From Purpose to Impact
Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook
May 2014 Harvard Business Review
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. —Mark Twain
Over the past five years, there’s been an explosion of interest in purpose-driven leadership. Academics argue persuasively that an executive’s most important role is to be a steward of the organization’s purpose. Business experts make the case that purpose is a key to exceptional performance, while psychologists describe it as the pathway to greater well-being.
Doctors have even found that people with purpose in their lives are less prone to disease. Purpose is increasingly being touted as the key to navigating the complex, volatile, ambiguous world we face today, where strategy is ever changing and few decisions are obviously right or wrong.
Despite this growing understanding, however, a big challenge remains. In our work training thousands of managers at organizations from GE to the Girl Scouts, and teaching an equal number of executives and students at Harvard Business School, we’ve found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement. They may be able to clearly articulate their organization’s mission: Think of Google’s “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” or Charles Schwab’s “A relentless ally for the individual investor.” But when asked to describe their own purpose, they typically fall back on something generic and nebulous: “Help others excel.” “Ensure success.” “Empower my people.” Just as problematic, hardly any of them have a clear plan for translating purpose into action. As a result, they limit their aspirations and often fail to achieve their most ambitious professional and personal goals.
Our purpose is to change that—to help executives find and define their leadership purpose and put it to use. Building on the seminal work of our colleague Bill George, our programs initially covered a wide range of topics related to authentic leadership, but in recent years purpose has emerged as the cornerstone of our teaching and coaching. Executives tell us it is the key to accelerating their growth and deepening their impact, in both their professional and personal lives. Indeed, we believe that the process of articulating your purpose and finding the courage to live it—what we call purpose to impact—is the single most important developmental task you can undertake as a leader.
Consider Dolf van den Brink, the president and CEO of Heineken USA. Working with us, he identified a decidedly unique purpose statement—“To be the wuxia master who saves the kingdom”—which reflects his love of Chinese kung fu movies, the inspiration he takes from the wise, skillful warriors in them, and the realization that he, too, revels in high-risk situations that compel him to take action. With that impetus, he was able to create a plan for reviving a challenged legacy business during extremely difficult economic conditions. We’ve also watched a retail operations chief call on his newly clarified purpose—“Compelled to make things better, whomever, wherever, however”—to make the “hard, cage-rattling changes” needed to beat back a global competitor. And we’ve seen a factory director in Egypt use his purpose—“Create families that excel”—to persuade employees that they should honor the 2012 protest movement not by joining the marches but by maintaining their loyalties to one another and keeping their shared operation running.
We’ve seen similar results outside the corporate world. Kathi Snook (Scott’s wife) is a retired army colonel who’d been struggling to reengage in work after several years as a stay-at-home mom. But after nailing her purpose statement—“To be the gentle, behind-the-scenes, kick-in-the-ass reason for success,” something she’d done throughout her military career and with her kids—she decided to run for a hotly contested school committee seat, and won.
And we’ve implemented this thinking across organizations. Unilever is a company that is committed to purpose-driven leadership, and Jonathan Donner, the head of global learning there, has been a key partner in refining our approach. Working with his company and several other organizations, we’ve helped more than 1,000 leaders through the purpose-to-impact process and have begun to track and review their progress over the past two to three years. Many have seen dramatic results, ranging from two-step promotions to sustained improvement in business results. Most important, the vast majority tell us they’ve developed a new ability to thrive in even the most challenging times.
In this article, we share our step-by-step framework to start you down the same path. We’ll explain how to identify your purpose and then develop an impact plan to achieve concrete results.
What Is Purpose?
Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us, unplayed. —Oliver Wendell Holmes
Your leadership purpose is who you are and what makes you distinctive. Whether you’re an entrepreneur at a start-up or the CEO of a Fortune500 company, a call center rep or a software developer, your purpose is your brand, what you’re driven to achieve, the magic that makes you tick. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do your job and why—the strengths and passions you bring to the table no matter where you’re seated. Although you may express your purpose in different ways in different contexts, it’s what everyone close to you recognizes as uniquely you and would miss most if you were gone.
When Kathi shared her purpose statement with her family and friends, the response was instantaneous and overwhelming: “Yes! That’s you—all business, all the time!” In every role and every context—as captain of the army gymnastics team, as a math teacher at West Point, informally with her family and friends—she had always led from behind, a gentle but forceful catalyst for others’ success. Through this new lens, she was able to see herself—and her future—more clearly. When Dolf van den Brink revealed his newly articulated purpose to his wife, she easily recognised the “wuxia master” who had led his employees through the turmoil of serious fighting and unrest in the Congo and was now ready to attack the challenges at Heineken USA head-on.
At its core, your leadership purpose springs from your identity, the essence of who you are. Purpose is not a list of the education, experience, and skills you’ve gathered in your life. We’ll use ourselves as examples: The fact that Scott is a retired army colonel with an MBA and a PhD is not his purpose. His purpose is “to help others live more ‘meaning-full’ lives.” Purpose is also not a professional title, limited to your current job or organization. Nick’s purpose is not “To lead the Authentic Leadership Institute.” That’s his job. His purpose is “To wake you up and have you find that you are home.” He has been doing just that since he was a teenager, and if you sit next to him on the shuttle from Boston to New York, he’ll wake you up (figuratively), too. He simply can’t help himself.
Purpose is definitely not some jargon-filled catch-all (“Empower my team to achieve exceptional business results while delighting our customers”). It should be specific and personal, resonating with you and you alone. It doesn’t have to be aspirational or cause-based (“Save the whales” or “Feed the hungry”). And it’s not what you think it should be. It’s who you can’t help being. In fact, it might not necessarily be all that flattering (“Be the thorn in people’s side that keeps them moving!”).
How Do you Find It?
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. —E.E. Cummings
Finding your leadership purpose is not easy. If it were, we’d all know exactly why we’re here and be living that purpose every minute of every day. As E.E. Cummings suggests, we are constantly bombarded by powerful messages (from parents, bosses, management gurus, advertisers, celebrities) about what we should be (smarter, stronger, richer) and about how to lead (empower others, lead from behind, be authentic, distribute power). To figure out who you are in such a world, let alone “be nobody but yourself,” is indeed hard work. However, our experience shows that when you have a clear sense of who you are, everything else follows naturally.
Some people will come to the purpose-to-impact journey with a natural bent toward introspection and reflection. Others will find the experience uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. A few will just roll their eyes. We’ve worked with leaders of all stripes and can attest that even the most skeptical discover personal and professional value in the experience. At one multinational corporation, we worked with a senior lawyer who characterized himself as “the least likely person to ever find this stuff useful.” Yet he became such a supporter that he required all his people to do the program. “I have never read a self-help book, and I don’t plan to,” he told his staff. “But if you want to become an exceptional leader, you have to know your leadership purpose.” The key to engaging both the dreamers and the skeptics is to build a process that has room to express individuality but also offers step-by-step practical guidance.
The first task is to mine your life story for common threads and major themes. The point is to identify your core, lifelong strengths, values, and passions—those pursuits that energize you and bring you joy. We use a variety of prompts but have found three to be most effective:
- What did you especially love doing when you were a child, before the world told you what you should or shouldn’t like or do? Describe a moment and how it made you feel.
- Tell us about two of your most challenging life experiences. How have they shaped you?
- What do you enjoy doing in your life now that helps you sing your song?
We strongly recommend grappling with these questions in a small group of a few peers, because we’ve found that it’s almost impossible for people to identify their leadership purpose by themselves. You can’t get a clear picture of yourself without trusted colleagues or friends to act as mirrors.
After this reflective work, take a shot at crafting a clear, concise, and declarative statement of purpose: “My leadership purpose is _______.” The words in your purpose statement must be yours. They must capture your essence. And they must call you to action.
To give you an idea of how the process works, consider the experiences of a few executives. When we asked one manager about her childhood passions, she told us about growing up in rural Scotland and delighting in “discovery” missions. One day, she and a friend set out determined to find frogs and spent the whole day going from pond to pond, turning over every stone. Just before dark, she discovered a single frog and was triumphant. The purpose statement she later crafted—“Always find the frogs!”—is perfect for her current role as the senior VP of R&D for her company.
Another executive used two “crucible” life experiences to craft her purpose. The first was personal: Years before, as a divorced young mother of two, she found herself homeless and begging on the street, but she used her wits to get back on her feet. The second was professional: During the economic crisis of 2008, she had to oversee her company’s retrenchment from Asia and was tasked with closing the flagship operation in the region. Despite the near hopeless job environment, she was able to help every one of her employees find another job before letting them go. After discussing these stories with her group, she shifted her purpose statement from “Continually and consistently develop and facilitate the growth and development of myself and others leading to great performance” to “With tenacity, create brilliance.”
Dolf came to his “wuxia master” statement after exploring not only his film preferences but also his extraordinary crucible experience in the Congo, when militants were threatening the brewery he managed and he had to order it barricaded to protect his employees and prevent looting. The Egyptian factory director focused on family as his purpose because his stories revealed that familial love and support had been the key to facing every challenge in his life, while the retail operations chief used “Compelled to improve” after realizing that his greatest achievements had always come when he pushed himself and others out of their comfort zones.
As you review your stories, you will see a unifying thread, just as these executives did. Pull it, and you’ll uncover your purpose.
How Do You Put Your Purpose into Action?
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. —George Bernard Shaw
Clarifying your purpose as a leader is critical, but writing the statement is not enough. You must also envision the impact you’ll have on your world as a result of living your purpose. Your actions—not your words—are what really matter. Of course, it’s virtually impossible for any of us to fully live into our purpose 100% of the time. But with work and careful planning, we can do it more often, more consciously, wholeheartedly, and effectively.
Purpose-to-impact plans differ from traditional development plans in several important ways: They start with a statement of leadership purpose rather than of a business or career goal. They take a holistic view of professional and personal life rather than ignore the fact that you have a family or outside interests and commitments. They incorporate meaningful, purpose-infused language to create a document that speaks to you, not just to any person in your job or role. They force you to envision long-term opportunities for living your purpose (three to five years out) and then help you to work backward from there (two years out, one year, six months, three months, 30 days) to set specific goals for achieving them.
When executives approach development in this purpose-driven way, their aspirations—for instance, Kathi’s decision to get involved in the school board, or the Egyptian factory director’s ambition to run manufacturing and logistics across the Middle East—are stoked. Leaders also become more energized in their current roles. Dolf’s impact plan inspired him to tackle his role at Heineken USA with four mottos for his team: “Be brave,” “Decide and do,” “Hunt as a pack,” and “Take it personally.” When Unilever executive Jostein Solheim created a development plan around his purpose—“To be part of a global movement that makes changing the world seem fun and achievable”—he realized he wanted to stay on as CEO of the Ben & Jerry’s business rather than moving up the corporate ladder.
Let’s now look at a hypothetical purpose-to-impact plan (representing a composite of several people with whom we’ve worked) for an in-depth view of the process. “Richard” arrived at his purpose only after being prodded into talking about his lifelong passion for sailing; suddenly, he’d found a set of experiences and language that could redefine how he saw his job in procurement.
Richard’s development plan leads with the purpose statement he crafted: “To harness all the elements to win the race.” This is followed by an explanation of why that’s his purpose: Research shows that understanding what motivates us dramatically increases our ability to achieve big goals.
Next, Richard addresses his three- to five-year goals using the language of his purpose statement. We find that this is a good time frame to target first; several years is long enough that even the most disillusioned managers could imagine they’d actually be living into their purpose by then. But it’s not so distant that it creates complacency. A goal might be to land a top job—in Richard’s case, a global procurement role—but the focus should be on how you will do it, what kind of leader you’ll be.
Then he considers two-year goals. This is a time frame in which the grand future and current reality begin to merge. What new responsibilities will you take on? What do you have to do to set yourself up for the longer term? Remember to address your personal life, too, because you should be more fully living into your purpose everywhere. Richard’s goals explicitly reference his family, or “shore team.”
The fifth step—setting one-year goals—is often the most challenging. Many people ask, “What if most of what I am doing today isn’t aligned in any way with my leadership purpose? How do I get from here to there?” We’ve found two ways to address this problem. First, think about whether you can rewrite the narrative on parts of your work, or change the way you do some tasks, so that they become an expression of your purpose. For example, the phrase “seaworthy boat” helps Richard see the meaning in managing a basic procurement process. Second, consider whether you can add an activity that is 100% aligned with your purpose. We’ve found that most people can manage to devote 5% to 10% of their time to something that energizes them and helps others see their strengths. Take Richard’s decision to contribute to the global strategic procurement effort: It’s not part of his “day job,” but it gets him involved in a more purpose-driven project.
Now we get to the nitty-gritty. What are the critical next steps that you must take in the coming six months, three months, and 30 days to accomplish the one-year goals you’ve set out? The importance of small wins is well documented in almost every management discipline from change initiatives to innovation. In detailing your next steps, don’t write down all the requirements of your job. List the activities or results that are most critical given your newly clarified leadership purpose and ambitions. You’ll probably notice that a number of your tasks seem much less urgent than they did before, while others you had pushed to the side take priority.
Finally, we look at the key relationships needed to turn your plan into reality. Identify two or three people who can help you live more fully into your leadership purpose. For Richard, it is Sarah, the HR manager who will help him assemble his crew, and his wife, Jill, the manager of his “shore team.”
A Purpose-to-Impact Plan
This sample plan shows how “Richard” uses his unique leadership purpose to envision big-picture aspirations and then work backward to set more-specific goals.
- Create Purpose Statement
To harness all the elements to win the race
- Write Explanation
I love to sail. In my teens and 20s, I raced high-performance three-man skiffs and almost made it to the Olympics. Now sailing is my hobby and passion—a challenge that requires discipline, balance, and coordination. You never know what the wind will do next, and in the end, you win the race only by relying on your team’s combined capabilities, intuition, and flow. It’s all about how you read the elements.
- Set Three- to Five-Year Goals
Be known for training the best crews and winning the big races:
Take on a global procurement role and use the opportunity to push my organization ahead of competitors
How will I do it?
- Make everyone feel they’re part of the same team
- Navigate unpredictable conditions by seeing wind shears before everyone else
- Keep calm when we lose individual races; learn and prepare for the next ones
Celebrate my shore team:
Make sure the family has one thing we do that binds us
- Set Two-Year Goals
Win the gold:
Implement a new procurement model, redefining our relationship with suppliers and generating 10% cost savings for the company
Tackle next-level racing challenge:
Move into a European role with broader responsibilities
How will I do it?
- Anticipate and then face the tough challenges
- Insist on innovative yet rigorous and pragmatic solutions
- Assemble and train the winning crew
Develop my shore team:
Teach the boys to sail
- Set One-Year Goals
Target the gold:
Begin to develop new procurement process
Win the short race:
Deliver Sympix project ahead of expectations
Build a seaworthy boat:
Keep TFLS process within cost and cash forecast
How will I do it?
- Accelerate team reconfiguration
- Get buy-in from management for new procurement approach
Invest in my shore team:
Take a two-week vacation, no e-mail
- Map Out Critical Next Steps
Assemble the crew:
Finalize key hires
Chart the course:
Lay the groundwork for Sympix and TFLS projects
How will I do it?
- Finalize succession plans
- Set out Sympix timeline
- Land a world-class replacement for Jim
- Schedule “action windows” to focus with no e-mail
- Bring Alex in Shanghai on board
- Agree on TFLS metrics
- Conduct one-day Sympix offsite
Reconnect with my shore team:
Be more present with Jill and the boys
- Examine Key Relationships
Sarah, HR manager
Jill, manager of my “shore team”
Executives tell us that their individual purpose-to-impact plans help them stay true to their short- and long-term goals, inspiring courage, commitment, and focus. When they’re frustrated or flagging, they pull out the plans to remind themselves what they want to accomplish and how they’ll succeed. After creating his plan, the retail operations chief facing global competition said he’s no longer “shying away from things that are too hard.” Dolf van den Brink said: “I’m much clearer on where I really can contribute and where not. I have full clarity on the kind of roles I aspire to and can make explicit choices along the way.” What creates the greatest leaders and companies? Each of them operates from a slightly different set of assumptions about the world, their industry, what can or can’t be done. That individual perspective allows them to create great value and have significant impact. They all operate with a unique leadership purpose. To be a truly effective leader, you must do the same. Clarify your purpose, and put it to work.
Nick Craig is the president of the Authentic Leadership Institute.
Scott Snook is currently an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. He served in the US Army Corps of Engineers for over 22 years.
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