The Nobler Cause of a Purposeful Organization

“I don’t put plates on tables. I make people happy.”

That’s Victor, talking to my wife and me at Taller de Tapas restaurant in Barcelona during our recent trip through Spain.

Because he’s right about making people happy, we came back three times and used that tapas restaurant as our benchmark when we moved on to Madrid and Seville.

Victor doesn’t come to work. He comes to fulfill a higher goal; a nobler cause. His work gives him a sense of purpose.

I’ve consulted to purposeful organizations.  They’re upbeat places. The people are genuine. They respect each other. They’re excited about what they do. They have fun. They feel valued when they go home at night because they know they took their organization to a higher place together.

Here are some examples:

  • The housekeeping team at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida told me how proud they were that they were “to be ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”
  • Every person at FedEx knows they come to the plane, the truck or the office to “make every experience outstanding.”
  • People at the newly-formed AbbVie biopharmaceutical, tell me every week I’m there that they “create remarkable impacts on patients’ lives.”  The team that’s about to launch a new drug to treat Hepatitis C talks openly about how much they care about “transforming the lives of people with HCV and their families.”  That’ll get you going in the morning!

In purposeful organizations, these kinds of comments aren’t slogans, mottos or marketing blather. People truly believe they’re part of a culture where everyone works together every day to take the organization to unheard of places.

The purpose “pulls” people toward a noble goal. It provides clarity and meaning to what people do every day. It inspires.

In contrast, a command-and-control environment “pushes” people to get the work done. Omniscient managers tell people who do the jobs every day how to do those jobs. Then they keep a watchful eye over them lest they screw up.

So how do organizations become more purpose-centered?

It starts with a clear statement of purpose. A purpose statement creates focus, ignites passion, represents an achievable stretch and gives meaning to the work that’s performed every day. It provides enough detail that people “will know it when they see it.” And it clarifies what the organization must start, stop and continue doing.

The statement is only the beginning. The statement is the talk that must be backed up by the walk or it becomes “just another program” that undermines the leadership’s credibility.

The difficult part of the walk is aligning the entire organization in a way that enables it to live the purpose.  That starts with leaders who need to…lead.

Everything leaders say and do must reinforce the purpose. A leader communicates what’s important by how she uses her  time, what’s first and last on her agenda, who and what is rewarded and recognized, the questions she asks and the small acts of symbolism that communicates “whether she’s serious about this purpose stuff,” or “the purpose stuff is a bunch of BS.” The tiniest misstep, under-the-breath comment, inappropriate facial expression or note in the margin of an email can undermine the organization’s attempt to live the purpose.

Measurement, rewards, recognition, development and work processes all need to reinforce the organization’s endeavor to fulfill the purpose.  If your purpose statement speaks of customer service excellence but you don’t teach people how to improve customer service, you may be sending mixed messages that confuse people. If you talk about being patient-centric but you make decisions without asking “What would the patient want?” you may be undermining your ability to achieve your purpose.

If your purpose is to make every experience outstanding, you should be continually scouring every policy, procedure, process, or activity to make sure you eliminate every chance that the next experience would not be anything but outstanding.

Becoming a purposeful organization is hard work. But the payoff can be enormous.

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