By Joe Kay
This month’s Thoughts from the Field (May 2023) is written by my colleague Joe Kay (Berkshire, United Kingdom).
Last year I watched a division lead in a global business deliver a celebratory speech to his top hundred managers. Let’s call him Jim. “In conclusion,” he said proudly, “we have outperformed all expectations, and everyone will be getting enhanced bonuses.”
There were a lot of very pleased people in the audience, but one solitary hand went up. “I know we’ve done well, but why are we doing all of this?”
Jim doubled down about progress and growth in his answer, then handed the podium over to the CFO for more detail on how they had done.
In our debrief I had to tell him straight. “Jim, you missed an opportunity to talk about your purpose there.”
“Purpose? That’s always the one I struggle with. I still don’t really get it.”
Let me be clear that Jim is a great leader. He has built a fantastic team that has created an amazing culture. He has grown his part of the business to revenues of multiples of billions, and the thousands of people who work for him love him.
But Jim doesn’t care about the purpose statement of his organization, and he doesn’t talk about it.
He’s not alone. Many leaders we work with struggle to talk about some aspect of their clarity.
A few years ago, as we helped leadership teams crystalize clarity in their offsites, we started being more deliberate about noticing individual reactions during the different sessions. Often, people not engaged in one discussion would come alive when debating a different aspect of their clarity.
It had to be something about people’s motivation.
While motivation is a huge and multi-faceted topic, we now believe that people are motivated differently at work, relating directly to the first three of our Six Critical Questions:
1. Why do we exist? Purpose-motivated people who need to know that their work is doing some good in the world.
2. How do we behave? People motivated by building or being part of a healthy team and organizational culture.
3. What do we do? People motivated by the intellectual challenge of complexity, solving problems, and making progress at work.
Testing this theory over the last few years, we asked all the teams we worked with about which aspect of clarity they found most motivating. The answers were always useful for the team and often surprised us.
For example, consider the biotech business whose purpose is to cure cancer but whose leaders mainly care about the intellectual challenge this presents. Out of all the scientists and doctors on the team, the only person who ranks the purpose of curing cancer as their number one motivation is the CFO!
Overall, roughly a third of executives say their motivation comes from an equal combination of all three aspects of clarity, but when a person is motivated by only one or two of the clarity questions, they are often quite vocal about it.
After a few of our tech clients added the motivation questions to their employee surveys, we learned as the sample size increased, the primary motivations at work started to even out.
While their surveys and our experience of this topic is not an exact science, the main takeaway from this article is the following: When speaking to a large number of people, you should intentionally tell stories that cover all three aspects of your clarity motivations.
On the other hand, when you are speaking to individuals or small groups, ask them which aspects of your clarity motivate them most and tailor your stories accordingly.
While telling stories about culture or behaviors, intellectual achievement, or overcoming technical challenges is relatively straightforward, Jim is not alone as a leader. Many leaders are not primarily motivated by their organization’s purpose and struggle to talk about it.
What we have found helpful when this is true, is to reassure those executives that they will be leading many people who in fact are motivated by purpose. So, focus on being an inspirational leader to them.
The concept that they don’t have to find the organization’s purpose the most motivating aspect of clarity has felt freeing for many. They just need to tell a story about it, remembering that it’s about the audience’s motivation, not the speaker’s motivation.
To help, here’s a simple three-step framework to communicate purpose more effectively as a leader:
1. State the actual answer to Question 1: Why does the organization exist?
2. Explain why that answer is important to you.
3. Tell a story about a specific group of people or a person who was helped by the work you do.
Let me show you how this works using our purpose at Table Group Consulting. I would say:
Our purpose is to Change the World of Work.
This is important to me because it aligns very closely with my personal purpose, which I developed during my first tour of Afghanistan. There, I concluded that if humanity could see itself as a team, working towards collective success, then there would be fewer wars. Since I left the army, all my work has been about scaling up teamwork.
As Table Group Principal Consultants, we work with executive teams that collectively lead or influence millions of people. When a leader we work with has a lightbulb moment and changes the way they operate, it has an outsize impact.
A nice example of this is the work we did with Currencycloud that contributed to its acquisition by Visa for $1B just over two years into its Organizational Health journey.
Organizational Health can have a rapid impact on a scale-up business. Even in the first year, the executive team was visibly healthier and the Employee Net Promoter Score for the company rose from +19 to +60.
The following year, we helped Currencycloud’s Go-To-Market teams reorganize into cross-functional Pods, each embracing Organizational Health. Getting the Pods, managers, and executive team cohesive and as clear as possible led to a much healthier business, one that ultimately Visa wanted to acquire.
Today, the people who continue to work within Visa are influencing that culture positively, and those who left are building the next generation of healthy businesses.
When I caught up with the Currencycloud co-founder recently, it felt great to hear about the positive impact of our work on his people’s lives. It reminded me that our success is not only measured in dollars but also in the number of lives improved.
Our work gives me a real sense of purpose, and I hope it does for all of you who are part of the Organizational Health movement.
Becoming an effective communicator is an essential skill for a leader. Hopefully, this article has given you some food for thought. Here are the important takeaways again.
· When you’re speaking to a big group of people, assume there will be a mixture of motivations in the audience and tell stories that cover all three aspects of clarity … purpose, values, and how you’ve overcome challenges to succeed together.
· Understanding how specific groups of people are motivated is useful because you can tailor your message to the audience. When you can, ask your audience what motivates them ahead of time, either in person or in surveys.
· Tactically, if you have struggled to talk about purpose in the past, use the framework above to adapt your speeches. It will be hugely motivating for at least some in the audience, even if you have never personally needed the clarification or reminder of purpose.
· Finally, a successful business needs each of the three work motivations to be understood, reinforced, and honored in the culture. It is, therefore, our responsibility as leaders to communicate all aspects of our clarity effectively, regardless of how we are motivated.