Why a great purpose, brilliantly communicated, is not enough

For a global professional services firm, ‘purpose-led’ was the heart of its strategy. But that wasn’t fully landing. They just didn’t know why. 

The firm’s ambition was that purpose should be part of the everyday experience of staff and customers globally. But the firm knew that, despite genuine commitment at the top and patches of real transformation in parts of the business, the strategy was not fully landing,  and in certain offices not at all. 

 The firm therefore chose to ask all employees across its global operations to take the Contexis Index in order to understand why purpose wasn’t working as they had hoped.

The results led to a wholesale rethink of their strategy

The good news was that they confirmed the firm had a strong culture with particularly good levels of trust when compared to international benchmarks. However, despite its focus and the considerable investment that had gone into it, purpose was an active part of that culture for only 25% of employees. The great majority felt neutral about the purpose. The purpose strategy was  consequently simply failing to support positive feelings and behaviours in most of the business.

It wasn’t that people were unaware;  they just didn’t see the firm’s purpose lived day to day

Employees passionately wanted to believe they worked somewhere that made a difference in the world. Also it was not a case of people being unaware or confused. Awareness and understanding of purpose was particularly high. They just didn’t see the firm’s purpose truly lived in day to day actions and decisions. 

Which was a significant missed opportunity. Because, where purpose was truly alive to them, people were significantly happier and far more productive, took more responsibility and were less likely to leave than their purpose-neutral colleagues. And dramatically more so than negative peers. Across the firm, the analysis showed that the single action of shifting the neutral majority’s belief in purpose to that of the upper quartile of belief would result in a 24% uplift in positivity and productive attitudes and a similar reduction in staff turnover. 

The key question was what was so different about the purpose-positive group?

Strong feelings of emotional ownership led to high levels of engagement and commitment 

For purpose to be alive to them, people must feel a sense of emotional ownership and attachment. Yet, in most parts of the firm, ownership was unusually weak against international benchmarks. By contrast, ownership was markedly strong in the purpose-positive group across the firm’s offices. Ownership was not a metric the firm had ever explored before and not one highlighted in its annual engagement survey.  

The numbers also revealed in great detail where ownership and purpose activation was weakest in terms of offices, functions, age bands and levels of seniority.  

The firm received these extensive findings in a face-to-face presentation to the Board and Exco, in a comprehensive 70 page Report and via an interactive dashboard. Detailed insights and specific recommendations from behavioural scientists at Cambridge and expert business practitioners at Contexis provided the firm with a clear road map to recraft strategy. The index also provided a measure to track impact and adjust on an ongoing basis.

Amongst a number of detailed recommendations, the clear priority was to inspire a far stronger culture of ownership, particularly amongst Directors and Fee Earners and with a key focus on specific offices. The new strategy, therefore, was to bring purpose to life in such a way that these key groups felt it relevant to them and to give them a sense of ownership for the purpose and its execution within their own department. This resulted in a re-frame from driving purpose down from the top, to empowering senior teams in each market to design the execution of purpose for themselves.  The programme started to roll out in late 2020 and the intention is  to re-run the Index in Q3 2021 to assess progress and recalibrate.

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