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Purpose, the newest toy for CEOs

By Frederik Anseel, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Vice Dean Research at King’s Business School 

‘The engagement hype threatens to make the manager a chief horse whisperer’, I wrote in my previous article. A manager/dog trainer who hopes to entice his people with the right tricks to still get the targeted engagement score and the corresponding bonus. In the days following the publication of the article, I received the same response from a remarkable number of readers: engagement through 'purpose' is different, that really makes a difference.

Well, let's have a look. Purpose is something like the pursuit of a higher goal, a meaning. To explain the concept better, I'm borrowing the following known anecdote, I'm sure you know it:

It is 1962, smack in the middle of the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union are embroiled in a violent space race to be the first to put a man on the moon. During a working visit to NASA, President Kennedy sees an elderly cleaner in a hangar struggling with a broom. He interrupts the tour, walks up to the man and says, ‘Hello, I am Jack Kennedy. What are you doing with that broom?’  To which the cleaner replies: ‘I'm helping to get a man on the moon, Mr. President’.

Corny, I know. It always makes me a bit nauseous when I hear the anecdote in yet another keynote presentation. It is a variant of a religion class I was served with at the age of 12: ‘A passer-by sees three masons and asks what they are doing. The first says: 'I am stacking some stones'. The second states: 'I am laying bricks for a wall'. The third says, ‘I am building a cathedral.’ Sigh. Yes, that is purpose.

Don’t get me wrong. Purpose is about giving meaning to your organisation and your job. And that is extremely important. Why do we do what we do? Would anyone care if we as a company no longer exist tomorrow? Where do we make a difference in this world and how does each employee of this company contribute?

Ishrak

The first initiatives around purpose were authentically lived, sincere and embedded in the DNA of the organisation. I recently spoke with Omar Ishrak, an alumnus of King's College London and currently the CEO of Medtronic, one of the world's largest Medtech companies. In 1949, the founder of Medtronic expressed his purpose in a crystal-clear manner: ‘Alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life.’

Nothing has changed that higher goal in the past 70 years. Every employee of Medtronic has the same concern to make this purpose come alive. It is more than a slogan or a poster on the wall. It is the DNA of the company. No meeting goes by without patients being present to testify about the role of Medtronic technology in their lives. Family members of deceased patients testify about where technology is failing or are being involved in product development.

Omar Ishrak connects purpose to his own life story. He lost his mother in his home country of Bangladesh to kidney failure, because they had no access to a kidney dialysis machine in hospital. He strives for another, affordable healthcare system to make medical technology accessible to everyone in the world. Authentically lived, sincere and consequent.

Illuminated CEOs

But when you look around these days, you see that the purpose trend is unfortunately already perverted into a management trick, a hype. It is the CEO's newest toy. Illuminated CEOs suddenly feel that their organisation must also have a 'purpose'. They philosophise together in visionary think tanks and roam about the keynote circuit to talk about their high-minded social ideals.

Sounds nice, until you talk to a number of employees on the shop floor, where little of those ideals can be found. ‘Making a profit, that's what we are expected to do here’, is what you hear. Employees do not feel involved in a purpose that is imposed on them. Not everyone gets the same meaning from work.

With the help of communication agencies, campaigns are rolled out to desperately encourage employees to testify about their own purpose. No more bets please. We are back to where we started. Sometimes I wish we could go back to companies being without fuss. Ronseal’s ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’. Simple and clear. It must be my Flemish roots.

Anyway, I promised you in my last article that I would tell you how encouraging engagement can be done differently and now it turns out that being purposeful is not completely kosher either. But what then? Cliffhangers and clickbait, you must be used to it by now!

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