The Economics of Higher Purpose

So excited to announce that our book, The Economics of Higher Purpose: 8 Counterintuitive Steps for Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization, is live today!

The blog today is an excerpt from the book chapter on turning the purpose into a constant arbiter of the decisions you make.  Hope you enjoy it.

Leadership is about modeling the courage to do the right thing. When your conscience triumphs over fear, you represent what is right. When you constantly do what is right, even when it is hard to do, you inspire others.  This constancy is the key to culture change.  Higher purpose must be authentic, as we have already learned.  A chief indicator of authenticity is constancy.  When a purpose is constant over time, the culture crystalizes around the purpose and the organization functions at a higher level.

Case: Constancy of Purpose

Of all the people we interviewed, no one spoke of leadership and constancy of purpose more eloquently than Tony Meola. Tony is the recently retired head of US consumer operations at Bank of America. Tony is a leader who understands the ongoing nature of purpose work. He says that leadership is relentlessly difficult because it involves moving the institution—and existing cultures tend to impede movement. As extensions of the culture, managers end up resisting the change as well. Organizational complexity and competing demands also impede movement.

Tony overcomes these obstacles by treating operational excellence as a destination and allowing no other pressures to distract him from it. When he first shared this, operational excellence did not seem like a higher purpose.  As he continued we realized that is was.

Tony focuses always on these two words.  He uses them to vet every decision.  He emphasizes operational skills and leadership in employee training and development, and he brings that focus to every conversation, every decision, every problem his team faces. He is always asking, “Will this make us better operators?”

Over time this constancy of purpose wins.  Tony says, “When you hold it constant like that, when you never waver, an amazing thing happens. They realize that the purpose is real. The purpose sinks in to the collective consciousness. The culture changes, and the organization begins to perform at a higher level. Processes become simpler and easier to execute and sustain. People start looking for permanent solutions rather than stop-gap measures that create more inefficiencies through process variations.”

Tony told us that embracing this position has meant saying no to anything that doesn’t reflect it. In the call center, for example, a proposal was made to invest additional resources in technology and people so that the group could answer customers’ questions faster and better and handle 25 percent more inquiries. But the project was rejected because when managers and employees asked themselves whether it would make them better operators, the answer was no. That realization forced them to ask how the operations themselves could be changed to eliminate failures that produced call center inquiries in the first place. The focus on higher purpose transformed the thinking and improved the outcome.

When a leader communicates the purpose with authenticity and constancy the purpose becomes the arbiter of all decisions.  Employees see that commitment and feel the authenticity. They begin to believe in the purpose. The change is thus signaled from the top, and then it begins to unfold from the bottom.


Reflection Questions

  • How can “operational excellence” be a higher purpose?
  • What is constancy of purpose and how does it change culture?
  • How does it lead to unconventional decisions?
  • What does it mean to have an arbiter of all decisions?

Leave a Reply