How to re-energise your staff through purpose

By Nicholas Barnett


Most of us have an inner yearning for meaning and purpose, but not many of us find that meaning and purpose in our workplaces. But that will have to change if we want our organisations to stay relevant in the future and be a winner in the war for talent.

Purpose that is well embedded shapes a whole new organisational identity from the inside out and becomes a magnet that attracts employees who are looking for a company with a higher-order purpose.

Most organisations are bereft of purpose

While some organistions may have had a higher-order purpose at some point in their past, for many it has since withered and died. Many other organisations have been bereft of purpose from the beginning. But not many employees these days are motivated to come to work simply to make more money for their boss or their company’s shareholders. The younger generations, in particular, want much more than that.

In the absence of purpose, organisations inevitably become focused on metrics, expressed as financial targets or growth objectives. While an objective of maximising earnings can drive short-term results, it misses our human need for purpose and the desire of most employees to engage in meaningful work. That is why an objective of simply maximising earnings is ultimately not sustainable.

Not just another ‘me too’ organisation

Companies that seek the best and the brightest recognise that they need to demonstrate that they are not just another ‘me too’ organization. They understand that they will need to demonstrate how they are special, different or unique, and for many that will be achieved by shaping a unique organisational character that is purpose-driven and values-led.

Four stages to your purpose journey

Organisations typically go through four stages on their purpose journey. The first is to commit to the journey and get the entire leadership team on board before you press the ‘go’ button. Then you go about discovering your purpose is an inclusive way, knowing that you shouldn’t try to force a predetermined outcome.

Third, you engage your employees in the purpose that is discovered, make it real for them and bring it to life. Last and most importantly, you commit to embed purpose and sustain that commitment until purpose becomes your new way of organisational life.

Four critical ingredients to a successful purpose journey

There are four critical ingredients to a successful purpose journey:

  1. A genuine desire to make a difference

If you don’t have a genuine desire to make a difference and to make a contribution that is greater than yourself, you shouldn’t even start the process. Don’t try and fake it until you make it.

If, however, you have a genuine desire to find something that is worthy to serve beyond yourself including to improve the working lives of your people, then your employees will also notice and they will back you in your endeavours.

  1. Your CEO must sponsor the journey

Because purpose will affect every part of your organisation and everything it does, only your CEO or equivalent has the authority, credibility and influence to sponsor a purpose journey. If you delegate it to your marketing or people-and-culture team, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t get traction. Some even delegate it even further down the line without any sponsorship or backing from the CEO. Don’t do this.

  1. An inclusive and participatory process

A ‘top-down’ project in which purpose is delivered Moses-like from the mountain almost inevitably fails as employees feel like it is being done ‘to’ them rather than ‘with’ them. Ideally, you should try to create opportunities for all employees to participate in the discovery of your purpose that they feel it is done ‘by’ them and that they ‘own’ the purpose.

  1. A genuine and sustained leadership commitment

Purpose is not a short-term fix, nor is it something that can be delivered in a tight timeframe. It requires a genuine and sustained leadership commitment for it to be meaningfully embedded within your culture and become your organisation’s new way of life.


Nicholas Barnett is CEO of Insync, experts in measuring and improving culture, engagement, leadership and performance. He recently co-authored a book with Rodney Howard entitled, Why Purpose Matters: and How it Can Transform Your Organisation (Major Street Publishing $34.95)