It’s time for our personal purpose to step into the light and shape our leadership style, writes Laura Wigley
Purpose. Our plan. Our life. Our mission. The thing we wake up for every day. At work, thanks to a revived focus on creating a great working culture – imbued with vision and a reason for being – we focus heavily on the business purpose: its mission, its values.
Yet personal purpose, the thing that drives everything we do as individuals, is often left at the wayside and seen as something that should only be focused on outside of work, if at all.
The world of work continues to change, with the challenges of work-life balance and operating in a connected world two of the most significant for employers. Should we, as leaders, bring our personal purpose to work? It is the norm to integrate work and home lives? Realistically, businesses only talk about the future in business or leadership terms. But perhaps organisations should be supporting us, as leaders, to think more widely and to define our life purpose? Should they be helping us to achieve the balance we desire and encouraging us to view our work as part of something bigger?
The argument for alignment
I believe the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Unfortunately, however, given the way most businesses are currently organised, there is no opportunity to achieve this deep self-exploration. There is no moment to be mindful of who we are and what we stand for. Yes, we’re encouraged to have a leadership purpose – how we want to be seen as a leader or to define our authentic leadership style – but this is rarely considered alongside personal purpose. If businesses want to create and motivate brilliant leaders and to deliver a sustainable leadership pipeline, this has to change. For me, defining personal purpose is the most important thing you can do for your own personal development, because investing time here will ensure all subsequent decisions can be based on a clear rationale and will support the achievement of long-term goals.
I would also argue that, for organisations, providing this deep support and guidance for their leaders is one of the most effective, long-lasting investments they can make. Ensuring leaders are clear about what they stand for as an individual can be the foundation for ongoing, self-driven development, engagement and motivation. It also has the potential to help the business stand out from the crowd: going beyond everyday corporate thinking when investing in their people.
Sure, it’s difficult to see a direct return on investment and there is a risk that people will leave the organisation following such exploration, but creating this type of clarity is a direct way to promote engagement right to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and to increase discretionary effort. It reminds me of that much-quoted dialogue been a fictional CEO and his financial director. ‘What if we invest in them and they leave?’ asks the latter; the CEO responds: ‘What if we don’t and they stay?’
Leadership purpose versus personal purpose
As US politician Sharron Angle once said: ‘There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life, no matter what its location, age, gender or disability.’
Everyone has a driver that gets them out of bed in the morning, whether it’s raising their family; giving something back to society; achieving career success or some other personal purpose. It’s personal purpose that motivates you. It’s the reason you do the things you do. It could centre around family, friends, health, career or spirituality but it will be unique to each of us. Some may realise their purpose early on, others a little later. But, eventually, everyone will find they have an in-built compass guiding them towards something that resonates and rewards them.
By contrast, not everyone will develop a leadership purpose. Leadership purpose comes about only when someone has a desire to lead others. Once you become a ‘leader’, whether that’s on the sports field, in business or in a war zone, you’re typically encouraged to define your leadership purpose or vision, describing what it looks, sounds and feels like. This purpose focuses on how you wish to lead; what’s important to you in your leadership style; the sort of leader you’d like be seen as.
In my opinion, a leadership purpose is not sustainable or rewarding on its own. No matter how good a leader you are, if you’re not also tapping into or fulfilling your broader personal motivations, it’s not going to fulfil you in the long run. Over time, this may prevent you achieving your potential in work or life.
A thought here: I don’t believe it’s wrong to invest all your time and energy in your career, as long as you’re mindful of the trade-offs you’re making in other areas of your life. You must ensure you’re focusing on the things that mean the most to you, deriving motivation and satisfaction from your work, and embracing the ‘imbalance’ rather than seeing only the sacrifices made.
In an interview with the CoFounders Lab, Storenvy founder, Jon Crawford, summed this up perfectly, saying: ‘Work, sleep,
family, fitness or friends – pick three. It’s true. In order to kick ass and do big things, I think you have to be imbalanced. I’m sure there are exceptions, but every person I’ve seen riding on a rocket ship was imbalanced while that ship was being built. You have to decide if you really want it.’
The ideal, however, is perfect alignment: leadership purpose which encompasses personal purpose to create a balance in both work and life.
How to achieve the balance
The route to achieving a perfect balance is not simple. It’s not something you can achieve alone and it’s certainly not something that can be achieved in a day. Once set out, it becomes a regular exercise – refining it, developing it and adjusting it according to your current situation and your progress. However, it can be achieved. For me, there are three key elements that promote success in identifying, communicating and actioning your purpose.
The first element is impartiality: gaining an outside perspective to help you ask yourself, and dissect, the tough questions. Using a coach or someone who isn’t linked to your organisation can help you uncover and drive your understanding of what you stand for, though this can be harder to justify to senior management, from an ROI perspective, than corporate coaching. With personal coaching, it is unlikely that there will be open goals that are shared with the company, or a specific business challenge to focus on. The session must simply support private exploration. Some numbers-driven organisations may baulk at the request, but it is important for individuals to open up completely, without the threat of repercussions.
The second element, and the one that requires the most work – and is often be achieved through personal coaching – is to become clear what you stand for, both personally and as a leader; achieving an understanding of your values, your motivations, your needs. My framework for this is simple and can be used to help you discover your personal purpose. You should then apply it continuously to all you do as a leader. It comprises just four steps: define, create, plan and do.
The third and final element to ensure a link back to your organisation and career is an honest and transparent relationship with your line manager, where you are ready to help them and they to help you. While you can choose what to share, and how much to share, about your personal purpose, it’s important that there is maturity in your relationship with your manager so that you can support and embrace this. This is because, once you’ve achieved this level of clarity, you may want to change the way you operate as a leader which requires an honest conversation with your employer.
You may also need to sell these changes to your employer. Start the conversation on the right foot. Consider how you could demonstrate the positive impact your changes or requirements would have on the business. For example, if you’ve defined your purpose as ‘giving back’, you may want to volunteer during the week, or become a mentor for those who value your expertise. Whatever it is, you need to ask yourself: ‘What is the business case?’ You need to sell the idea to the business and create a win-win scenario.
What this means for organisations
Very few large businesses are set up or ready to have conversations about personal purpose, and how to align this with business purpose, as they are a broad departure from the traditional way of doing things. But organisations need to recognise there is more than one way of achieving success. Being open and committed to investing in coaching relationships could achieve less tangible, but important, outcomes. Be open to individual workers’ suggestions and requests when they do share them and role model from the top.
Taking time to consider, define and set out your personal purpose is an essential tool in the leadership toolbox. Time invested here has the potential to drive motivation, engagement and achievement, way beyond the original investment. As author Eugenio Pirri, Chief People and Culture Officer at Dorchester Collection, says in his book, Be A People Leader: ‘Unless you truly understand who you are, how can you possibly help someone else grow as a person, grow their career or ensure they reach their
Life is a balancing act. Knowing your purpose is the key to achieving this equilibrium happily and sustainably.
Laura Wigley is the former Global Talent and Development Director for luxury hotel management company, Dorchester Collection, and is now People Director at luxury health club operator, Third Space.