I’m sure that as you look back over your career to date, there will be one or two memorable moments when your understanding of what it really means to be a leader went through some of kind of shift. Perhaps this was triggered by a challenging experience you went through or an example set by someone else you worked with?
One such insight for me was when I realised just how important it is for a leadership team to be united and energised by a shared sense of purpose. A few years ago, the consultancy company I co-founded – Brand Learning – had been through an intense phase of growth. We had reached a stage when an expansion in the Board was required to reflect the increased size of the management team.
However, the transition needed careful handling. The existing Board members were tightly knit and had been working closely together for several years. My partner Mhairi McEwan and I brought the new team together and, with the help of coach Steve Radcliffe, confronted a simple but pivotal question – “to what extent do we feel up to something together”?
This was not an easy one to answer. At one level, we felt extremely united – by a shared set of values, a belief in the value of our service to clients and a deep respect for each other as individuals. But the change in Board composition also meant that a realignment in our roles and relationships was required. The conversation which ensued that evening helped catalyse the process of change involved. Indeed, the same team stayed together – and grew together – for several years afterwards as Brand Learning moved on through the next stage in its evolution.
The importance to me of this lesson has been reinforced in recent months by working with several leadership teams to help them build a stronger sense of shared purpose. Let’s be clear – this isn’t just about crafting mission and vision statements, though those tools have their place. The real impact comes from sparking a shared spirit of purpose between people – something that lies deep in their hearts and minds and that influences the whole culture of the organisation.
This is not something that can be imposed top down. To build genuine commitment, team members need to be involved in shaping the future direction of their work together. Each individual must experience an opportunity to channel their values, talents and passions in ways that make their work seem impactful and meaningful.
How do you go about doing this in practice? Well, we have to be realistic – these things don’t happen overnight. But just as I experienced with Brand Learning, instigating the right kind of conversation between people at the right time can make a big difference.
Here are three suggested stages for that conversation to go through:
- Acknowledge where we are today:
What is working well and not so well between us? What are the key challenges we must embrace as a team? Are there any elephants in the room that need to be faced up to?
- Explore what we care about:
Why are we here? What do we believe in? What most excites us about what we can do together as a team?
- Envision what we want to create together:
What do we want the future to look like? What would success mean to us all? What role can each of us play to help make a difference?
The spirit in which this conversation takes place is at least as important as its content. Everybody’s voice counts and people must feel safe to express their honest views. There needs to be a willingness to show some vulnerability, particularly by the most senior people in the room, in order to build an atmosphere of openness and trust. Being committed to listening to others is also critical – really listening to them and trying to understand what might lie behind the things they are saying.
The tangible outputs of this kind of discussion may well be some powerful ideas that form the basis of draft mission and vision statements. But the deeper impact will come from the team members having been through the experience of the conversation itself. That’s where the spirit of purpose and being ‘up to something together’ will ultimately be created and unleashed.
To read more about finding your purpose both as a leader and as a team, check out my book ‘The Inspired Leader’ and also the excellent book by Steve Radcliffe, ‘Leadership Plain and Simple’.