Purpose - This is the sign

May 12, 2021

Leading out of the pandemic with purpose and possibility

The pandemic has challenged us but has also presented us with change, choices and opportunities. This is a once in a generation time to reset; it’s time for a rethink.  As Einstein famously said:

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.”

2020 was the year of achieving seemingly impossible possibilities, when problems and challenges also represented unimaginable opportunities for people and organisations. 

Despite that tumultuous year, there isn’t a leader I work with that doesn’t believe we can learn from this. We can take advantage of all the great things we achieved last year and be bold about continuing the pace of change and transformation. But before we stride headlong into this transformative world of the new and better normal, let’s just take a moment to reflect. 2021 isn’t just about evolving, this time calls for a more radical rethink. 

There are so many opportunities to do things better and do better things. The desire to go back to how things were, is no longer an option or even a remote possibility. (Excuse the pun). This is a profound reset moment for us as individuals, for business and for society. Each and every one of us has a role to play in designing the way forward.

It’s about making choices.
American author Zig Ziglar talked about the 3 C's of Life: Choices, Chances, Changes and how:

"You must make a choice to take a chance or your life will never change.”

So much has changed, so quickly. What really matters to us now? Many people are re-evaluating their lives and work, making choices about how and why they work, and how their work is meaningful. As we emerge from the pandemic, an increasing amount of choices are opening up. Whereas pre-pandemic, many employers were reducing numbers, reducing office space and moving towards hot-desking, working preferences and expectations have quickly changed. Leaders are thinking differently about how to re-engage their people to come back into the office and reconnect with their colleagues and the business. Solitary and sterile hot-desking workspaces won’t do it.

Work and non-work issues are no longer distinct, the boundaries are blurring. We’re working from home, working flexibly, working independently. We’ve seen our colleagues and customers at work, in their homes, surrounded by books, family, pets. Informal has become the normal. As a result, the hyperbole of ‘when we all return to the office’ is no longer a reality. Nor is it what many businesses and employees want. This time has been a catalyst for new models of working and organisations are recognising that people can work differently. That old concept of ‘core (read predictable) hours’ is no longer an option.

According to new research from Deloitte on future working habits, more than one in five UK workers (23 per cent) the equivalent of 7.5 million people, are hoping to work from home all of the time once lockdown restrictions have lifted. More than double the 3.6 million people that were based from home all of the time pre-lockdown. Overall 42% of workers are hoping to do their jobs from home twice a week or more.  Hybrid working is here to stay.
Purpose is paramount
So what really matters to people now? What will make us connect with our work? How can we create meaning out of work? What gives us purpose?
Being clear on your purpose is energising. Now is the time to be purposeful, planful and playful with your thinking. It’s all about having the courage to lead, the courage to grasp opportunities and the courage to be the best authentic you. Remember what it felt like to have that sense of passion, purpose and – lest we forget - have fun and laugh heartily along the way? 
Many people expect their jobs to be a significant source of purpose. Research by McKinsey found that 70 per cent of employees said their sense of purpose is defined by their work, and that they expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives.
During times of crisis, individual purpose can guide people to navigate uncertainty and help mitigate the impact of long-term stress. The research finds that purposeful people live longer and healthier lives and also demonstrate better resilience and emotional recovery from negative emotional stimulus and events. Purposeful people have higher engagement, organisational commitment and wellbeing. There is also a correlation between purpose and wellbeing, organisational performance and profit.
This presents a challenge as we emerge from the pandemic, as opportunities present themselves and as the job market gains momentum. People are making choices about how and for who they work. Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need for sense of purpose to engage and retain their people or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will. McKinsey’s advice to leaders is unrelenting: 

“Help your employees find purpose - or watch them leave.”

I’m already seeing evidence of this in my coaching and leadership practice and in this last month great people are leaving to seize the challenge of creating a great future and, to quote Simon Sinek, follow their “just cause.”

One such leader is a busy operational leader in a regional law firm, moving to a transformation role in an AIM listed legaltech firm to do “the job I’ve dreamed of doing” and to make a positive impact to one of the most archaic and unsatisfactory legal processes in current times.
Another is Kerry Simmons, a senior marketing leader leaving a global role in a global organisation, to join a small, ambitious UK-based consultancy as CMO and fall back in love with the real challenge of marketing, creativity and connecting with the target audience.
“I had a secure and rewarding role in a global business. When the pandemic hit, so many of the aspects of my job that I enjoyed – the creativity, social interactions and travel - went on hold. Lockdown gave me the opportunity to pause and reflect on the type of work I was doing and what I want from work. I realised that I felt like a small cog in a big corporate engine. And that I feel most energised by being able to create and build great marketing, with the autonomy and space to make decisions and contribute directly to an organisation’s performance. Joining a small, fast-growing company or start-up with ambitions to grow, and where I could be a part of something really exciting, could give me this sense of purpose and fulfilment.
With so much change and uncertainty, new opportunities were opening up and the pandemic created the catalyst for making a career change. Being clear about the type of role and company I wanted to work for made the search easy. I’m now joining a company with a clear vision and strategy to grow, a talent consultancy that knows how to create a great place to work, working with an inspirational CEO who recognises the value of marketing and a leadership team with a shared vision, purpose and the passion to succeed.”

Be clear on purpose
Whilst leaders are re-examining and reimagining the working environment, it’s about being clear on purpose and creating value. Harvard, MiT, PwC, McKinsey and Deloitte all issue missives around purpose, the ‘Ikigai’, the why? Why do we exist? Who are we as an organisation? How do we work? How do we grow?

Ask yourself, what is your Ikigai? What’s your reason for being? What is your direction or purpose? What will give you a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction and meaning? Ultimately, do you get your sense of purpose from your organisation, your work or outside of work?

But how is it that those at a senior level – and the clients I work with – are much clearer on their purpose and their sense of purpose is achieved through work? Interestingly, McKinsey describes a stark ‘Purpose Hierarchy Gap’, finding that 85 per cent of executives and upper management agree that they are living their purpose at work, yet 85 per cent of frontline managers and frontline employees are unsure or disagree that they live their purpose in day-to-day work. This “purpose hierarchy gap” extends to feeling fulfilled at work. Executives are nearly eight times more likely than other employees to say that their purpose is fulfilled by work. If we aren’t connecting with our people through work, then people will make different choices and pursue different opportunities for fulfilment, to quote Adam Grant:

“Knowing when to grit and knowing when to quit.”

Critical conditions for change
Bill Gates talks about people having passion and getting mad. If you want to improve your people, give them something to be mad about – whether passion or anger - and achieving a balance between the two reignites the fire in people and drives their motivation for change. 

But to truly effect change in people, there are four necessary pre-requisites for balancing ‘the chemistry of change’; pressure for change, a clear shared vision, capacity for change and actionable first steps. Without pressure for change, nothing happens. Without a clear shared vision, a fast start will fizzle out. Without capacity for change, there is anxiety and frustration. And without actionable first steps, there are haphazard efforts and false starts. Whilst the pandemic has created an environment of change, individuals need to create the right conditions, for change to be sustainable.

New possibilities - don’t wait, create.

Out of disruption, comes transformation. We are living through one of the biggest crises and also one of the most transformational times in human history. Acknowledging the struggles while also recognising the opportunities that have arisen for many industries and people is essential.
The FT recently reported a surge in business start-ups across major economies, with the UK, US, France, Germany and Japan all seeing sharp rises in new company registrations. In the UK, business incorporations were up 30 per cent in the four weeks to mid-December 2020 compared with the same period last year, and the annual growth rate has been in double digits since June 2020.
Many of these businesses are responding to the changing needs of a socially distanced world, such as logistics, home delivery of goods and services, technology, digital wellness and fitness. According to analysis by the University of Kent, online retailing, alongside food and drink production and takeaway food outlets, was driving the increase in UK company registrations, a likely consequence of a shift in consumption patterns and people spotting opportunities to start an online business when start-up costs are low and everybody is suddenly buying online.

An example of an industry that has been annihilated is the UK hospitality industry. With repeated lockdowns, furloughing of staff and social restrictions, many restaurants and bars have fallen casualty of the pandemic. But out of the turmoil, others have re-evaluated and reinvented their business.

Chef James Martin talks about the lockdown giving him time to think; time to look at his business model, suppliers and the offer to customers. Chef Tommy Banks adapted his restaurant concept by creating restaurant-quality ‘Made in Olstead’ food boxes for customers to heat up at home, to retain his staff and keep restaurants afloat during lockdown. He now has 35 staff working full-time on his food box business. And North West based Elite Bistros, led by Chef Gary Usher, known for their innovative approach launching their restaurants through crowdfunding campaigns, have been able to take their bistro dining experience nationwide by offering a ‘delivery to home’ service from their kitchens in one of their empty restaurants. They have now invested in new premises in Chester to extend their UK wide service.

Necessity has led to creativity, new customer experiences and new opportunities and revenue streams; restaurant food-to-go, dine-at-home delivery, mail order afternoon tea, virtual dinner parties, outdoor dining. With the reopening of indoor hospitality, many operators will continue to offer these concepts, making great food accessible to wider audiences.

The hospitality sector has been decimated but those with passion and purpose can emerge stronger with a refreshed business model based on consumer experience and preferences, choice and opportunity. Key to this has been agility, staying connected with customers and keeping employees retained, engaged, creative and committed to the vision and purpose of the business. Taking businesses from survival to stability during uncertain times.

Time to re-evaluate, reinvent, re-energise
This is a once in a generation time to reset. A time to create better, more connected, more purposeful organisations, led by humans for humans that can effect change for us as individuals, organisations and for the communities and societies in which we operate. Let’s make positive change, amplifying good for the greater good.

Take time to rethink, reimagine possibilities and reflect on how to retain your most talented people before they start wandering off into the sunset to pursue more meaningful work. Now is not the time to believe your employees are ‘lucky to have jobs’, as more than one CEO has recently found to their cost. It’s a reminder to never take motivated people for granted.

No more do we need leaders that apply their expertise in policing, parenting or auditing their people. Leaders need to adapt their mindset to being more like ‘chief marketing influencers’, using leadership skills to connect with people and persuading and influencing your followers. Leading beyond Covid is about energising your people and organisations, seizing the opportunities and finding purpose.
What’s not to love about clarity of purpose and seizing this opportunity to create an amazing legacy for you, your people and that tiny part of the planet in which we each operate?
Make it about purpose, make it about doing the best and most fulfilling work of your life?