Finding the lost link: company and individual purpose

On paper, nearly every organisation has a stated purpose, spelled out in a mission or CSR statement. In this video and opinion piece, Graeme Bignell, Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry, argues that to become truly purpose-driven, organisations need to go a step further and align organisation and individual purposes in the way they structure roles, recruit and reward their talent.

Time to watch: 3 minutes

Reading time: 4 minutes

We now know that the pursuit of purpose ­isn’t ancillary to organisational success, it’s essential. It’s a significant shift away Milton Freidman’s now notorious suggestion that an organisation’s only social responsibility is to increase its profits. Now it’s commonly accepted that the meaning of ‘organisational purpose’ expands well beyond financial outcomes to include the organisation’s obligations to its people, the wider society it operates in and the environment it effects.

But knowing this isn’t the same as activating that purpose. Often, something goes missing in the space between expression and execution.

The purpose puzzle

A lot of thought goes into crafting an organisational purpose. So much so, that organisations often expect their purpose to do all the work for them in engaging, attracting and retaining the right people. But this is where organisations can lose their way. Purpose isn’t a one-way conversation; how an individual receives and acts on the organisational purpose will not only depend on whether they can personally connect to it, but also how the organisation enables that individual to pursue their own purpose.

It took a moment of personal reflection for me to realise this disconnect. It came while I was speaking to a partner at a Big 4 firm earlier this year. An important part of her work is helping organisations define their purpose and, in this context, she asked me what my purpose was.

What’s striking is that I thought of the purposes of companies I admire and respect and realised that even the most laudable purpose would not win my loyalty if the company did not enable me to achieve my personal purpose (as I replied to my friend, my purpose is to support the people I love, across all possible definitions of support, including economically, emotionally and physically).

The reality is that companies cannot talk about the organisation’s purpose without considering the individual purposes of their people and finding points where organisational and individual purposes intersect.

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Personalisation is key to making the connection

It’s the things we do with our lives that help us fulfil our purpose. Research has found that people who engage in certain activities are more likely to achieve a meaningful sense of purpose. For example, contacting friends frequently, belonging to social groups, engaging in volunteering, and having healthy habits relating to sleep, diet, and exercise have all been causally linked to finding meaning and purpose.

But there isn’t one set of circumstances that can guarantee one’s life mission has been accomplished, not even for a single individual. Our purpose changes depending on the life stage we’re in. A single 20-something will define purpose differently from a 50-year-old with a spouse and three kids. Personal purpose is unique to the individual, it’s multilayered and complex.

Conversely, organisational purpose, at least in its simplest form, is much easier to articulate. As John Baldoni explains in his book, Lead with Purpose, purpose is the organisation’s reason for being, it’s a singular construct that communicates a collective vision.

The challenge is to connect the personal with the collective.

Often we see this disconnect play out when businesses publicly commit to a purpose- and values-led approach to business (think of corporate social responsibility policies for instance) and assume that it will be enough to attract the right people. I increasingly believe it isn’t. Organisations must be willing to reach beyond their purpose to consider the individuals who work to enact it.

A strong connection between individual and personal purpose is only possible through taking a personal approach. This requires a shift from seeing employees as an amorphous group – a mass market – to recognising that each employee has individual needs – a market of one.

Organisations making this shift are asking:

  • Can we personalise how a person’s role is structured to align to the individual's purpose?
  • Are our recruitment practices targeted to attract talent whose intrinsic motivations we can support?
  • Do we have the ability to address the market of one?
This is how organisations shift from a one-way conversation to a dialogue. It’s about knowing, to paraphrase JFK, not just what the individual can do for the organisation but what the organisation can do to assist the individual in realising their deepest aspirations. For one person, it might mean a job share arrangement that will permit them to care for a family member. For others, taking a sabbatical or going on an overseas assignment will be the differentiators. When you bring an individual’s purpose into the equation you need to consider the whole person and how they will interact with all aspects of the organisation, including structure, recruitment, rewards and employee development. All of these aspects must align to bring the two purposes together.

By enabling individuals to pursue their own purpose alongside the organisation’s purpose, companies attract people who are far more engaged. If individual purpose is aligned and supported by an organisation, then individuals are more likely to authentically bring their whole selves to work. They’ll go above and beyond what’s expected because they’re primarily driven by internal, not external, motivation. If we can do that, we’ll have happier, more effective employees, better commercial outcomes, less turnover, less cost and highly engaged individuals.

Going beyond organisational purpose is an important change, one that I believe will have a big impact on how organisations attract, develop and reward people.

What can companies do to better align organisation and individual purposes? Korn Ferry identified four key conditions that are the foundation of a thriving purpose-driven organisation. the paper to learn more.