How To Help Your Senior Team Rediscover Its Core Purpose

Research conducted by both Harvard and colleagues at Korn Ferry has demonstrated one unsettling fact: senior teams are often the worst performing teams in organizations. But why? There are many possible reasons, but one of the biggest is a lack of shared purpose.

I’ve lost track of the number of times an experienced CEO has approached me wondering, “Why isn’t our senior team more engaged with the new strategy? What we need to do and how to get there are crystal clear. But the more I push, the less motivated people seem to be. What’s missing?”

Senior teams face three big realities that have to be placed in meaningful relationship for our enterprises to thrive:

  • The big ‘what’ question (vision): What is possible for us to become?
  • The big ‘how’ question (strategy): How will we get there?
  • The big ‘why’ question (purpose): Why is it so important that we exist in the world?

Unfortunately, too often, teams deal with these three realities in the wrong sequence. We largely over-focus on the what and the how and under-focus on the why. While it may be counterintuitive to many leaders, the most strategic and energizing place to begin is Purpose: the Big Why. Through the lens of purpose, we focus on a compelling reason for being and can then envision a future worthy of collective talents, energies and resources. By focusing on purpose—an aspiration that lifts us and infuses significant meaning in our enterprise—we catalyze our courage and authentic influence to create enduring value.

“What we need to do and how to get there are crystal clear. But the more I push, the less motivated people seem to be. What’s missing?”

Paul Van Oyen, CEO of Etex, a $3 billion global building materials firm, put it this way: “For purpose to be purposeful, it needs to guide the daily decisions and daily behaviors that fuel the enterprise. Purpose is merely a concept until it guides all team decisions and team behaviors.”

Once purpose begins to guide behavior, the results are clear. In a new study, “People on a Mission,” Korn Ferry consultants Elaine Dinos, Janet Feldman, and Rick Lash found that companies focused on purpose and values reported annual growth rates of 9.85 percent, compared to 2.4 percent of the entire S&P 500 consumer sector— more than four times the growth rate.

Stuart Parker, CEO of USAA, found a way to remind his team of their purpose. Stuart had personal challenge coins made, similar to those used by military leaders to recognize excellence in members of their command. One side is engraved with Stuart’s personal purpose—“Mission, Trust, Freedom”—along with pilot wings he wore during his career in the United States Air Force. On the flip side are the USAA eagle and the company’s values: “Service, Loyalty, Honesty, Integrity.” He wanted to convey a powerful reflection: How can your purpose serve our collective mission?

To help your senior team rediscover its core purpose, ask a series of questions. What are the distinguishing differences your group has? What is the big impact, big service, or big difference that you are going to collectively achieve? Why does this team exist? Imagine a team of leaders clear on both their individual purpose and their collective purpose. Sound like a great place to be? This could be your team. Connect your individual purpose to the broader mission, and tremendous energy and engagement will be unleashed.