The power of shared purpose
What’s your best experience of working in a team? What part, if any, has a shared purpose played? Back in March, two new colleagues and I were planning to run an event on purpose-led leadership in London. We were aiming to have around 50 participants gathered from our different networks. Due to the lockdown, we abandoned our plans to run a face-to-face event and decided to run three online sessions instead. The result? More than 300 people registered, the buzz in my inbox lasted for days and several new possibilities opened up for future work.
Being on the team with the two other CEOs was brilliant. Chris Blackwell (Purpose Led Performance) and Alberto Gonzalez Otero (Just on Purpose) each bring skills that I don’t have. They can edit videos, build websites and think how about to scale our offer. This synergy enabled us to put our event infrastructure quickly in place. A real achievement given that it was all done online and we'd not met in person as a trio. Our weekly video calls, friendly email exchanges and honest conversations generated camaraderie.
But looking back, there was one standout factor that led to our new venture getting off the ground. Our shared passion for purpose-driven business was the high-octane fuel for our team. As I say in my book Powered by Purpose, a compelling ‘why’ enables people to achieve extraordinary results. Team members who compete with one another or who work in silos can never achieve what a purpose-led team can.
A similar pattern of missed opportunity appears at an organisational level. Recent research has found that whilst 79% of leaders think that purpose is central to business success, only 34% use purpose to guide decision-making. Even fewer (27%) steer supervisors to have conversations with their teams about why their work matters. 
Team members, especially millennials, want their work to be meaningful. When team members connect their daily work with a bigger ‘why’, they are 5.3 times more likely to stay with their organisation. Non-millennials are 2.3 times more likely to stay. Strengthening employee engagement through purpose gives competitive advantage and builds organisational resilience.
The main reasons that leaders overlook purpose
Why then do so many organisations, teams and business leaders miss out on the bounty of benefits that being purpose-driven brings? In my experience there are three core reasons:
• Lack of interest. Some leaders see purpose as nice-to-have rather than as necessary. They fail to grasp that an authentic purpose is both practical and aspirational. Purpose is powerful because it guides day-to-day decision-making and motivates employees to go the extra mile. People often overlook this as they don't question what their work is really about and don’t have tools to help them.
• Lack of quality thinking time. A relentless focus on daily operations, monthly financials or quarterly reporting squeezes out purpose. A dialogue about a team's 'why' is not an intellectual exercise but a ‘sensing into’ what feels exciting and energizing to achieve. Tuning into a compelling purpose takes time and many teams don't allow for this.
• Lack of connection with stakeholders. Many leadership teams stay stuck in their ivory towers and forget to connect with the people whom they’re there to serve. Direct reports, frontline staff and customers rarely make an appearance even in their discussions. Without a conversation with their stakeholders, a team loses sight of the very reason that they exist: to serve its beneficiaries. This lack of systemic perspective is a trap that many leaders fall into.
Teams with purpose
The good news is that a team can navigate each of these obstacles. One client – the leadership team of an international environmental agency – set aside two whole days to uncover their true purpose. They were keen to arrive at a ‘why’ that reflected their shared passion for protecting the natural environment. After many hours of dialogue, one person spoke about ‘Being the voice for nature.’ A hushed reverence fell across the room. Purpose is powerful when it emerges but it won’t happen on a rushed Zoom call.
Another leadership team that I coached tuned into their purpose when they brought their main beneficiary into the room. One Director shared how they'd helped a service user with disabilities to find their own home, enabling a visit from their parents. It moved everyone to listen to this success story. As the dialogue continued, the purpose of the team – to run the organization well and to provide strong, compassionate leadership – came clearly into view.
Finally, when I worked with a team at a global real life entertainment company, we began by connecting with personal purpose. Dan Cable, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, has shown that a sense of purpose makes people feel more alive . People paired up in online breakout rooms and helped one another to find a fun role title. It also had to be authentic and express the sense of ‘this is mine to do.’
The Head of HR became Chief Vibe Officer. The Finance Director turned into the Chief Miracle Worker. The Team Leader transformed into the Master of the Universe. This simple exercise lightened the mood and made our dialogue about an energizing team purpose easier. Hearts were open, minds were engaged and people had fire in their belly about what they are here to do.
Purpose lights us up
Purpose fires up an individual, fuels a team and strengthens a whole organization. Whilst it takes time to tune into an authentic team purpose, the benefits are well worth the investment. Greater employee engagement and enhanced team performance result from being powered by purpose.
 (PwC, June 2016) Putting Purpose to Work: A study of purpose in the workplace https://www.pwc.com/us/en/purpose-workplace-study.htm
 Cable D., (2018) Alive at Work, Harvard Business Review Press
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