For months, we have been working with a company to implement its higher purpose. We had several workshops with the top team and we required them to do some challenging exercises. They complied and things progressed nicely. Before moving to the next level, we had a final session. As far as I could tell, everyone was a hundred percent on board.
In the final session, we asked the leaders to watch a video. It was of a CEO from another company with which we previously worked. In the video the CEO describes a complex change process in which he learned how to become a purpose driven leader. He shares his failures and his successes in creating a purpose driven company. His honesty and vulnerability are striking.
He makes clear a truth that leaders seldom access. Leading an organization means building the bridge as you walk on it. Leadership is about setting an intention, entering uncertainty, and collectively learning how to continue forward. This truth flies in the face of many conventional assumptions.
After watching the video, people on the leadership team submitted questions for the experienced CEO and he answered the questions in a virtual session. Here are just a few.
- What is the difference between purpose, mission, and values?
- You said that “you have to show the same persistence to purpose as you do to hitting a revenue or cost cutting target”. How did you foster that sense of persistence towards purpose within your executive team?
- Have you found it necessary to “tweak” certain elements of your higher purpose initiative to “keep it fresh” and relevant?
- What are the common traits of a great authentic personal purpose statement?
- How did you deal with resistance?
- Do you have any key learnings on how you utilized operational excellence to improve engagement with the union/hourly associates?
In answering, he showed the same honesty and vulnerability he showed in the video. The next day a number of people on the leadership team wrote statements valuing the session and indicating that, while they originally accepted the concept and were committed to it, they now understood it more fully. They now felt more confident. They could now see what they might do things differently.
There is a basic lesson here. It reminds me of my phrase; “If it is real, it is possible.” When we want people to change, we need to give them the vision; that is, help them conceptualize the desired outcome. This is where many change programs stop.
The challenge is to also give senior people the imagination and the courage to act on their imagination. If we envision creating some form of social excellence, we do well to expose them to the creation of social excellence in the real world. If we want to turn our three star hotel into a five star hotel, a feasible strategy is to send each person to a five star hotel and let them shadow their counterpart. They will return imagining doing things we would never think to ask. Leading change is about the continuous integration of the idea and the real.
- Why are social systems slow to change?
- Why is conceptual instruction inadequate?
- When are people willing to build a bridge while they walk on it?
- How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?