Leading Blog


Connecting Your Employees to a Higher Purpose

Steve Curtin

IN 2016, I had an experience while working with a sophisticated, billion-dollar technology company that, for me, was a seminal moment. I was invited to speak to a group of senior managers at the company’s annual leadership summit on the topic of connecting to purpose at work. My client and I devised a quick activity to determine how many of the 222 leaders in attendance could recall the company’s single-sentence corporate mission statement.

Prior to my presentation, we distributed index cards to all participants. We asked them to record the one-sentence mission statement on the card from memory, without the aid of a smartphone or the colleagues seated next to them..

Guess what we discovered? Only 4 of the 222 leaders in attendance (less than 2%) could accurately recall the company’s pithy guiding statement. Thirty-four participants (15%) left their cards blank or answered with a question mark. One senior manager thought it was a trick question and wrote, “As far as I know, we don’t have a corporate mission statement right now.”

This experience reinforced an observation that has directed my work’s focus ever since: Although organizations consistently develop corporate mission, vision, and purpose statements, leadership is inconsistently able to recall them. As a result, leaders are unable to reveal these corporate ideals to employees, connect them to employees’ daily work activities, and leverage them to inspire greater employee engagement.

Start with Your Organization’s Purpose and Core Values

It’s not possible to be purpose-driven if a company’s purpose hasn’t been articulated and communicated at all levels of the organization. So, the first order of business is to articulate organizational purpose followed by a set of core values..

A purpose statement, in its simplest form, expresses why the organization exists—beyond simply making a profit. It may also illustrate how your product or service positively impacts stakeholders.

For example, United Airlines’ purpose is “Connecting people. Uniting the world.”

This purpose applies universally across all job roles. Whether a pilot who connects passengers between points of origin and their destinations, a mechanic who keeps planes in service, or a reservations agent who facilitates complicated itineraries, all reflect the airline’s raison d'être, its reason for being—connecting people and, in doing so, uniting the world.

With a purpose statement in place, you can turn your attention to the core values that guide employees’ actions and behaviors.

A word of caution: Too many companies develop imitative lists of core values that are indistinguishable from those of their competitors. Most Fortune 100 companies, for example, claim integrity as a core value, and nearly half tout customer satisfaction and teamwork. While these are inarguably noble values, they don’t distinguish one company from another. Be certain that the core values you adopt reflect your organization’s unique character, culture, and purpose.

Once you have a set of solid core values, you should add context to them by expanding them into value statements. These are pithy descriptions of how your organization interprets its values. Each value statement is further described by behaviors that demonstrate the value in action in employees’ real world of work. Here’s an example:

  • Core value: Keep promises.
  • Value statement: We believe that making a promise is a commitment to keep our word. Each time you successfully honor a commitment, it reflects your integrity, trustworthiness, and priorities.
  • Behaviors: This happens when we honor our word, are dependable, and make responsiveness a priority.

It would be difficult for an employee or vendor partner to repeatedly miss deadlines in an organization that has codified behavioral expectations related to honoring commitments.

Completing this activity will immediately separate your organization from the vast majority that merely post their values on their websites and enshrine them behind framed panes of glass in executive corridors. It will also convey to employees and other stakeholders that you’ve thought about how your organization uniquely interprets and applies its values.

Bring Purpose and Core Values to Life

Whether your organization has a long-established purpose and set of core values or these standards have recently been put into words, the next step is to consider how to transfer these ideals from corporate headquarters’ ivory tower of theory and abstraction to employees’ real world of work.

Think back to the senior managers who attended my client’s annual leadership summit: less than 2% could recall the company’s one-sentence mission statement. This figure was so low because company leaders were disconnected from the organization’s purpose. It was too far removed from the reality of their workdays. And if they were distanced from it, then you can bet frontline employees were equally aloof.

The mistake this company made was assuming that crafting a mission statement and set of core values, inserting them in the employee handbook, and posting them on the corporate website meant they were done. Not true. It’s a bit like buying a Peloton exercise bike and a keto diet cookbook, displaying them conspicuously in your home, and not using them. Nothing will change unless you act.

Link Corporate Ideals to Employees’ Daily Responsibilities

Supervisors, managers, and leaders must build a bridge between an organization’s purpose and values and the actual work assignments employees are paid to perform. This is accomplished by incorporating purposeful actions and behaviors into daily work activities. Here are some examples:

  1. A full-service restaurant that has articulated a purpose to surprise and delight every guest could incorporate the action of including a complimentary amuse-bouche into the process of table service. This gesture links the organizational purpose (to surprise and delight every guest) to the server’s job responsibilities (table service).
  2. A hotel that has articulated a purpose to care for people so they can be at their best could incorporate disabling early-morning alarms set by previous guests into the process of cleaning a room. This step links the organizational purpose (to care for people so they can be at their best) to the housekeeper’s job responsibilities (cleaning a room).
  3. A supermarket that has articulated a purpose to provide everything fresh could incorporate rotating perishables, such as dairy, meat, produce, and bakery items, to reduce the chance that a customer might purchase expired products. This measure links the organizational purpose (to provide everything fresh) to the store employee’s job responsibilities (stocking perishables).
  4. A coffee shop that has articulated a purpose to make a connection with every customer could encourage its baristas to share unique knowledge with customers. Baristas might say, “Did you know that macchiato is an Italian word meaning marked or stained? Your espresso is marked with a teaspoon of milk.” This behavior links the organizational purpose (to make a connection with every customer) to the barista’s job responsibilities (serving coffee beverages).

It’s not enough to articulate your organization’s purpose and core values. You must bring these guiding principles to life by revealing them to employees, clarifying their meaning, and labeling behaviors that support these ideals. Next, incorporate specific actions and recommended behaviors into the processes that govern employees’ daily work. You’ll yield greater employee engagement, higher customer satisfaction scores, and employees at all levels of the organization who are genuinely connected to a purpose.

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Leading Forum
Steve Curtin is a globally known expert and speaker on customer service management and leadership, ranked fourth by Global Guru in its annual listing of the top 30 customer service experts in the world. He’s the author of the bestselling book Delight Your Customers and The Revelation Conversation: Inspire Greater Employee Engagement by Connecting to Purpose. Learn more at stevecurtin.com.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:34 AM
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