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The power of purpose – what leaders can learn from start-ups

24 August 2016
Dr. Tobias Kiefer

The power of purpose – what leaders can learn from start-ups

Last weekend I was working with the Senior Management Team of an award-winning start-up in the health & fitness segment. This team has a huge responsibility: They successfully got additional funding – the mandate has been made clear to them by their board: 2 digit growth and internationalization; and for sure: they are responsible for 250+ employees – some of them left jobs at Fortune 500 to join them. In summary: Expectations are high!

The reason I am writing this blog post is relatively simple: I have been "wowed" by that team! I firmly believe: if the large corporates could only instill a small portion of what start-ups bring to the table, they might be in a better place when it comes to employee engagement, change readiness, innovation and productivity.

The Power of Purpose

The real lesson learned last weekend was to witness the power of purpose of a team. A lot has been said about Simon Sinek’s "start with why". Almost too much – according to some bigger corporates and according many executives I have been working with.

Over the workshop, you could clearly see, feel and hear the positive energy allowing this team to overcome what they called "dysfunctional behaviors". The way the business unit managers and the CEO spoke about THEIR company, THEIR teams, THEIR vision was amazing. At the end of very intense discussions it was obvious that their purpose was overcompensating all the issues we had on the table – their purpose was the platform for advancing their journey as a team who has the right to win in the market!

While using the framework from Patrick Lencioni about 5 dysfunctions of a team, it was very clear, that the lever to overcome team issues within those 5 layers, was their strong "we". Interesting enough, you could hear the word "we" significantly more often than the word "I". I also witnessed the team’s ability to overcome ringfencing attempts and ego-behaviors quickly, because of the team’s ability and willingness to look for the bigger picture.

If leaders in large organizations would become better in developing a joint purpose for their employees, budget- and other priority-discussions might become a bit more easy and focused. Not to speak of the impact if more of their people would understand how their daily work contributes to the organization’s strategy. Just remember: 70% of employees do not even know strategic priorities of their employers:

The leader’s primary job

Purpose is the primary responsibility of a leader! Leaders need to have a strong vision, goals and the passion to communicate these with enthusiasm and conviction to their people. Do not blame your marketing or communications department or the agency they hired when you cannot identify with your company’s mission statement. This is not what matters! What matters is, what you have defined as your team’s purpose. What is your team’s purpose story? How does your team contribute tot he overall success of your organization? Kouzes & Posner (authors of "The Leadership Challenge") found this already years ago: Leaders get admired for their ability to "lift the fogg" for their employees – giving them direction, meaning and the ability to steer their efforts in the most effective ways. Another example is David Marquet ( and his ability to turn-around the worst ship in the US Navy by applying a leadership style maximizing his crew’s autonomy and creating maximum ownership for results.

Back to the Start-up scenario. The team’s capability to create purpose and to ignite entrepreneurial thinking is like a super-glue! They have found their "Haka" – like the New Zealand Rugby Team – and they are energized by this. They know why they come to work and they know how their work contributes to the success of their firm. And for sure – walking into their offices (not as fancy as many large Silicon Valley companies!) tells you the story quickly: People know why they are showing up in the morning and how their work contributes to the bigger purpose.

What if … you could get 1% of those 70% who do not even know the company strategy to understand, plan and execute in line with the strategic imperative?

What if … your employees could identify themselves with your team’s vision and purpose story?

What if … you could instill the energy and engagement – or just a bit of it – those start-ups are able to ignite in their employees?

Last weekend brought it back to my fullest attention: We all must do a better job in communicating, explaining and re-emphasizing the organizational priorities. Leaders can save thousands of dollars by simply taking the time to create their "team Haka":

What if … you could complete for your team the following sentences:

  • "Everything we do is …."
  • "Our single biggest thing is to …."
  • "by doing this, we are getting recognized by … for …."
  • "therefore we behave and operate in line with the following ground rules …."

What if… leaders in large organizations would take the time to look at those start-ups (not Google, Apple, Facebook etc. – I mean young start-ups!)?

What if… you would show up next Monday bringing the "purpose to life" and enable your teams to put the "we" above the "I"?

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