should be able to answer the question, “How will people who interact with us know and feel why we exist?”
How purpose is delivered should be thoughtfully designed, not casually considered.
Have your teams create experience delivery plans which are rooted in the above question.
Have them answer:
- What will we do and say to communicate purpose in digital and interpersonal interactions?
- How will we make decisions that are aligned with purpose?
There are also other ways to express purpose beyond stakeholder interactions. Create physical spaces where internal and external stakeholders can talk about purpose, collaboratively solve problems, or experience the purpose first-hand.
Make sure you have identified your core values – the guardrails for maintaining purpose expression. Then identify the guiding principles and behaviors which will enact those values. Institutionalize them in performance reviews, onboarding, training, and other key processes.
After all, no one cares what you believe unless you prove it every day inside and outside the organization.
- Make purpose the “boss” of your strategic decision-making. To understand whether your organization operates from purpose, examine your decisions.
Instead of being one factor in strategic decisions, purpose should be the determining factor.
Ask other organizational leaders: “How do we make decisions here?” Have them draw the process. If the process of making decisions is unclear and not controlled by purpose fulfillment, you may be at risk for purpose misalignment.
Finally, make sure the purpose is the “boss” of your strategic decision-making. I call it “the invisible leader.”
For every decision, ask your team: “Does this help us accomplish our purpose?” If so, consider it. If not, you may have to simply refuse to pursue it.
And that may be the biggest leadership lesson of all. To lead from purpose, make sure the “why” – not a person – is always the most powerful leader.