Charlotte Rainer: They’ve called Shared Purpose the ‘Golden Thread’ of the organisation and there is something golden about a really good shared purpose. It’s about the organisation being able to articulate its purpose almost like what is the destination on the front of the bus?
Claire McCartney: An organisation’s purpose is its identity, the reason why it exists and very much needs to be aligned to its strategy so I’d say that a shared sense of purpose is going one step further so it’s something that is shared by all employees in the organisations but actually it’s one step beyond that as well so it’s shared externally with external stakeholders such as suppliers, partners, customers and even the public in general.
Philippa Lamb: That was Charlotte Rainer Professor of HR Management at Portsmouth Business School and the CIPD’s own Claire McCartney and that's what we’re discussing this time, how we define a shared sense of purpose and what that translates into for the organisation and its employees. Our own research shows that while over three quarters of employees say they understand the purpose of their organisation less than a third believe that the purpose is shared throughout the whole outfit. Now what that tells us is that it’s definitely worth looking at what a shared sense of purpose actually involves and how to go about achieving it. Before we do that though what is the point of shared purpose? Here’s Charlotte Rainer and Claire McCartney again.
CM: At the CIPD we’ve done lots of research on this through our Shaping the Future research programme and also a quantitative study of 2000 employees and the benefits that have come through from that research is higher levels of engagement from employees, discretionary effort and in some cases that very much transforms and translates into better organisational performance.
CR: One can use it as a motivator, one can use it as a way of finding almost this threat that people can align around and be able to go in a very coherent, clear direction.
CM: Although a lot of employees have an understanding around the purpose of their organisations actually the number who say that there is that strong, shared sense of purpose, is much fewer. It’s around a quarter. So actually what we think this is a big opportunity really for organisations, for HR professionals, for leaders to think about how to engender that, that sense of purpose with its clear links to engagements.
PL: Even organisations that haven’t really thought hard about shared purpose will know all about employee engagement so how do the two fit together? Here’s Charlotte Rainer.
CR: I think there are a variety of reasons why people go to work and for most of us we do want our work to have some purpose, have some direction but we all create that in our own minds and partly that's our own circumstances. So, for example, it might be about family constraints, it might be about needing to earn a lot of money to be able to support other people. It might be about time, it might be about flexibility, it might be about status etc. etc. Purpose can be one element that the organisation can give to employees to get them engaged.
PL: Yes well that brings me to my next question really because I can really see how it’s a more straightforward proposition for employees to buy into the idea of disseminating knowledge, for example, at university or working for a non-profit.
PL: Or doing all those things that are about improving the experience of life of people or bits of the world, most people working for corporate entities it’s all about making more money isn’t it? Is that a harder sell to get people to buy into that sense of shared purpose?
CR: Yes it is a hard…it can be a harder sell or I think it’s the organisation thinking about what it wants its purpose to be so that if, for example, it is a profit maximiser and it wants to get people working for it that are entirely geared to making money actually that's fine because everybody’s sharing the idea that we make as much money as possible and probably if you’re getting on board those types of people in fact you’re going to need to give them a bit of a slice of it. So that would be reflected very much in the reward package that you would give to your employees.
Now suppose we’re looking at, I don't know, a cut price Biro that might be sitting on the table well here if the purpose is to deliver economic goods to one’s customers then that can be a real purpose that people can align themselves around. So, for example, you get the purchasers out there sourcing their Biros from really great places. You get a sense of relationship with your customers so that the customers buy and rebuy and they trust you and they extend from buying Biros to paperclips to everything. Now if that's your organisation. You can hear my enthusiasm sort of gradually building for that can’t you. I can craft a purpose out of that and a purpose that's meaningful and a purpose that people if they want to can become aligned around.
PL: But how do you set about developing this sense of shared purpose?
CM: Well I think there are a few different factors which will help you to develop this shared sense of purpose. I think language is really important, so how you define your purpose; how inspiring it is; the sort of language and the storytelling used by leaders and I think it’s about bringing it to life for people. So one of our case studies from Shaping the Future Pfizer Grange Castle they have testimonials on posters up around the campus really putting people in touch with the patients of the drugs that they’re producing, so really bringing that to life for people and I think another way of enhancing shared purpose is making sure that employees have a say and a voice in the process so that they’re able to shape the purpose and feel part of it and know how it relates to their day to day role.
PL: HCL Technologies has gone to great lengths to foster shared purpose throughout the workforce. The IT outsourcing giant has 82,000 employees across 35 countries and it pulls in revenues of over $3bn a year. Senior Vice President and Global Head of Quality, Talent Transformation and Leadership Development, Anand Pillai heads up The Employees First, Customer Second initiative. Now it might sound counter intuitive but it’s all about embedding a shared sense of purpose which in turn empowers employees to deliver maximum value to their customers.
Anand Pilai: Yeah, first of all Employee First, Customer Second is not a HR initiative it’s a business initiative. It’s a business initiative driven towards three Es that are critical for any organisation and those three Es are engaging the employee; empowering the employee and enabling the employee because if we, as an organisation, focus on employee engagement, employee empowerment and employee enablement they focus on customer delight, customer loyalty and customer satisfaction.
PL: So this all feeds into shared purpose within the organisation?
PL: How does it work on the ground?
AP: On the ground when you look at the basic ground reality typically in any organisation to assist the organisation’s health or do a health assessment they do one of two surveys either an employee engagement survey or an employee satisfaction survey. The disadvantage with these two surveys is they measure the opposite of what it is intended to measure. An employee engagement survey will only measure employee disengagement, an employee satisfaction survey will measure the number of people who are dissatisfied. What we did was rather than these two surveys we rolled out an employee passion survey. Now the employee passion survey is basically a set of questions, after they answer those questions they get their top five passion drivers as a report, they also get a description of what these passion drivers are and how they can use it to leverage in their current job environment. Each person has got his or her own passion drivers. So all that we are doing is we are measuring the individual’s passion drivers and allowing them to create opportunities to leverage that passion.
PL: So if I'm understanding you correctly what you’re saying is you recruit excellent people who bring passion to the job whatever their task is within HCLT. So are you then interested in this idea of understanding their aspirations, their motivations, or is that something which you feel is for them?
AP: No we are interested in understanding their passion drivers, we are interested in understanding what drives them so that we can let them do what they feel best or they feel naturally inclined to. It’s basically based on a Chinese proverb which says find the job that you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life. So all that we, as managers, need to do is providing them the work environment that will be best suited for their passion drivers.
PL: And that creates a sense of shared purpose throughout the organisation?
AP: Absolutely, absolutely because what happens is I find for me to work on my passion driver or my passion I will have to depend or collaborate with somebody else for me to get the best out of me and therefore I create my own community, my own tribe, if I might use the word, and then I use that tribe energy to accomplish what I'm required to accomplish or what we as a group are required to accomplish.
PL: In any organisation there are challenges involved in identifying and firmly routing shared purpose. One of the biggest is making the initiative authentic. Just as in good leadership shared purpose has to be genuine and convincing.
CR: That is the real problem really. That's the underlying problem within shared purpose because if an organisation puts its head above the parapet and says, “Okay this is our purpose.” Well I would say, “Jolly good for you.” The challenge then is to live up to that because not only are your external customers looking at you then to see whether you measure up to that purpose but very much every single employee is looking and even the employees who are not particularly engaged and don’t particularly share the purpose they’re still looking at the whole of management to actually make sure that they are living up to that purpose. So a real shared purpose, I would suggest, does need to be shared by your whole management structure. As you get down towards the lower end of the hierarchy people will choose and dive in or not but I think managers, because they are the conduits of the purpose, they have to buy into it to some extent.
PL: Clearly transparency has a big role to play here but how far should you go? Many organisations would shudder at the thought of posting 360 degree feedback on managers on their company intranet but at HCL Technologies they do just that.
AP: Invariably in any organisation you find that many of the people on the ground they are limited in their capacity, limited in their power because they don’t have the permission to do what they are required to do. Somebody at the top has implemented a policy which requires approvals. In our organisation the employees are empowered to do what they have to do and they can later on inform the management. In addition they also have an opportunity to give a reverse feedback to the management. So the 360 degree feedback that we have employees give feedback and the uniqueness of this particular 360 degree feedback is it is open, meaning the results of the 360 degree feedback are posted on the intranet. That brings in a level of transparency, that brings in a level of accountability so that the people down on the ground level they say, “Wait a minute it’s not only my boss who is supervising me we are also having an eye on them,” and that enables them to take things around.
PL: What feeling does that engender in your workforce? Is it about building trust?
AP: Definitely trust through transparency is one of our core tenets. Say for example when we put our 360 degree feedback off all the managers on the intranet in the beginning we said, “Oh that's a scary proposition,” you know it’s very, very intimidating, we’re very naked, it’s like asking us to take our fig leaf away but as we did it, once we put it, people started respecting those managers who posted their 360 degree feedback, as raw and as naked as it was, people started accepting one another, in fact in addition people started giving peer mentoring. My colleagues they came and said, “Oh I see that you are having a challenge in this area. I also had this challenge last year let me tell you what I did. On the other hand I see that you are very good in this particular area. What are your best practices? How can we learn from you?” So this sense of shared purpose and shared communities enables people to bond with one another, enables people to identify with one another and also belong to one another.
PL: As with any organisational culture change fostering shared purpose takes smart, creative thinking and serious consideration about the shape, size and type of the organisation. Leaders, managers and HR need to help employees understand and relate to it before they can put it into practice and when the organisation spans borders and cultures that's a bigger and tougher job.
CM: I think a lot of our international research shows that you do need to have some consistencies globally, so I would have said the purpose is something really very important across different markets but actually how you develop that on a local basis is really important in taking into account some of the local cultural values. So some work that we’ve been doing around next generation HR in Asia shows very much that community and purpose are even more important within the Asian organisations that we are talking to because of this sense of pride in the nation, in increasing self-expression, a lot of the organisations we spoke to are really trying to tap into that to attract people.
PL: Right now the labour market across Asia, particularly in Japan and China is fiercely competitive and it’s a constant struggle to recruit and retain talent. In conditions like that a strong sense of shared purpose can really give you the edge. Ian Mintram is HR Vice President Europe Consumer at GlaxoSmithKline.
Ian Mintram: We’ve had a number of challenges in terms of recruiting and retaining people in China. On the demand side we’ve been recruiting a lot of people in China so we’ve pretty much doubled our workforce in China over the last three years and at the same time turnover rates tend to be very high, so typically 20% plus. So you’re actually talking about having to recruit a lot of people. In addition a lot of other companies are doing the same thing so there's something of a war for talent out there, to coin that famous cliché.
I think one of the advantages that GSK has in terms of retention and attraction is that we can tap into a deeper sense of purpose amongst people. What do I mean by that? Well in days gone past GSK was generally focused on the top end of the wealth pyramid, we’d be selling products to the very wealthy people in places like China or Asia more generally but we’ve changed our strategy to a strategy where we’re going down the wealth pyramid, we’re providing medicines to many more people, we’re changing our pricing policies such that more people have access to our medicines and whilst we don’t make an enormous thing of this because I think that would be disingenuous it’s undoubtedly the case that more people are coming to us because they’ve read about the strategy, it’s quite widely reported upon and that they want to work for a company that does more than just make money but does contribute to wider society.
We do have a great opportunity to do good while we’re doing well as an organisation and I think increasingly people are attracted to that when they join an organisation because people are, in China and in other Asian countries, increasingly concerned not only about short term financial gains but some sense of meaning and purpose in their working career.
PL: Optimists might believe that anyone and everyone can be motivated by a sense of shared purpose but is that true? Along with global and cultural considerations there's the question of age and the different factors that motivate Generation Y compared to their older colleagues. So if you have wide age demographic can you find the purpose that everyone will engage with? I put that to Charlotte Rainer. I think in terms of what motivates people as you say why they choose particular jobs, why they do them at particular times in their lives I'm assuming this is an evolutionary process people feel differently at different stages in their lives, they are motivated to aspire to certain sorts of work at different stages so how is that process managed?
CR: Well that's an utterly wonderful question ((laughs)) if I knew the answer I’d be extremely wealthy.
PL: That's the tricky thing isn’t it because we change over time don’t we?
CR: We do change over time and I think that it’s an interactive process. One has an early career rise for those ambitious people, many of us though are not ambitious and indeed are satisfied and perhaps those are the people who do enough and work has a place for them in their lives but indeed they’re doing other things as well. So work curiously has a different function for them.
PL: So what does that mean for organisations trying to engender shared purpose across their workforce? Do they have to approach that differently for younger people?
CR: I'm not sure they do because I think there are some aspects of purpose that are timeless and ageless and that's where I guess the third sector does rather well, servicing one’s customers does very well. For most people actually doing a good job for a customer and getting that positive feedback, whoever that customer is, is a positive experience and if one is looking then at also values so that if one has almost the pu--if you can combine purpose with values, most people want to be treated decently at work and most people will want to have a certain set of minimum values that they have at work, whether they work in private sector, public sector, third sector, wherever they are.
PL: Anand Pillai says that if you truly understand demographics it is possible to created shared purpose.
AP: What motivates the Gen Y is completely different than what motivates the Gen X, the baby boomers or the millionaires. We found out that the Gen Y their motivation, their creativity, their ability to network and their need to collaborate is far higher than the other generations. And one of the other things that we also noticed is that it is wrong for us to brand or categorise people based on their age group because there are other factors that are bringing in diversity. I’ll give you a simple example. The Gen Y workforce in India is motivated differently from the Gen Y workforce in Europe.
PL: In what way?
AP: Well for example the Gen Y workforce in India they look for diversity, meaning they don’t want to stay in the same job for more than 18 months whereas if you see the same set of workforce in a section of Europe we find that they want to get into depth, they want to get into specialisation. We did an interesting survey in the UK itself, the Northern Ireland part of the UK is completely different from the rest of the UK because they wanted to work on certain areas of specialisation which are new technologies, which are emerging technologies, whereas the rest of the UK they wanted to work on something that is more established, that is more proven. So we cannot come into this discussion saying that Gen Y world over is motivated in a particular way. We have to get into granularity, Gen Y of a particular region, Gen Y of a particular department.
PL: And the CIPD research backs him up. Claire McCartney again.
CM: I think it’s important actually to allow people to make sense of the organisation purpose themselves so we found through our research that different people might have different definitions but overall the purpose means broadly the same thing to them. Quite often, you know, employees might have more simplified versions of the purpose than senior managers but actually that doesn’t matter because they are working towards a common aim, so the important thing is allowing employees the freedom to think about what the purpose means and giving them the freedom to do that and then think about what they can do perhaps differently in their day roles to put that into practice.
PL: Maintaining a sense of shared purpose isn’t a one off effort it takes constant work and it’s an even bigger challenge if you have high staff turnover.
CR: It’s quite difficult to keep a shared sense of purpose, especially in the private sector, if you have a very high employee turnover just because there aren’t enough people to almost be the glue that other people can hang around and you can really weave this golden thread into a fantastic rope that people can hang on to and especially in times of change as well you can use your purpose to help people through change a lot.
PL: So instead of being a self-contained change process a sense of shared purpose can actually facilitate broader change by binding everyone together during turbulent times but does it have a valuable role to play in every organisation? I put that to Anand Pillai. Is this an approach that you can see working for companies, large, small, public sector, private sector, non-profits, throughout the world, this way of engendering shared purpose?
AP: Absolutely. When we started it we were only 18,000 employees, today we are 82,000 employees. When we started it we were working in 18 countries now, as I'm talking to you, we’re working in 35 countries. When we started it we had three core practices, today we have got eight core practices. So we have scaled up as an organisation and we are seeing these processes scale up.
PL: And do you think this drive for shared purpose is really key to that performance?
PL: So not an optional add on, more a golden thread aligned with your strategy and a key factor in boosting performance.
Next time we’ll be discussing organisational agility through good times and bad. Join me then.