Great Leaders Represent a Purpose Beyond Profit

Employees are leaving their jobs in record numbers. There are many reasons.

Cynics, for example, will tell you that most departing employees just don’t want to work and gained that freedom from stimulus payments or extended benefits the government provided during the pandemic. Labor Department data, meanwhile, show that departures are significantly higher among low-wage industries, such as hospitality and retail, than among white-collar and “knowledge” workers. 

Both are undoubtedly true. But it’s also true, as I hear from many employers, that the pandemic and the hardships it created are driving more employees to seek a purpose for their work beyond wages for themselves and profits for their employers. 

That means organizations that want to reduce turnover and increase employee engagement should represent a greater purpose for the work they ask their employees to do. Put another way, leaders must communicate the “why” behind what the organization does and show how employees’ work connects to that purpose. An inspiring ‘why’ motivates employees because it gives meaning to their day-to-day efforts.

Bob Rosen is CEO of The Healthy Leader, a Brandon Hall Group Excellence Award-winning consultancy that helps organizations grow, adapt and thrive in the new era of work. He’s championed purpose-driven leadership for years. 

“People want to work for a higher, compelling reason,” Rosen said. “That can’t happen without purposeful leaders at all levels who champion and model the purpose and values of the organization.” 

For example, software engineers are not developing products; they are enabling people to work more effectively and efficiently so more time can be spent with family or pursuing other interests. Bank sales representatives aren’t just pushing financial products; they are helping customers build a better future. 

Employers know they must lead more effectively to provide a better environment for their employees, Brandon Hall Group’s Human Capital Management Outlook 2022 research shows.

In my interviews with employers over the past year, HR leaders say employees and candidates are motivated by organizations that:

  • Have leaders who feed innovation and embrace employees’ autonomy and passions
  • Are involved in community service and philanthropic efforts
  • Embrace and demonstrate the values of diversity, equity and inclusion

For purpose-driven leadership to be effective, employers must have not only a strong, well-defined mission and core values. They must also spread the word effectively across the enterprise. But you can only accomplish so much through formal communication campaigns. Leaders at all levels must be aligned with the organization’s mission and values and consistently represent them through day-to-day interactions.

“Leaders must be self-aware, values-driven people who are honest, ethical and trustworthy,” Rosen said. “They must be authentic, confident and positive in demeanor, civil and generous in their relationships and committed to something bigger than themselves. This is not rocket science. The problem today is we have trouble walking our talk on these issues.”

A big barrier to purpose-driven leadership, Brandon Hall Group research shows, is leaders feeling they do not have time to learn, reflect and connect in more meaningful ways with their employees. They often cite the pressure to complete daily tasks and drive business results. 

But communicating purpose and meaning to employees drives business results because employees have a deeper connection to their work. Employers must help leaders understand the organization’s purpose and represent it to their team members. 

Several recent Brandon Hall Group Excellence Award winners improved purpose-driven leadership by:

  • Formally revisiting their mission and values.
  • Renewing their commitment to them.
  • Encouraging and empowering leaders to share their own purpose and how the company enables them to pursue it. 

“Creating a ‘North Star’ will guide people’s behavior and hold the organization to its highest aspirations,” Rosen said. “Painting a compelling future and enlisting people’s commitment will awaken people’s passion and sense of meaning. Being a model and champion of the purpose will give the leader well-needed credibility.”

-Claude Werder, Senior VP and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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