From “Me to We” – The Real Power of Purpose

Engagement as the driver of employee performance has been a constant theme in recent years – not least because of the stream of research published showing that when we feel motivated at work we do a better job – for ourselves, for our colleagues, for our employer and, ultimately, for the consumer.

But despite government task forces and mountains of effort by organizations themselves to become “a top employer,” engagement levels in the workplace across the UK and many other parts of the world are not that high. A 2015 Aon Hewitt report found the global average of employee engagement was 62%, which was dragged down by a European average of 57%.

The challenge appears to be even greater when you consider that we now have generations in the workplace for whom satisfaction does not necessarily mean full commitment to your employer. An employee can be really happy in his job but still considering moving on – loyalty has fundamentally changed.

Twenty years ago Fred Reichheld, in his admired book “The Loyalty Effect,” painted a picture of the future workforce: “No one will have a career path within one company. Flexibility will matter more than loyalty. Employees will jump from one assignment to the next independent of corporate bonds.”

Well the future is here and the words “corporate bonds” are seriously outmoded.

So I have found myself debating – with clients as well as myself – whether it is time to redefine expectations from engagement, and to turn attention instead to something that actually might have a lot more power – the question of purpose.

At a recent Prophet event, we invited two company leaders to examine the interplay between purpose, people and brand in the form of a panel debate in front of an audience of marketing, HR and communications professionals. Donna Miller, European HR Director of Enterprise Holdings, and Richard Morton, Group Head of Internal and Change Communications for UBS, shared their perspectives and stories, many of which served as a brilliant reminder of what really counts in organizational life.

Enterprise, which is the largest car rental service provider in the world and employs more than 93,000 people, has founded its success on a complete and utter dedication to customer service. Enterprise’s purpose is defined by its eight values – one of which is customer service. These values are non-negotiable, and hard-wired through the daily routines of all employees. Donna gave a simple yet powerful example: the Enterprise Services Quality Index (SQi). Every branch is assigned its own SQi score, which represents the percentage of customers completely satisfied (not partially – but completely) with their rental experience. If your branch SQi score falls below the corporate average and you are in line for a higher management position you will not move up until your number improves. It’s that simple.

For UBS the question of purpose has been very different. They have fought, along with the rest of the sector, to rebuild after the financial crises of 2007 and 2008, which was exacerbated in UBS’s case by its own particular challenges, such as a $2.3 billion rogue trader scandal. Richard was candid about the single-minded approach that comes when a company is in survival mode. It’s not about any sense of higher purpose – it’s about what counts on a daily basis. But like Enterprise, customer loyalty is a priority at UBS. It’s what they had to hold onto and build on for the future. And when UBS re-launched its brand last autumn, it made a major investment in internal sharing and employee education before the news was announced externally. They measured participation, and every employee engaged with the program.

Our colleagues at Altimeter recently published research on employee advocacy that found employees who promote their employer on social media are most strongly motivated to do so not because of incentives, material rewards, or the allure of an enhanced professional network, but because of a fundamental belief in their employer’s mission. It is this alignment of vision and mission that employees find most compelling.

These examples illustrate something that purpose brings to an organization – a shared focus. It is also something that takes the individual beyond simply “me” – and reinforces the power of “we.” It is no longer enough to simply satisfy employees’ own individual needs and wants – although this is critical because first and foremost we want to work for a company we trust. But what we see from generations now entering the workplace is the need for more – from flexibility in work/life balance to feeling connected to an organization that matches our values and ultimately contributes to society. And the latter is not about one-off social responsibility initiatives, but connecting employees so that they are enabled to play their part in a bigger goal.

It’s much easier for some organizations than others – Enterprise is a privately owned organization that can choose to make longer term decisions in line with its values, as it did in 2008 when it stood by its orders with the world’s car manufacturers. It’s definitely tougher in banking, but that isn’t to say that purpose does not have its place; it has undoubtedly driven the recovery of UBS.

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