Gillian Secrett 24Aug17

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Organizational Purpose: Corporate Learning at the Nexus of Theory and Practice

by Gillian Secrett

Gillian SecrettGillian Secrett is CEO of the Møller Centre and Fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Gillian has a passion for values based leadership, which enables high performance teams to deliver excellent results. She works to develop leaders and aspiring leaders to maximize their impact to benefit the organizations in which they work, as well as society as a whole. Through the Møller Centre, Gillian provides Executive Education with a combination of academic and practitioner-based learning. Gillian sits on the University of Cambridge Board of Executive and Professional Education. She is a qualified coach (Meyler Campbell and Coaches Training Institute of California) and Chartered Director of the Institute of Directors. For her own development, Gillian is currently studying for a Masters degree in Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge. 

The Power of Purpose

Does purpose impact stakeholder and shareholder value?

This is the compelling question that was explored at the joint symposium between the ILA and the Møller Centre earlier this year. The symposium was convened for leadership scholars and corporate leaders from across the world to discuss the importance of company purpose in the context of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The Møller Centre for Continuing Education at Churchill College in the University of Cambridge was established as a result of the purpose led vision of its benefactor Mærsk McKinney Møller to bring the worlds of academia and business together for professional and executive education. Inspired and motivated by the practical action that Sir Winston Churchill took at the end of the Second World War to help secure the freedom of Denmark, Mærsk wanted to acknowledge Churchill’s support and create a long-term legacy to underpin the fusion of theory and practice in the context of a Cambridge college.

Bringing Practitioners and Scholars Together — The Process

The process of bringing together international scholars and CEOs from major corporations, accompanied by their Human Resource Directors, sits naturally in this context and provides both the culture and environment for creative and productive debate. Scholars and practitioners convened for dinner to start the conversation in an informal way and were welcomed by the Master of Churchill College, Professor Dame Athene Donald. The following day the symposium was launched by ILA President and CEO, Cynthia Cherrey, and Møller CEO, Gillian Secrett, and was facilitated by Ruth Berry from the Møller team.

The ambition for the symposium was to learn from each other by considering relevant academic research as well as on the ground corporate practice. Short “words of wisdom” or WOW talks were presented and used to stimulate discussions on the important question of purpose. Delegates worked in ten-table groups of scholars and practitioners, each with a Møller facilitator and scribe. The agenda was structured around two meta questions, the first of which was posed in the morning: “What does purpose mean to you in your organization/experience?” This discussion was colored by two WOW talks.

The first WOW talk was given by Dr. Mene Pangalos, EVP of Innovative Medicines and Early Development at AstraZeneca. Pangalos focused on scientific partnership and the evolution of AstraZeneca’s culture after the company defined its purpose. This unifying goal was formulated as: “We push the boundaries of science to deliver life-changing medicines.” Pangalos reported CEO Pascal Soriot’s words that, “together, we can be confident that, by leading in science, we will transform the lives of patients around the world.” This case study provided a very powerful example demonstrating how engagement and success can be driven by purpose, as underpinned by a strong set of values that everyone can engage around.

The second WOW talk was from ILA Lifetime Achievement Award Winners Professor Georgia Sorenson (also a Møller Leadership Scholar) and Professor Gill Robinson Hickman. As presented in their book The Power of Invisible Leadership (2014), they shared the findings from their research question, “Can a common purpose actually inspire leadership?” Sorenson and Hickman tested this thesis in studies of 21 award-winning companies and discovered that, “the common purpose, rather than any particular individual, is the invisible leader that inspires leaders and followers to take action on its behalf.” Based on Factor Analysis they identified four significant factors underlying invisible leadership: Collective Capacity; Internalized Purpose; Role Flexibility; and Purpose Inspired Dedication and Accountability. Their advice to the organizational leaders present was to “cultivate purpose as a lived experience.”

The discussion that followed explored the current theory and practice experience of each group, and the key findings were fed back into the group.

The second meta question was posed in the afternoon: “How does purpose generate value for all stakeholders: customers; shareholders and investors; employees and unions; partners/suppliers/resources; society and environment (one planet)?” Delegates re-grouped with each table representing one stakeholder group for discussion purposes. Each delegate assumed the role of one stakeholder group and conversations were stimulated by the introduction of WOW talk three: “How does purpose create value and engagement for employees?” This was presented by Simon Levine, Managing Partner and Global co-CEO of DLA Piper LLP, who focused on live case studies within his own organization.

WOW talk four was given by scholars Professor Steve Kempster and Professor Brad Jackson who built on Keith Grint’s framework of leadership as Person, Performance (Results), Position and Process (2005) through the addition of Place and Purpose. In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, Kempster discussed the importance of “responsible leadership” for purpose oriented organizations. He posits that this can be facilitated via maximizing fiduciary duty through a system of six “good dividends” (Kempster 2016). Delegates then moved into groups comprising all stakeholders to consider the system as a whole, focusing on a particular corporate sector case to test if purpose really can drive value for all stakeholders.

Key Symposium Themes & Stakeholder Impacts

The symposium provided an opportunity to explore the power of purpose in a practical sense, and provided a living example of bringing theory and practice together to expand the boundaries of thinking on the subject. This will both inform theory and develop future good practice, using purpose as the catalyst for this important nexus. It also allows us to discover and establish new possibilities of future leadership, and offer new ways in which leaders might develop their own thought and work using purpose. The following section relays examples of key insights and findings that emerged from the discussion, both for select stakeholder groups, and on a broader thematic level emphasizing the bilateral importance of leadership and financial growth.

Leadership: Purpose Drives Every Leader

  • Understanding purpose could offer a vital method for uncovering the truth about what allows great leaders to emerge.
  • Organizations must define what their intended impact is in the long term.
  • Leadership is about creating a sense of shared purpose and embracing the bigger picture, which a purpose-driven company will do in a driven and focused manner.
  • Shared purpose implies shared leadership.
  • Purpose needs to be sustainable beyond the tenure of a leader, and therefore must be shared across an organization.
  • Purpose often originates in the vision of the founder. In other contexts, it may extend beyond that individual, and it will ultimately need to. It could even change and evolve with the introduction of a new leader.

Growth: Purpose Motivates Personal and Organizational Growth

  • Purpose can also offer a catalyst of organizational change to improve society as well as a return on investment for shareholders.
  • Purpose focuses the mind and business practice, particularly in relation to thinking strategically.
  • People often have a core calling, which may define their personal purpose. This will align with organizational choice.
  • Results are particularly powerful when personal purpose is aligned with organizational purpose.
  • In the public sector where resources are scarce, organizational purpose has a particularly motivating role.
  • Purpose drives a sense of joint achievement that unites and motivates.
  • Purpose can be seen as an example of expectancy theory, where people create a vision that they can identify with, and this provides a positive framework to attract people and pull them in.
  • Purpose is a way of working collectively and creating engagement.
  • Individuals can connect with organizational purpose at an intellectual and an emotional level — giving sense to purpose is therefore really important for clear understanding.

Employees: Purpose Can Unite the Workforce and Inspire Employee Engagement

  • Personal and organizational purpose amounts to “why you do what you do, and to what end do you do it?”
  • Purpose offers a new way of connecting many employees at all levels toward a communal goal and project.
  • Purpose can be an emotional trigger that encourages people to bring their whole selves to work.
  • Purpose can be translated across a global organization, even when located in different geographies.
  • An effective purpose can provide the sense that all stakeholders are being serviced and valued.
  • Purpose can provide a means of convergence between multiple stakeholders, even with differing priorities.

Investors and Shareholders: Purpose Increases Profit

  • Driving a brand from a stance of strong purpose and values can also drive profit.
  • The management of shareholder expectations is fundamental to the scale and effectiveness of purpose, and is particularly relevant to short medium and long term planning, profit, and investment.
  • Can purpose still stand when it comes up against commercial objectives?
  • Getting purpose right can help improve companies’ chances of financial success, especially via employee engagement.

Community and Environment: Purpose Brings Societal Value and Impact

  • Defining purpose is about defining one’s role in society.
  • Purpose is bigger than any one individual and can be seen as creating a shared value in and for a community.
  • A common purpose is often relied upon to try make the world a better place, and to preserve and benefit all aspects of it.
  • Purpose can align a company around the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Organization purpose is value driven.
  • A responsible purpose driven approach can increase profits via environmentally conscious innovation.

Further Research Avenues

The symposium itself raised as many questions as it did answers, and this indicates the exciting avenue of research, theory, and practice that lies ahead. Some of the most important challenges and contradictions that arose include:

Challenges and Further Conversations About Purpose

  • Is there a difference between purpose and culture?
  • How can purpose and values be balanced against profit and expansion?
  • Can purpose be independently justified or is it only a luxury?
  • How can purpose be maintained when external stakeholders and investors may not hold the same values?
  • How does an organization effectively educate others about a common purpose?
  • How does an organization navigate between stated purpose and believed purpose?
  • How can differing individual and organizational purposes be reconciled?
  • What responsibility do individuals have in delivering an organization’s purpose?
  • Is purpose a matrix of success, a tool for success, or something to be achieved for its own merit?

Another critical practice-based issue that this symposium highlighted and that must also be raised briefly here is how companies can be held to account for their stated purposes. For example:

  • Could the delivery of a stated purpose be measured as part of an audit process?
  • What other methods can be developed for ensuring that organizations engage in actions according to their purpose and values?
  • How might clients and stakeholders ensure that companies keep their promises about purpose-led actions?
  • Could the delivery of this purpose become an element of the measure of success and profits, to be given equal value as financial gain?
  • Furthermore, could the achievement of purpose become a tangible measure beyond fiscal reward, to which companies could be held to account?

The symposium indicated that organizations with a solidly constructed purpose, which considers the needs of all stakeholders, might actually achieve more economic success than those without. However, as indicated in the challenges and further questions, some might criticize that long-term purpose is only a luxury, and cannot be justified to the detriment of short-term economic and business success. More research and practical investigations are required in order to address these important considerations. However, the symposium’s preliminary findings indicated that a well thought through purpose can provide a means of convergence between multiple stakeholders, and offer a fruitful way in which to align vision and focus to create a positive impact for all.

Purpose as a Nexus of Theory and Practice

The symposium illuminated the critical role of purpose as a unifying factor for successful organizations, as well as individuals and leaders. Purpose offers a unique bridge between theory and practice, as it provides a theoretical model or frame by which business practice might be planned, completed, and assessed. This model also allows individuals to align their own core values to those of their organizations. On the macro level, purpose transforms organizations into leaders that are now able to align practice with conscious intent via determined value sets. As a result, leadership theories might be used to understand, improve, and interpret the conscious practice of organizations that currently have a vast array of theory at their disposal for the improvement of purpose-driven-leadership practice. This new reality bridges the boundary between theory and practice, and could allow purpose to establish itself as a nexus in this important relationship.

The Møller Centre and the ILA: Our Partnership

The purpose of the Møller Centre is to inspire people to be at their best, to benefit themselves, the organizations which they serve as well as society as a whole. This is achieved through the design and delivery of behavioral and practical leadership development interventions, which bring academics and practitioners together for executive education. This approach sits at the heart of the Centre’s work and facilitates practical outcomes driven by evidence-based tools, models, and frameworks. In this respect, the Møller Centre compliments the ILA’s mission, especially via promoting a deeper understanding of practical methods and applications of leadership research, to the benefit of members of both organizations. The opportunity to discuss the idea of purpose with scholars and practitioners offers a tremendous opportunity for us to apply this purpose-driven approach and better understand how it will function in practice. We are keen to be a part of the conversation in Brussels this October at ILA’s global conference.

To this end, the Møller Centre is also currently launching a new flagship senior leadership program, "The Explorer Mindset,” in order to continue cultivating this leadership approach. This program also focuses on the importance of value development, and explores the importance and relevance of purpose as a stable foundation for today’s leaders. This new intervention will allow senior executives to continue to develop agility and excellence, thriving amidst constant change, even as they must work around uncertainty, and engage their high performance teams to innovate, deliver, and continually grow.

Outcomes and Next Steps

The results of the discussion for the symposium are being produced in an impact paper, which will be available to the ILA community in October. It will offer a wider discussion of the meaning, power, and role of purpose in business leadership and practice, and will be shared and developed further at a panel at the International Leadership Association conference in Brussels. The panel will feature Georgia Sorenson, Steve Kempster, Gill Robinson Hickman, and John Heiser. You are invited to join and contribute to this important conversation. We will also build on this event by hosting a second symposium for scholars and practitioners in Spring 2018 at the Møller Centre in Cambridge. Please register your interest by contacting Joshua Darley at Continuing this conversation will allow us to keep accelerating the momentum and learning for those applying this new knowledge in the corporate world.

We hope to support those who are working hard towards this agenda. However, we remain aware that these same leaders must also harness relevant business opportunity and deliver short-term positive results with regard to profitability, whilst nonetheless remaining conscious of long term impacts on society. The symposium highlighted this critical dilemma between the “higher good” and “commercial success”. To address this paradox, purpose driven business leadership offers an important opportunity to bridge these two potentially contradictory value sets, as the nexus between theory and practice.

References & Acknowledgements

Hickman, G. & Sorenson, G. (2014). The Power of Invisible Leadership: How a Compelling Common Purpose Inspires Exceptional Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing.

Kempster, S. & Carroll, B. (2016). Responsible Leadership: Realism and Romanticism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kempster, S. (2016). Unpublished Conference Brief.

Grint, K. (2005). Leadership: Limits and Possibilities. New York, NY: Palgrave.

The author wishes to thank Ali Jones for her assistance in writing this article.

About Working at the Leadership Nexus

ILA Interface's "Working at the Leadership Nexus" aims to document some of the important work ILA members are doing at the nexus of theory and practice. Rigor and relevance are important in leadership and it's at the leadership nexus that both are found in abundance. This series of articles supports the interplay of theory and practice that leads to effective leadership for the greater good of individuals and communities worldwide. If you are an ILA member working at the leadership nexus, please contact Debra DeRuyver at to discuss contributing to this column.