This was the compelling question explored at the joint symposium in between the International Leadership Association and the Møller Institute on 20 and 21 April, 2017. The symposium was convened for corporate leaders and leadership scholars from around the world. In particular, they were charged to discuss the importance of company purpose in the context of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
The symposium provided an opportunity to explore the power of purpose in a practical sense, and provided a living example of bringing theory and practice together to expand the boundaries of thinking on the subject. It also allowed us to discover new ways leaders might develop their own workplaces and leadership research using the power of purpose.
CEOs and HR Directors from diverse organisations including DLA Piper, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Lidl UK, Marshall Group, Trustonic, Taylor Vinters, Friends of the Earth, Scandinavian Airlines, and the Babraham Institute joined in the discussion and drilled down with case studies from Austra Zeneca and DLA Piper on their organisation’s work on infusing their company with purpose.
Internationally renowned leadership scholars flew to Cambridge from the U.S., Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, Mexico, Australia, and Scotland to share their newest research findings on purpose-driven organizations. Møller Leadership Scholar Georgia Sorenson was joined by Gill Robinson Hickman from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, to explain the construct of their book The Power of Invisible Leadership and how people align with organisations that have a compelling and deeply held common purpose that inspires them to deliver their best work. Steve Kempster, coming a shorter distance from the University of Lancaster, and Brad Jackson, traveling from New Zealand’s School of Government at the Victoria University of Wellington, explored leadership as purpose and its role in leadership practice and discussed the implications of singularly focusing upon corporate purpose to the exclusion of societal purpose against the backdrop of the complex, competitive, and unpredictable world we now live in.
The CEOs, HRDs, and leadership scholars worked in facilitated discovery workshops to share valuable experiences and initiatives that they had found create momentum and engagement and to address what purpose meant to them individually and to their organizations. They also explored how purpose can generate value for a range of key stakeholders.
The key findings of the symposium are detailed below, and can be read alongside a published article by Møller Leadership Scholar Professor Georgia Sorenson on why today’s leadership is about purpose-led companies.
We look forward to continuing the Power of Purpose themed journey forward with our business and leadership scholar colleagues as we discover the extraordinary impact of purpose-led organizations, for now, please enjoy the executive summary below.
Gillian Secrett, CEO, Møller Institute
Cynthia Cherrey, CEO, International Leadership Association
Key Symposium Themes & Stakeholder Impacts
Purpose as a Nexus of Theory and Practice
The symposium illuminated the critical role of purpose as a unifying factor for successful organizations, as well as individuals and leaders. Purpose offers a unique bridge between theory and practice, as it provides a theoretical model or frame by which business practice might be planned, completed, and assessed. This model also allows individuals to align their own core values to those of their organizations. On the macro level, purpose transforms organizations into leaders who are now able to align practice with conscious intent via determined value sets. As a result, leadership theories might be used to understand, improve, and interpret the conscious practice of organizations that currently have a vast array of theory at their disposal for the improvement of purpose-driven-leadership practice. This new reality bridges the boundary between theory and practice, and could allow purpose to establish itself as a nexus in this important relationship.
Leadership: Purpose Drives Every Leader
- Understanding purpose could offer a vital method for uncovering the truth about what allows great leaders to emerge.
- Organizations must define what their intended impact is in the long term.
- Leadership is about creating a sense of shared purpose and embracing the bigger picture, which a purpose-driven company will do in a driven and focused manner.
- Shared purpose implies shared leadership.
- Purpose needs to be sustainable beyond the tenure of a leader, and therefore must be shared across an organization.
- Purpose often originates in the vision of the founder. In other contexts, it may extend beyond that individual, and it will ultimately need to. It could even change and evolve with the introduction of a new leader.
Growth: Purpose Motivates Personal and Organizational Growth
- Purpose can offer a catalyst of organizational change to improve society as well as a return on investment for shareholders.
- Purpose focuses the mind and business practice, particularly in relation to thinking strategically.
- People often have a core calling, which may define their personal purpose. This will align with organizational choice.
- Results are particularly powerful when personal purpose is aligned with organizational purpose.
- In the public sector where resources are scarce, organizational purpose has a particularly motivating role.
- Purpose drives a sense of joint achievement that unites and motivates.
- Purpose can be seen as an example of expectancy theory, where people create a vision that they can identify with, and this provides a positive framework to attract people and pull them in.
- Purpose is a way of working collectively and creating engagement.
- Individuals can connect with organizational purpose at an intellectual and an emotional level — giving sense to purpose is therefore really important for clear understanding.
Employees: Purpose Can Unite the Workforce and Inspire Employee Engagement
- Personal and organizational purpose amounts to “why you do what you do, and to what end do you do it?”
- Purpose offers a new way of connecting many employees at all levels toward a communal goal and project.
- Purpose can be an emotional trigger that encourages people to bring their whole selves to work.
- Purpose can be translated across a global organization, even when located in different geographies.
- An effective purpose can provide the sense that all stakeholders are being served and valued.
- Purpose can provide a means of convergence between multiple stakeholders, even with differing priorities
Investors and Shareholders: Purpose Increases Profit
- Driving a brand from a stance of strong purpose and values can also drive profit.
- The management of shareholder expectations is fundamental to the scale and effectiveness of purpose, and is particularly relevant to short, medium and long term planning, profit, and investment.
- Can purpose still stand when it comes up against commercial objectives?
- Getting purpose right can help improve companies’ chances of financial success, especially via employee engagement.
Community and Environment: Purpose Brings Societal Value and Impact
- Defining purpose is about defining one’s role in society.
- Purpose is bigger than any one individual and can be seen as creating a shared value in and for a community.
- A common purpose is often relied upon to try make the world a better place, and to preserve and benefit all aspects of it.
- Purpose can align a company around the Sustainable Development Goals.
- Organization purpose is values driven.
- A responsible purpose driven approach can increase profits via environmentally conscious innovation.