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Has work become fundamentally contractual?

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This week’s blog is for the MDs and CEOs out there. Because I want to ask you a very specific question: What is the purpose of your organisation? Your core reason for being?

Now more than ever, you need to know the answer.

It saddens me to see so many businesses taking the sweeping assumption that work is fundamentally contractual, and that employees are self-interested agents who seek to minimise their personal effort. Adopting that attitude only makes matters worse and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy; without inspiration or motivation from their leaders, employees will put in just enough effort in order to earn a reward or meet a standard, and nothing more.

I’ll assume you’ve all seen Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” Ted Talk - unless you’ve been living under a rock. You might think you’ve done the work by bundling your organisation’s purpose into a fancy ‘why’ statement. Done and dusted. And don’t get me wrong, how Simon articulates the framework is brilliant - he’s certainly right when he says “People don’t buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it.” It’s so powerful. But in reality, you’ve only scratched the surface.

That statement needs to be born from more than a single leadership meeting. It takes a whole stack of leadership meetings! Trust me - we’ve been there.

We’re talking about the kind of meetings that take you off-site all week. No distractions. Barely stopping to grab a sandwich. Challenging each other. Being vulnerable. Digging really deep. We’re talking about mentally exhausting but incredibly rewarding meetings that reignite the fire in your belly.

Because that purpose - that something that defines your narrative - it lives and breathes inside every Founder, Director, MD and CEO. To the core. Why else would you have started your business?

If you can dig deep into what your business is really here for, and create an authentic heartfelt purpose - an aspirational mission that explains how employees are making a difference and gives them a sense of meaning. If you can do that, you’ll inspire your people to try new things, think outside the box, get creative, move into deep learning, and make surprising contributions. Your employees will become energised and committed and as a result, performance will climb.

Now, I bet I can guess what you’re all thinking. “Where do I start?”

Let’s break it down into five steps...

1. Your culture

As they say, “A company is nothing more than its people.” So it makes sense that purpose begins with people. Your clients and customers, your investors, your suppliers. And yes, most importantly, your employees.

Employees at every level of an organisation need a compelling ‘why’ for their work, and that ‘why’ should be the same for everyone, at every level. Each individual, no matter their role, needs to understand why the purpose of the organisation matters, and how they connect to that purpose.

Aligning your people with your purpose isn’t just a one-stop-shop. It’s an ongoing journey that starts with recruitment - finding people who share your values and are excited by your mission - and reflects the organisation’s purpose at every touchpoint in the employee lifecycle. Onboarding, training, career development and beyond.

Embedding your purpose into your organisation’s culture requires HR to make purpose-driven decisions. It requires Managers to role model purpose-driven behaviours. And it requires colleagues to hold each other accountable for making purpose-driven actions

2. Your products and services

Demonstrating purpose via products and services requires new entrepreneurs to ensure their offering aligns with their overarching goal. Take Tesla, for example. It’s mission statement is “To accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.” So it wouldn’t make much sense if we saw Elon Musk laying an oil pipeline, would it?

For established businesses, it’s not exactly possible to wipe the slate clean. But it is possible to put a long-term strategy in place to transform your offering, whittle out the products and services that no longer align to the mission and promote the meaningful efforts you, as an organisation, are making to work towards the greater good.

We’re talking about social purpose, environmental sustainability, legal accountability and public transparency. Because your purpose shouldn’t be about profits; it should be about how your organisation is going to make a positive change in the world.

3. Your processes and practices

As we all know well, running a successful business doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen without a lot of work behind the scenes. It takes a good deal of solid processes and practices to keep the engine running smoothly.

    It’s about fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together - suppliers and any other external resources connecting you to the outside world. Your processes and practices dictate how all of these elements fit together in order to make your purpose work.

    Your processes and practices should be designed in such a way to help each working part of your business, including your people and external resources, moving in the right direction. They should consider both the present and any roadblocks that may lie ahead, and they should be reviewed regularly to ensure they’re still meeting the needs of your organisation.

    4. Your performance

      What would be the point in having a goal or a purpose, without the means to measure it? Well, there would be no point.

      Working towards a common purpose means measuring progress, adjusting course and measuring again. It means setting key performance indicators that tie into that purpose, tracking them over time and inspiring your people to meet those targets, such as with rewards or incentives. By putting performance metrics in place and even by simply sharing how your organisation is progressing, you can reinforce your organisation's purpose and motivate your people to keep up the good work.

      You can learn from these metrics; grow from these metrics. You can use the data you’ve collected along the way to make well-informed decisions, create company-wide initiatives and shape long-term transformation strategies.

      5. Your external communications

        Finally, don’t forget to shout about it from the rooftops!

        The work you do within your organisation to affect meaningful change should not be hidden away; it should be embedded into every piece of information sent out into the outside world. It’ll do you the world of good both in your employees eyes (and the sense of pride they’ll feel about their work) and the eyes of your clients/customers. It can give you a competitive advantage.

        But remember that it will hold you accountable. What’s the point in shouting about your actions in sustainability when you’re actually falling short. Or giving your support to an important cause that you’re actively working against in one way or another. Because it’s easy to lose the trust of your clients or customers, but oh so hard to earn it back.

        Have you revisited your organisation’s purpose lately? What do you think are the biggest challenges facing you in identifying your purpose? I’d love to hear your input. If you’re interested in talking about creating a purpose-driven organisation, let’s connect. You can find me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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