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Purpose: The New Competitive Edge

23 April 2013 at 10:37 am
Staff Reporter
Why connecting with our shared hopes and dreams is today’s most important leadership skill, explains Geoff Aigner, the Director of Social Leadership Australia at The Benevolent Society and author of Leadership Beyond Good Intentions.

Staff Reporter | 23 April 2013 at 10:37 am


Purpose: The New Competitive Edge
23 April 2013 at 10:37 am

Why connecting with our shared hopes and dreams is today’s most important leadership skill, explains Geoff Aigner, the Director of Social Leadership Australia at The Benevolent Society and author of Leadership Beyond Good Intentions.

If we think of our organisation as a dress shop what would be its purpose? Are we here to sell clothes? Are we running a supply chain? Or are we delivering a return to shareholders? All these things are essential but they don’t explain why my shop is different from yours, why an investor will give me money rather than you or why an employee will shine in the service of my product. Perhaps most importantly these kinds of answers won’t explain why a customer will walk into my shop and buy something and keep coming back.

What’s missing is purpose. The kind of purpose that inspires employees and excites customers. Without it we can’t expect innovation, employee engagement, price premiums or customer loyalty. Nor is there any way of co-ordinating and prioritising all the other important stuff—the hangers, the labels and the supply chain.

We try to fix these things with mission, vision, values and strategies—but if these were the solution, why do they stay fixed in a PowerPoint presentation and drive so little behaviour in organisations? That’s because they, too, are just racks and hangers. As soon as we make the purpose a process, it loses its beauty, it loses its heart.

Thank about it. What grabs you more? The purpose of being the leading supplier of ‘x’, with the highest shareholding in ‘y’, or a purpose like this:

“We want to improve the health and well-being of everyone on the planet through higher-quality foods and better nutrition.”
—John Mackey

John Mackey is the co-founder of Conscious Capitalism. He also happens to be the co-CEO of the most highly valued pure food retailer in the US—Whole Foods Market—which did $11.7b in sales last year.[1]

To Mackey, the best business is one that ‘has a higher purpose besides just making money—one that takes into account all of the major stakeholders and not just the investors, which has a leadership style that serves that higher purpose … and creates a culture that allows the employees and all the other stakeholders to flourish in interacting in the business.”

We can see it in the work of Mark Kramer—whose ‘Creating Shared Value’[2] has had such an impact since its publication in 2011; or Mark Boncheck—‘Purpose is good. Shared purpose is better’[3]: creating a clear and shared purpose is emerging as the key leadership quality for anyone looking to secure their organisation’s future in an increasing complex and fast-changing world.

Another Mark—Mark Kennedy, the Managing Director and Head of Strategy at Designworks, the award-winning creative agency behind The Benevolent Society’s new brand­—understands this well. To Kennedy, a well-understood, well-expressed and well-shared purpose is the essence of brand. He puts it like this:

“In view, if organisations don’t have a strong sense of why they’re in business and they don’t share that why with the audience who they’re hoping to serve or interact with—if there isn’t a shared value with the community that they’re after, there’s no reason for them to exist any more. There’s not. It is purely a matter of time.’

And of course this is true whether you’re in business, in government or a not-for-profit. Organisations that are going to succeed have to connect much more deeply with what employees and clients and customers care about. And they don’t just care about the ‘product’, they care about the world and their place in it.

Connecting personal purpose & organisational purpose
The healthcare system offers a great example of what happens when purpose is absent but also what happens when personal purpose trumps a broader systemic or patient-centred purpose. Everyone at every level in the system is doing their own thing.

If I have a problem with my back my GP will refer me to get an x-ray or a scan. Then I will get some physiotherapy or massage. If that doesn’t work I will be referred to a surgeon. None of these people ever meet each other and talk about the case, share views and come to a strategy together. Each is convinced (at least to start with) that they have the answer. A surgeon will want to operate on you because surgery is just what they do.

What happens in healthcare shows what happens when purpose is absent or buried but it also brings out another important and often confounding part of the puzzle: the place of personal purpose.

Too often we see an organisation’s purpose trumped or colonised by a whole raft of personal purposes. This can manifest as pet projects or silos. At its extreme it ends in corruption, personal advancement and favouritism at the expense of the greater organisational good. Without a compelling purpose, it’s easy to see how an organisation ends up this way – not only do we not have something to rally around, we also have no way of sorting and excluding overly self-interested or factional behaviour.

Personal purpose can be a danger. But connecting it to an organisation’s purpose can be an asset. When we can bring people’s energies and passions to work in a way that doesn’t create a whole heap of sole-traders, we can use it to create all the things we dream of—employee engagement, innovation, co-operation, and genuine and outstanding customer service. How people link their personal purpose to organisational purpose becomes the energy of the organisation.

In our work with organisations and individuals at Social Leadership Australia we have noticed the most provocative question we can ask is, “Why?”:

  • “Why are you in your role?”
  • “Why is your organisation here?”

Then we can ask,

  • “How does this relate to your role?”
  • “Where does your personal purpose and organisational purpose intersect?”

These can be disturbing questions in the short term. But in the long term they are very powerful.

So to go back to our original question, what is the purpose of the dress shop? Perhaps it’s about selling beautiful dresses or perhaps it is about bringing beauty to the world. This kind of purpose not only takes us beyond focusing on the racks and hangers but also allows the racks and hangers to make sense. They have a higher purpose. If we are also interested in this purpose at an individual level, then we can then begin to find the link to our own personal purpose and to create our role in a way that supports that and brings forward all our power, skill and…. perhaps, beauty.

Footnote: Social Leadership Australia has been working with Designworks to design a new leadership masterclass on Working With Purpose & Role in Sydney on 23-24 May 2013.


[2] Mark Kramer, ‘Creating Shared Value’, HBR
[3] Mark Boncheck, ‘Purpose is good. Shared purpose is better,’ HBR 

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