Purpose for the Long Term

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains how putting purpose first can help leaders avoid the pitfalls of binary thinking during the pandemic.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

The world has irrevocably changed. How, we aren’t quite sure.

What does the post-coronavirus world look like? Where will we be in six months, a year, or five years from now?

While economists and epidemiologists have given us some great models—maps, graphs and probability equations to help us better understand Covid-19 and the growing financial crisis—many leaders are still trying to determine what good decision-making looks like in this prolonged state of uncertainty.

Who stays? Who goes? How can we pivot?

Underneath these questions are two others: What can we afford? And what matters most? That last question, what matters, points to our sense of purpose.

In a recent article in MIT Sloan’s Management Review, Thomas H. Davenport, co-founder of the International Institute for Analytics, named a handful of decision biases coming into play as we navigate COVID-19. Among them is the ‘Framing Effect.’ He points out that tackling the virus is increasingly framed as “save the economy or lock everything down.” But he warns us about the pitfalls of such binary thinking, how an either/or mentality masks our seeing other alternatives.

While many CEOs feel forced into defensive moves to protect their businesses in the short run, consider the long term. After the dust settles, the world will be taking stock: Which organizations made decisions that aligned with their values, purpose, and identity? Who was able to go beyond the either/or thinking, and see new purpose-driven possibilities?

“There will be people who see the connections between the coronavirus and opportunities to contribute to society and provide business value simultaneously,” says Jane Stevenson, global leader for Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice. Such leaders, she observes, are those most fit for the job of CEO.

Consider Framebridge, a company that, pre-Coronavirus, made picture framing faster and more affordable. In the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis, this small DC-based startup struggled like other companies, scaling back manufacturing and closing its brick-and-mortar stores. They were in shock, their CEO told Washingtonian magazine, focused on the horrendous business impact and thinking about how to get loans.

Then, one employee had an idea: Framebridge’s operation involved industrial-strength cutting of acrylic – and they could just as well be making face shields. After transforming their manufacturing facility in Lexington, KY, Framebridge is now producing thousands of face shields for essential workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis and selling them at cost. While they might not be making a profit, people have remained employed and their CEO says the effort has renewed her team’s sense of purpose: “This has just brought the light back to us.”

Research from the Korn Ferry Institute shows a strong correlation between an employees’ sense of purpose and the depth of their engagement. Likewise, a study from PWC found that 73% of employees who say they work at a “purpose-driven” company are engaged, compared to just 23% of those who don’t.

Similarly, ‘inspire engagement’ was recently cited in a report from Harvard Business Review as one of nine critical capabilities that will determine a leader's success in the years to come. Leaders who know how to inspire engagement have a few things in common: they articulate a clear, overarching purpose for their organizations and teams; they make it clear how the company contributes to the social good and addresses pressing issues of the time; they show employees how their work contributes to a larger mission; and they empower people to solve problems, make suggestions and implement their own ideas. 

Back to those critical questions: What matters most? And what can we afford?

Purpose can go a long way in determining the answers.