Many companies are refreshing their purpose statements – their “why do we exist” statements – as they confront unknown futures and want to stand out for something inspiring in a ‘noisy, deconstructed world’.
Purpose statements are designed to build shared purpose and with it a compelling, unforgettable market identity. A redesigned purpose statement launched along with all the bells and whistles is where the journey starts not ends.
Building a shared purpose is about building a common shared identity. Apple, Google, GE among other companies are often held up as examples of companies that have a strong all pervasive corporate identities, well beyond their customer brands. The real challenge is to make shared purpose a shared experience of ‘beliefs in action’. This has to start with all leaders and managers of people and resources reconnecting with belief systems that are implied by that purpose statement. “For this purpose statement to be true what do we have to believe about ourselves and the way we work together” is an important question to ask of those who lead. Even when some companies take this step, stuff gets in the way such as the stories we tell ourselves about the current reality and what needs to change. Unless we have a shared view about the current reality and the distance to travel to get to the vision implied by the purpose, we will under-estimate the effort required. But the current reality may not be easy to confront. Sometimes we tell ourselves stories that are true and sometimes we tell ourselves stories that are untrue (about the current reality). We dont set out to tell ourselves untruths about the current reality but conflicting or competing duties, obligations and loyalties get in the way. Some of these are built into organizational structure and systems and are so hard to get at. For example loyalties to the current boss, the existing strategy or business model, the remuneration arrangements and so on, may prevent us from grasping the current reality and the distance needed to travel to realise the vision (implied by the purpose statement).
Those who lead need to initiate and skilfully surface these conflicting or competing duties, obligations and loyalties if they want to embed a new purpose and galvanize the organisation around a new way of working. But is this enough?
No, it is not enough. Shared beliefs can in fact have a dark side. We can all mobilise around a set of shared beliefs on the way to ruin. IBM before it was rescued by Lou Gerstner was an example. Whole organizations can become trapped by a single shared belief system. That is why while building a shared purpose we also have to create a culture that tolerates as well as actively encourages divergent views to thrive about the ‘how’. These divergent voices are your best chance of building-in course-correction skills that we will increasingly need in this volatile unpredictable world. This requires building an inclusive culture, one where everyone is unified on where we are heading but everyone has a voice in how to get there.
Written by Meena Thuraisingham, Organisational Psychologist, Author and consultant
Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest
Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.
Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today