For a Robust Culture, Connect to Purpose

In the movie, Hidden Figures, we are treated to historical footage of President John F. Kennedy speaking about NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon.  How giddy and exciting must it have been to hear him utter those words?  In those days, the threat of nuclear holocaust was all too real.  It was present in everyone’s lives.  The Space Race directly addressed the threat posed by the USSR, pitting US technology and resources against theirs in an existential struggle.  To go to the moon was at once an expression of confidence in a potentially peaceful future, the capability of the team at NASA and the American spirit.  People were riveted to their television sets throughout the decade as the mission unfolded.  President Kennedy galvanized an entire country behind a seemingly mind-boggling task: to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth.  The team at NASA easily understood and connected with the Mission, Vision and Values that President Kennedy espoused.  In the same way, leaders and organizations that succeed in connecting their people to a greater purpose can expect to reap the rewards of a robust culture along with healthy outcomes.

Leadership’s Role in Purpose

A few years ago, a group of people toured the manufacturing facility at the British medical manufacturing firm, Smith and Nephew.  They stopped to ask an older woman who was winding bandages on the shop floor what she did there every day.  Her reply was simple and profound – “We relieve suffering.”

Dr. Michael DeBakey was one of the greatest practitioners in the field of cardiovascular surgery.  One day at Methodist Hospital in Houston, he was observed talking to one of the janitors before moving on his way to complete rounds.  When the janitor was asked what they talked about, he replied that Dr. Debakey had asked him about his family and how he was doing his job at the hospital.  When he was asked what he did there, he said proudly, “Dr. DeBakey and I, we save lives together.”

What these people had in common was as much what they didn’t say as what they did.  When asked, neither of them described the tasks that they performed.  Instead, their leaders had succeeded in helping them connect the job designed for them to perform to the larger outcome of the enterprise.  Do you think that these two were engaged and had a “want to” approach to their jobs?  What is the likelihood that their leadership communicated with them frequently about the purpose of what they were doing?  When people can connect to the purpose leaders propose, they can see how what they do for the enterprise matters.  When this happens, engagement soars and the constructive culture gets strong reinforcement.

Leadership Tools for Connecting to Purpose

How many organizations have mission statements that people have difficulty remembering?  If people in an organization aren’t clear on what they are expected to accomplish, it’s difficult to create a lot of energy to be impeccable in their execution.  If your mission statement is too lengthy, develop a “bumper sticker” phrase that communicates what your organization does.  Leadership should be prepared to revise Mission or Vision statements to hone this connection to purpose.  One of my clients recently revised their vision statement because it became apparent that people were not making the connection between their work and the picture the organization had tried to create.  A subsequent effort to capture the “end state” involved everyone at the company; the result was an aggressive and aspirational vision statement which they use today.

The ways that leadership communicates purpose matters greatly.  What are the ways that you communicate what you want?  Is the majority of your organization’s official communication sent via email?  Dr. DeBakey was relentless in connecting with people personally throughout the hospital, talking to them about their job and how what they did that mattered in the greater scheme of things.  To the janitor, he repeatedly emphasized the need for the hospital to be spotlessly clean to reduce the possibility of infection.  No doubt the conversations he had with the kitchen staff focused on the need for the food to be flavorful and appealing so that people would want to eat it, thus nourishing themselves and speeding their recovery, and so on.

Leaders must be equally relentless in communicating clearly the purpose and must use many different types of communication repeatedly to ensure their intended message is received.  The following are some of the ways that leaders can use beyond standard transactional communication, recognizing that “receiving” is as important as “sending.”

  • All Hands Meetings – regular, consistent opportunities to communicate information and, wherever possible, field questions about ongoing operations and issues.  Be prepared for occasionally unsettling questions and always ensure that the overall theme connects to the purpose
  • MBWA – Management by Wandering Around – While this can be an effective tool, when first deployed, people can be very nervous and fearful that you are “watching over their shoulders” and micro-managing.  Until this becomes a regular event, the practice can face pitfalls.  When leaders observe people at work, they need to spend the extra time to communicate how the employees’ everyday activities connect to the larger purpose
  • Skip-level Meetings – These should be used to get a qualitative feel for what people are experiencing on a regular basis.  Done regularly, these can yield lots of information about employee views of purpose and their connection to it.  At the outset, the people being “skipped” may be concerned that you are prying into their world, keeping tabs on them.  The conversations should be wide-ranging and not necessarily limited to superior/subordinate conversations.  As in the items above, this forum presents an excellent opportunity to help those attending see the ties between their work and the overall purpose

What do all these suggestions have in common?  Leadership must be willing display that their people matter and what they do for the enterprise matters equally well.  When leaders show interest in the person, it is easier to help them discover the importance of their work.  This lets the individual contributor connect their personal purpose and energy to the larger purpose of the organization.

We hear repeatedly that people seek to become connected to something greater than themselves.  How can this matter? The client I mentioned earlier that made the effort to change its vision statement recently landed in Crain’s Chicago Business Top 100 Companies to Work For out of 14,000 entries.  Connecting your people’s work to a larger purpose can provide big dividends.


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