The heartwarming movie, Hidden Figures, reveals the overlooked and crucial contributions from a pivotal moment in American history. Through historical footage, we are treated to President John F. Kennedy speaking about NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon. The “Space Race” directly addressed the threat posed by the USSR, pitting US technology and resources against theirs in an existential struggle. To go to the moon was at once an expression of confidence in a potentially peaceful future, the capability of the team at NASA, and the American spirit.
President Kennedy galvanized an entire country behind a seemingly mind-boggling task: To send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth. The team at NASA easily understood and connected with the mission, vision and values that the President espoused.
In the same way, leaders and organizations that succeed in connecting their people to a greater purpose can expect to reap the rewards of a robust culture along with healthy outcomes.
Leadership’s role in purpose
Dr. Michael DeBakey was one of the greatest practitioners in the field of cardiovascular surgery. One day at Methodist Hospital in Houston, he was observed talking to one of the janitors before moving on to complete rounds. When the janitor was asked what they talked about, he replied that Dr. Debakey had asked him about his family and how he was doing on his job at the hospital. When he was asked what he did there, he said proudly, “Dr. DeBakey and I, we save lives together.”
What was as significant as what the janitor said, was what he didn’t. He didn’t describe the tasks he performed. Instead, his leaders, like the NASA leadership, succeeded in helping connect the job to the larger outcome of the enterprise. What is the likelihood their leaders communicated frequently about the purpose of what they were doing? When people can connect to the purpose leaders propose, they can see how what they do for the enterprise matters. When this happens, engagement soars and the constructive culture gets strong reinforcement.
How many organizations have mission statements that people have difficulty remembering? If people in an organization aren’t clear about what they’re expected to accomplish, it’s difficult to create a lot of energy to be impeccable in executing their responsibilities. If your mission statement is too lengthy, develop a “bumper sticker” phrase that communicates what your organization does. Leadership should be prepared to revise mission or vision statements to hone this connection to purpose.
One of my clients recently revised its vision statement because it became apparent people were not making the connection between their work and the picture the organization had tried to create. A subsequent effort to capture the “end state” involved everyone at the company. The result was a clear and aspirational vision statement that they still use today.
The ways that leadership communicates purpose matter greatly. What are the ways that you communicate what you want? Is the majority of your organization’s official communication sent via email? Dr. DeBakey was relentless in connecting with people personally throughout the hospital, talking to them about their jobs and how what they did mattered in the greater scheme of things. To the janitor, he repeatedly emphasized the need for the hospital to be spotlessly clean to reduce the possibility of infection. No doubt the conversations he had with the kitchen staff focused on the need for the food to be flavorful and appealing so that people would want to eat it, thus nourishing themselves and speeding their recovery.
How leaders can communicate
Leaders must be equally relentless in clearly communicating the purpose and must use many different types of communication repeatedly to ensure their intended message is received. The following are some of the methods leaders can use beyond standard transactional approaches, recognizing that “receiving” is as important as “sending.”
These provide regular, consistent opportunities to communicate information and, whenever possible, field questions about ongoing operations and issues. To be successful, all-hands meetings must use full communication with a focus on both sending and receiving information, with ample opportunity for team members to provide feedback. Be prepared to potentially have some difficult — but necessary — conversations, and always ensure that the overall theme connects to the purpose.
While this method has been around for a while, MBWA continues to set useful examples for improved communication throughout organizations. Based on spontaneous interactions, MBWA encourages managers to engage in conversations to learn from these informal situations to aid in decision-making, problem-solving, and more. Focus on relationship building, open communication, and communicating how the employees’ everyday activities connect to the larger purpose of the organization to ensure that MBWA is not misconstrued as micro-managing or “watching over shoulders.”
These should be used to get a qualitative feel for what people are experiencing on a regular basis. Done regularly, such meetings can yield lots of information about employee views of purpose and their connection to it. At the outset, the people being “skipped” – the boss of the people — may be concerned that you are prying into their world or keeping tabs on them. The conversations should be wide-ranging and not necessarily limited to superior/subordinate issues. As with the items above, this forum presents an excellent opportunity to help those attending see the ties between their work and the overall purpose.
What do all these suggestions have in common? Leadership must be willing to show that their people matter and what they do for the enterprise matters equally. When leaders show interest in the person, it is easier to help them discover the importance of their work. This lets the individual contributor connect their personal purpose and energy to the larger purpose of the organization.
We hear repeatedly that people seek to become connected to something greater than themselves. How can this matter? The client I mentioned earlier that made the effort to change its vision statement recently landed in Crain’s Chicago Business 100 Best Places to Work out of 14,000 entries. Connecting your people’s work to a larger purpose can return big dividends.
A version of this article was first published on Human Synergistics.